Sat March 19, 2011
Music Interviews

The Bad Plus Tackle Stravinsky's 'Spring'

Originally published on Sun March 20, 2011 11:22 am

You probably know Igor Stravinsky's controversial ballet The Rite of Spring from its appearance in the Disney film Fantasia, where it served as the score for a dramatic sequence depicting the dawn of the universe. Later this week, the piece will be showcased anew – by group of musicians with a reputation for reinvention.

The Bad Plus is a jazz trio with a rock-heavy repertoire. Over seven albums, the band has re-arranged Black Sabbath's "Iron Man" and Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit," as well as classics by Blondie and David Bowie. Several years ago, they dipped a toe into the classical pool with an interpretation of Stravinsky's "Apollo."

As drummer Dave King tells Weekend Edition Sunday host Liane Hansen, he and his bandmates dared themselves to take the experiment further: "We thought, well, let's just go all the way and try and tackle the monster."

That monster is The Rite of Spring in its entirety. Working on a commission from Duke University and Lincoln Center, the band has been rehearsing their own version of the ballet for the past eight months, which they will perform at Duke on Saturday, March 26. It's a difficult piece, full of odd time signatures — but according to pianist Ethan Iverson, that's not the only thing that has made the process monstrous.

"What we're trying to do, essentially, is turn the piece into something of our own," Iverson says. "The size of the work is what's so different this time — after doing a three-or-four-minute excerpt from a ballet, now we're doing a gigantic piece of music. The concept is kind of like learning 28 little pieces of music that are all really different and don't repeat!"

To ease those difficulties, the band chose a curious plan of attack in crafting their arrangement: They started at the finale and worked backward. "We sort of determined that the last movement was the hardest one," says bassist Reid Anderson. "I think it's good psychologically to kind of get that out of the way."

Adapting the rest of the ballet was an equally demanding process. Dave King says the band's vision and Stravinsky's will have to meet in the middle; the difficulty is knowing just where that ought to happen.

"We've had major discussions about, where is The Bad Plus in this thing?" says King. "We've never approached any of our reworkings with irony. Sometimes people have maybe thought that about us, but we're actually quite earnest about everything we're trying to take apart."

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It's the first day of spring and we have some music to celebrate the transition from winter.

(Soundbite of music, "The Rite of Spring")

HANSEN: That's composer Igor Stravinsky's famously controversial work, "The Rite of Spring," as it's performed in Walt Disney's "Fantasia." The 1940 animated film famously featured the dawn of the universe and dinosaur visuals to the piece.

Stravinsky's masterwork will get a makeover later this week when the jazz trio, The Bad Plus, premiers their version at Duke University on Saturday. Two members of the trio are in our New York studios: pianist Ethan Iverson. Hi, Ethan.

Mr. ETHAN IVERSON (Pianist, The Bad Plus): Hello.

HANSEN: And bassist Reid Anderson. Welcome to you.

Mr. REID ANDERSON (Bassist, The Bad Plus): Thank you. Hi.

HANSEN: And the third, drummer Dave King, is in the studios of Minnesota Public Radio. Dave, welcome to the program as well.

Mr. DAVE KING (Drummer, The Bad Plus): Hello. Thank you.

HANSEN: Dave, can I start with you? The three of you have been deconstructing rock music for the last 10 years. You've rearranged "Iron Man" by Black Sabbath, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" by Nirvana, Blondie, David Bowie songs. Why did you decide to take on "The Rite of Spring"?

Mr. KING: We made a record called "For All I Care" a few years ago that featured a lot of the music you were just quoting, but also we dipped our toe into contemporary classical music deconstructions. Or actually just kind of interpretations with drum set. So, we worked part of the Stravinsky ballet "Apollo."

(Soundbite of music, "Apollo")

Mr. KING: And we decided to dig deeper and we were offered the opportunity to do this and we thought, well, let's just go all the way and try and tackle the monster, you know. So, we've been rehearsing at every sound check now for eight months.

HANSEN: Gosh. You call it the monster. Ethan, explain.

Mr. IVERSON: The music itself is undeniably potent. And it's quite difficult with all the odd meters - 5-8, 6-8, 3-16, all that sort of stuff - which is ironically what we're still up against today, learning it in a, you know, more folkloric or jazz style. It still remains a challenge 100 years later.

(Soundbite of music, "The Rite of Spring")

HANSEN: You were actually commissioned to do this piece by Duke University and Lincoln Center.

Mr. IVERSON: Yeah, Aaron Greenwald at Duke has commissioned several jazz projects from people like Jason Moran and Brian Blade and we're honored to be his project to be this year.

