Listening to new music is hard. Not hard compared to going to space or war, but hard compared to listening to music we already know. I assume most Americans—especially those who have settled into the groove of life after 30—simply don’t listen to new music because it’s easy to forgo the act of discovery when work, rent, children, and broadly speaking “life” comes into play. Eventually, we bow our heads and cross a threshold where most music becomes something to remember rather than something to experience. And now, on top of everything else, here we all are, crawling through this tar pit of panic and dread, trying to heft some new music through historic gravity into our lives. It feels like lifting a couch.
Why do we even listen to new music anymore? Most people have all the songs they could ever need by the time they turn 30. Spotify, Apple Music, and YouTube can whisk us back to the gates and gables of our youth when life was simpler. Why leap off a cliff hoping you’ll be rescued by your new favorite album on the way down when you can lay supine on the terra firma of your “Summer Rewind” playlist? Not just in times of great stress, but for all times, I genuinely ask: Why spend time on something you might not like?
It was a question that Coco Chanel, Marcel Duchamp, and the rest of the Parisian audience might have asked at the 1913 premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, an orchestral ballet inspired by the Russian composer’s dream about a young girl dancing herself to death. On a muggy night at the end of May, inside a newly constructed theater along the Seine, those who chose to bear witness to something new experienced a piece of music that would presage a new world of art.
Stravinsky, having already thrilled Paris with his ferociously complex Firebird ballet three years earlier, was the bright young thing of symphonic music in Paris, and The Rite was to be something essentially unheard of. Drawing from the Slavic and Lithuanian folk music of his homeland and his viscerally atavistic brain, Stravinsky blackened his score with rhythmic and harmonic tension, stretching phrases to their outer limits and never bothering to resolve them. The harmonies were difficult to name and his rhythms impossible to follow. Leonard Bernstein later described The Rite as “the best dissonances anyone ever thought up, and the best asymmetries and polytonalities and polyrhythms and whatever else you care to name.”
After months of grueling rehearsals, the lights finally drew down at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées that evening. The Rite began with a solo bassoon squeezing out a riff so high in its register that it sounded uncannily like a broken English horn. This alien sound was—apparently and unintentionally—so strange that chuckles erupted from the bourgeoisie in the mezzanine boxes and rippled through the crowd below. The dissonant opening gave way to the martial assault of the second movement, “The Augers of Spring,” and the dancers—choreographed by the legendary Vaslav Nijinsky of the Ballets Russes—bounded on stage, moving squeamishly and at jagged angles. As recounted in the daily newspaper Le Figaro and in various books and memoirs since, the chuckles turned into jeers, then shouting, and soon the audience was whipped into such a frenzy that their cries drowned out the orchestra.
Many members of the audience could not fathom this new music; their brains—figuratively, but to a certain extent, literally—broke. A brawl ensued, vegetables were thrown, and 40 people were ejected from the theater. It was a fiasco consonant with Stravinsky’s full-bore attack on the received history of classical music, and thus, every delicate sense in the room. “One literally could not, throughout the whole performance, hear the sound of music,” Gertrude Stein recalled in her memoir. The famous Italian opera composer Giacamo Puccini described the performance to the press as “sheer cacophony.” The critic for the daily newspaper Le Figaro noted that it was a piece of “laborious and puerile barbarity.”