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Sylvie Courvoisier & Cory Smythe redraw Stravinsky's feat with 'Rite of Spring — Spectre D'un Songe'

Sylvie Courvoisier and Cory Smythe
Laurent Philippe
Sylvie Courvoisier and Cory Smythe

Jazz was still incubating in New Orleans when Igor Stravinsky’s classical ballet Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring) received its scandalous Paris premiere in 1913. The Russian composer’s strange dissonances and syncopations proved shocking for the high-society attendees, who hissed and booed so loudly that the music couldn’t be heard. It was only a few years later that jazz made its debut on the international stage; it came with strange dissonances and syncopations of its own, appalling critics in America and elsewhere. Most of them drew connections with the so-called “savagery” of the Black race who’d created the music. Few, if any, were savvy enough to see parallels with the Rite.

Musicians, though, grasped those parallels. Now regarded as two benchmarks of musical modernism, jazz and The Rite of Spring share a rich, intertwined history that includes Charlie Parker quoting its themes to a delighted Stravinsky himself — and a whole slew of jazz interpolations and reinterpretations of the work, from Ornette Coleman to The Bad Plus. In that sense, The Rite of Spring - Spectre d'un Songe, by pianists Sylvie Courvoisier and Cory Smythe, is one more link in a very long chain. This link, though, comes with a unique twist: it includes a long-form original composition by Courvoisier that acts as both a response and a foil to Stravinsky’s composition.

This two-piano arrangement is Stravinsky’s own; his estate wouldn't license any new arrangements for performance, thus boxing the pianists in before they’d even started. But Courvoisier and Smythe are classically trained, and they find clever if subtle ways of expressing themselves within these limits. Both pianists amplify the work’s stark rhythms by ratcheting up the percussive element. Their keyboard attacks become pounding staccatos, evoking jazz’s rhythmic core, especially throughout the opening “Adoration of the Earth” movement. (It’s not clear which pianist plays which part, but one suspects Courvoisier of the clanging low-end chords that stand in for Stravinsky’s kettle drums; it’s a favorite device in her own music.)

Courvoisier and Smythe also distinguish this interpretation by taking careful liberties with time. In the second movement’s penultimate episode (“Ritual of the Ancestors”), they add a fraction of a second to the pauses in the pulse, then put just a smidgen of speed into the creeping melody line. It not only raises the urgency in the music, but also imparts a bit of spookiness.

Of course it’s “Spectre d’un Songe,” Courvoisier’s 29-minute original, that really lets the artists show their stuff. Opening with the first real timbral shift — Smythe and Courvoisier reaching into the pianos to manually manipulate the strings — it reads as a complex abstraction of the Rite. Multiple fragments are layered on top of each other, deconstructed, and varied. (It’s impossible to tell what’s written versus what’s improvised.) Yet it also deals in extremes that Stravinsky didn’t approach: in the piece’s first third, eerie stillness builds into frantic, messy flurries, with the pianists’ four hands prattling before dissolving again into stillness. It suggests the sound of someone’s sanity collapsing, such that even when they settle down at the halfway point of “Spectre,” their grasp of reality feels tenuous, not to be trusted.

Together, the Rite and “Spectre d’un Songe” form a haunting diptych, but also an oddly amusing one. “Spectre” seems as much a response to the Rite’s critics (and perhaps jazz’s early detractors) as to the piece itself: It reaches back a century to slap them across the face with an even more daring and futuristic vision of the same raw materials. Yet they also function independently, with “Spectre” creating a compelling sense of dread and disquiet all its own.

The Rite of Spring - Spectre d'un songe is available now on Pyroclastic Records.