A solo bassoon moans a prolonged melancholy cry, as of a dull pain inside the soul. Its plaintive aching and hurting seems from some broken heart whose fears are magnified in the steady thumping of the basses — bows thrust over strings stayed by numbed fingers on the bridge — in repetitive pulses like anxiety gripping the throat. The drums could have pounded the insistent rhythm, but they only offer muffled sympathy.
Wood winds refrain the underlying tension as strings stretch to soften segue to a burst of the brass winds trumpeting a heralding: that signals the frenzied cacophony of all instruments screaming at each other in decibels almost painful to the ear. Then the clash of cymbals and dead silence for seconds — as in a voiceless fall from a cliff. End of tension and start of the spring dances.
The pizzicato of violins suggests a cooling drizzle and the piccolos are birds trilling to the hoped-for Spring. Yet throughout, the orchestra relentlessly layers disturbing undertones of heavily suggestive thrusting and thumping until the final abduction of the Spring virgin in the libretto, when the clapping of percussions thunder violent possession.
It was Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring,” closing concert of the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra in its 36th Concert Season (2018-2019) at the Cultural Center of the Philippines. Stravinsky is not too often played in the Philippines. At the ballet premiere of his controversial and iconoclastic “The Rite of Spring” at Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris in 1913, the scandalized audience rioted and walked out of the theater.
Did you like the concert, Bettina? I was confused, she says. I expected from the title “Rite of Spring” that the music would be light and lilting, apropos to idyllic Spring. The jarring thumping, and then the violent confusion of sounds was like a stampede of wild animals in a dark forest. But Ronnie the poet-novelist and art lover, sage of generations ahead, stated simply: I like Stravinsky. I listen to his music for the grounding of Art to Reality.
Stravinsky wrote his music in the turmoil of world changes. The early 1900s saw an awakening against monarchies and imperialist colonizations and the rise of jealous consciousness for human rights and freedoms. It was the age of assertion and aggression, of revolt and protest. Artists took the lead in freedom of expression, liberal and righteous in shocking the world with avant-garde style and mediums, challenging traditionalists into embracing “modern art.” Pablo Picasso violated sensibilities as he painted grotesque visions of his personal realities upon a world comfortable with romanticized “Realism.” Stravinsky’s dissonance and chaos was the same protest of cubism and distortionism against traditionalism.
Defeat in the Russo-Japanese war (1904–1905) triggered the Russian people’s revolution against monarchic control. And after the Russian defeat again in World War I the people’s revolution reinvigorated and forced the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II, who was later executed together with his family. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was established by the Bolsheviks in 1917. Was the rhythmic energy of revolution a rite of passage to the “Spring” or the fantasy of a new life under communism?
Was Stravinsky’s unabashedly libidinous rhythmic energy in “The Rite of Spring” a hyperbole of the naked greed for power and possession, the abduction of the Spring virgin a metaphor — that in a “revolution” or any radical change, there is the dubious “hero” whom the grateful beneficiaries of change install as autocratic leader of their new destiny? Perhaps the constant thumping as the underlying refrain in Stravinsky’s concerto was a foreboding of the common regret after a revolution, or a change: the change may not have been for the better.
You read too much into Stravinsky, Ronnie says. Just enjoy his music. But I agree, Bettina says — “The Rite of Spring” really roused some unknown fear in me.
Why is there this undecipherable, overhanging fear for our country, and for us and our families nowadays? There is indeed the hollow thumping of the heart, the moaning pain and the jarring of sensibilities at the eerie cacophony of mixed signals about justice and the rule of law, about basic principles and values, human rights and even ordinary common decencies. Do we really know what is our reality, in the distortionist control of a “strongman leader” who will not allow dissent or contrary opinion?
The 1986 EDSA Revolution was for change and the ousting of a dictator; how now is the mindless, stupidest surrender of that hard-won freedom to another dictator? That is the crux of our problem: that there was not even a revolution now, and we, the Filipino people (speaking in general), seem to have succumbed to a chaotic “rite of passage,” a change to new values, adjusted “principles,” a revised history and dubious heroes.
Chaotic and dissonant, as purposely devised in Stravinsky’s concerto is the painful sarcasm to a “Rite of (faux) Spring” that ends in violent rape. Why do we allow crass green jokes and foul language that our baser instincts now thump to that hypnotic “rhythmic energy,” dulling our higher faculties against the serial rape of our freedoms and human rights? But there are no transgressions of human rights, we are told.
We accept what we are told. But it can be difficult to decipher what it is we are being told, and what exactly we are accepting. Most jarring, shocking pronouncements are “made in playful jest as his usual hyperbolic style,” as presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo expectedly explained, of the President’s penchant for “shock effect” in his public rantings about everything and anything. But must he joke, “Let’s just kidnap someone from COA and torture him,” even in extreme frustration that the Commission on Audit takes too long to examine projects? (Philippine Star Jan. 10, 2019). No controls. No checks and balances in this government? Joke only, but torture is somehow admitted.
Then there are those sudden eerie silences, contretemps to the dissonant cacophony and the incessant thumping, at the Stravinsky concerto. In simile, the cliff-hanger silence to our local political situation is the stunning, numbing anxiety about threats, hyperboles and jokes that can be really meant and really acted out.
Strange sounds, like the bassoon’s meandering moan, come from the chill of seeing oppositionists and critics bullied in public investigations that almost literally stripped them naked, in the more than mischievous delight, it would seem, of including their human frailties as corroborative details to heavy accusations of public misconduct. How many oppositionists and critics have been sent to jail? How many more? Can our justice system be called fair and unbiased, in these tremulous times?
That the cymbals may clash to clear the air soon, hoping that this “trial” would just be a rite of passage, or a cleansing — looking towards a new Spring. There is hope. We must vote wisely in the May 13 mid-term elections to install controls and checks to the chaos.
Happy Easter to all!
Amelia H. C. Ylagan is a Doctor of Business Administration from the University of the Philippines.