The below post is the fourth in a series of 13 texts related to NOW-ID's inaugural Rite of Spring, loosely following the 13 episodes in Stravinsky's score. Ritual of the Rival Tribes is by Kate Mattingly, Assistant Professor at the University of Utah. Get your tickets to the performance here.
There are many quotes about the transformative powers of music:
“Music is the moonlight in the gloomy night of life.” ― Jean Paul Friedrich Richter
“Music is the language of the spirit. It opens the secret of life bringing peace, abolishing strife.” ― Kahlil Gibran
“Music can change the world because it can change people.” ― Bono
How does this “change” occur?
“Entrainment” is the word that describes the means by which music’s meter is internalized. Music scholar Pieter C. van den Toorn writes that “listeners entrain to meter, which in turn becomes physically a part of us. Entrainment is automatic (reflexive) as well as subconscious (or preconscious). Like walking, running, dancing, and breathing, meter is a kind of motor behavior.”
In other words, when we listen to music, its meter infiltrates our eardrums, brains, and nervous systems. Listening is an embodied and interactive process: it changes us. In the example of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, disruptions of meter generate a sense of displacement and irregularity. Pieter C. van den Toorn attributes the “effect” of Rite of Spring on listeners, to “the raw, relentless character of the dissonance,” and it's the fourth section, “Ritual of the Rival Tribes,” that introduces Stravinsky’s massive stratification (see image). One of several reasons why the first performance of The Rite of Spring provoked such a riotous response was because these stratifications were unprecedented in the art music of Russia and the West. As anyone who studies African dances and drumming knows, the polyrhythms and ostinatos in Stravinsky’s score are also found in African music.
Music that compels us to move may be the best evidence of entrainment theories, but it also points to a more sinister reality. If we entrain to meter, what else do we internalize? Thoughts and messages that become part of our subconscious, also known as implicit bias, propel our judgments and assumptions. Just as we internalize music’s meters, we also operate with internalized value systems that are activated involuntarily, without awareness or intentional control. When I think about the sexism and patriarchy presented in productions like the 1913 Rite of Spring, I wonder if audiences internalize these views the way they internalize Stravinsky’s meters. Much of the social inequities perpetuated in our world today can be traced to implicit biases and their activations in educational, political, and legal settings. As Rebecca Solnit wrote recently about our current political candidates, “Unconscious Bias is Running for President.”
The fortunate aspect of implicit associations is that they can be gradually unlearned, and, for me, performances are a great mechanism for rewiring our bodies and brains: performance practices shape perceptions of the world because they invite us to feel and think differently.