Craig Visser

Guitarist & Composer

Stravinsky and the Postmodern Blues

Recently, I finished the first draft of a piece called The Shrovetide Blues for Duo46 (violin/guitar).  If ‘Shrovetide’ is familiar to you, then you might know that it is borrowed from Stravinsky’s ballet Petrushka, in which the ‘Shrovetide Fair’ is where some of the ballet takes place.  What does this ballet have to do with the blues? Nothing really, but I thought it would be interesting to write a piece that borrows fragments from the ballet, which is one of my favourite pieces, and recast them in a way that highlights their strong blues-like qualities.  For example, the motif I feature most prominently is a simple oscillation between two notes a whole step apart (or scale degree one, to flat seven, back to one).  Those who know a bit more about the music in Petrushka know that the famous Petrushka chord is two major triads played together a tritone apart.  The tritone, along with the flat seven scale degree (or ‘blue note’) that’s emphasized in the first motif I mentioned, are key components of the blues/jazz language, so these are the primary building blocks of my piece.

I went back and forth in terms of my commitment to this concept mainly because I thought it was silly and not what a ‘serious’ composer might do.  I would often assuage any doubt I felt by reminding myself of the historical precedence that exists for pieces or genres that bring ‘high’ art and vernacular art forms together.  (I think being conscious of the past like this is important, but using examples in history to validate one’s creative efforts can sometimes be a slippery slope and lead to too much sentimentality).  Not only would I call the concept of the project into question sometimes, but I also started including some obvious clichés from the blues and jazz traditions.  Again, the alarm bells were going off because ‘serious’ composers are supposed to avoid clichés at all costs.  But something still kept me coming back to work on the piece and I was still fascinated by what I was doing.

I’ve come to realize that The Shrovetide Blues seems to make the most sense if it is considered from a postmodern perspective; that is, that meanings and expressions are always constructed within a particular context.  In this case, I’m taking material out of the context Stravinsky’s ballet and repurposing it within another context that highlights the stylistic malleability that the ballet’s material has (i.e. Petrushka’s bluesy qualities).  Throughout my piece I use the ballet fragments to create various lines and cadences that associate with the blues/jazz tradition, but some ended up sounding like blues/jazz clichés as I mentioned earlier and this was what set off the alarm bells.  The example pictured below is the end of the piece, which has a basic minor pentatonic idea as a phrase ending followed by an arpeggio that climbs up a dominant chord to sit and rest on the 9th degree.

To me, if I hear this in the context of a new jazz piece today, it’s something that sounds too conventional and stale.  However, I think if you hear it within the context of my piece and can recognize the arpeggio as something that’s been borrowed from the ballet and used extensively in other ways throughout my piece, its meaning changes and it no longer becomes a cliché because it’s no longer being considered within one context or one tradition.  If you know the popular YouTube channel ‘Postmodern Jukebox’, this is essentially what I think they’re up to too – taking popular songs and marrying them with various vintage forms and styles.  It’s a fun musical game to play, but one drawback with this kind of thing is that the full experience (or the one that composer intends) relies on the listener being aware of the associations the composer’s making.  In my case, it would help if the audience knew the Petrushka quotations and fragments and had some understanding of jazz and blues so they can hear the game being played out (but I guess you never know what someone might respond to in a piece).

This post was meant to be about the struggles and questions I encountered during the writing process and how I went about reconciling them, so I hope it doesn’t seem too much like I’m prescribing a set of interpretation instructions.  While it’s useless to tell somebody how to interpret something, I think it’s still helpful to remind them of what they should consider before experiencing any art so that they might better understand it and experience it more fully.


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