HANSEN: Dave, you said that the band had already reworked another Stravinsky composition, "Apollo." What was that process like and did it prepare you for working on "The Rite of Spring"?

Mr. KING: That process was a lot like when we take apart any piece of rock music or jazz. I mean, what we're trying to do essentially is to turn the piece into something of our own. We're really trying to own it at that point. The size of the work is what's so different this time is just, you know, having a 40-some-minute piece and, you know, after doing a three- or four-minute excerpt from a ballet, now we're doing a gigantic piece of music, multiple movements and we're taking each at time.

And so I think it's just, the concept is kind of like learning 28 little pieces of music that are all very different and don't repeat.

HANSEN: I'm speaking with members of The Bad Plus. They're working on their reinterpretation of Igor Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring."

(Soundbite of music, "The Rite of Spring")

HANSEN: Reid, I had read that when you were doing this you started at the final movement and worked backwards? Is that true?

Mr. ANDERSON: That's true. And as far as rehearsing it, we sort of determined that the last movement was the hardest one. I think it's good psychologically to kind of get that out of the way at first. And it's kind of paid off because there's just so much work we've done and it's a relief now that we're running the whole piece to get to the end and really know that part.

(Soundbite of music, "The Rite of Spring")

HANSEN: And that's the finale, The Sacrificial Dance of the Chosen One, a rehearsal tape by The Bad Plus. The trio is reworking Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring."

Did you make reference at all, Ethan, as you are the piano player, to the fact that Stravinsky apparently did make a piano duet version of it?

Mr. IVERSON: Well, in fact, that's been crucial to our work. We have the orchestral score but that's actually even copyrighted. We're actually not looking at that at all. We're just looking at a two-piano score, which is in public domain, and which is actually a wonderful concert piece for pianos. It's a wonderful work.

HANSEN: Let's hear a clip that actually sounds pretty close to the original movement, The Augers of Spring.

(Soundbite of music, "The Augers of Spring")

HANSEN: Do you kind of keep it close to the original, given that when you are performing the piece and the audience is coming in expecting to hear "Rite of Spring," you almost have an obligation to retain at least some of the original so people know what they are listening to, and then how you've changed it?

Mr. IVERSON: It's really not an obligation to the audience; it's an obligation to Stravinsky. It's been so influential. If you listen to any movie score in a detective film from the present day to, you know, going back to 1935, you're going to hear a bit of "The Rite of Spring" in there.


Mr. IVERSON: It's really been one of the seminal works of art. And you don't want to be so certain of yourself that you want to put a mustache on it, like the Mona Lisa, you know...

HANSEN: Right. You're not being ironic here. You're not, as was quoted, Aaron Greenwald said, there's not a whole lot of winking going on.

Mr. IVERSON: No, not at all, no.

HANSEN: But was it important at some point that it has to be The Bad Plus performance? And at what point did you and Stravinsky meet?

Mr. IVERSON: Well, that's where the drums come in.

HANSEN: Ah, Dave.

Mr. KING: Man, let's just wait until we do this thing. I don't even know what to say. I mean, I'm just mired in an anxiety nightmare over this thing.

HANSEN: Really?

Mr. KING: I mean, it's coming along, it's sounding good and, you know, we have had major discussions - even as little as last week and we're about a week away from playing it - as where is The Bad Plus in this thing? And how can we - you know, we're trying to honor this thing and we're trying to, you know, and if that's not hard to do, I mean, we all love the piece and have so much respect for Stravinsky and the work.

And we've never come and approached any of our reworkings with irony and sometimes people have maybe thought that about us. But we're actually quite earnest about everything we're trying to take apart. And this is a work where there isn't room at all for that type of interpretation. So, we're just trying to figure out, well, how do we take this non-ironic stance and make it our own?

HANSEN: The Bad Plus premieres its interpretation of "The Rite of Spring" at Duke University on Saturday. The jazz trio's pianist, Ethan Iverson, and bassist, Reid Anderson, are in NPR's New York studio. Drummer Dave King is at Minnesota Public Radio. Thanks to all of you and I guess break a leg.

Mr. ANDERSON: Thank you.

Mr. KING: Thank you.

Mr. IVERSON: Thank you, Liane.

HANSEN: Learn more about The Bad Plus and hear an early preview of their "Rite of Spring" project at NPRMusic.org.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: And to review the latest from our top story today: the U.S. military says a no-fly zone has been achieved over Libya. American, British and French forces have bombed aerial defenses, airfields and some Libyan positions in the ground. The Libyan government claims dozens of people have been killed in the bombing. Those reports are unconfirmed.

NPR will continue to follow the story throughout the day and around the clock at NPR.org.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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