Monday, August 15, 2011


Igor Stravinsky was and is an untempered orchestra of temperaments. He embodied and embodies the impassioned virtuosity of the concert master, the shrieking histrionics of woodwinds, the noble swagger of brass, and the thunderous acrimony of percussion. He was a prodigy, a protege, and a pariah. His music was entirely unique: Quirky scherzos, angular rhythms set against romantic waltzes, stubborn ostinatos, and mature subject matter. His music has retained much of it's effect throughout the years, and he is one of the few composers in standard orchestra repertoire whose music can be considered art and not art history. Musically, he was a radical, taking the traditions of Russian romantic music, neo-classicism, and serialism and perverting them into his own artistic vision. But as a human being, he was shockingly normal: He had a family, made many friends in the art world, took shots with Dylan Thomas in Los Angeles, and was generally described as "incredibly polite."

But he was also kind of a dick.

Stravinsky constantly contradicted himself throughout his career. He outwardly detested religion until he rejoined the Russian Orthodox church in his early forties. He had no reason for this conversion other than "why not." His goal for his music was to "send them all to hell." Coco Chanel said she had an affair with her while he was married to Vera. He hated serialism until he became a serialist composer almost immediately after Arnold Schoenberg, the father of serialist music, died. If you asked twelve different acquaintances of Stravinsky what kind of man he was, you would most likely get about forty different answers. However, his persona was not shifting as much as it was splintered: fifty different facets, a difference face for every occasion.

Of Montreal, and specifically their frontman Kevin Barnes, are not like that. Of Montreal are bouncy and joyous and obsessed with sex. All the time. It is hard to isolate a 30 second sample from either of Of Montreal's two most recent albums (Skeletal Lamping and False Priest) that has no sexual content layered over bubbly instrumentals. However, it never becomes redundant or tedious or even predictable.It simply becomes more and more impressive. Halfway through the album you expect them to run out of energy and peter out into some sort of Pavement-esque acoustic thing. But their specific brand of ebullience and libido spans the entire duration of both LPs. I would not be surprised if they were maenads. But underneath the Prince-gloss that all of their music is lacquered with, one can notice that their music is astonishingly complex and beautiful. Their songs are almost almost never specifically strophic: songs will switch keys and tempos with little regard for smooth transition. In many cases it's hard to tell what is a postlude and what is an entirely new song. The result is pure aural euphoria whereas all the fat has been trimmed.

Here is where Stravinsky and Of Montreal intersect in my mind: Stravinsky has been placed on some sort of intellectualized pedestal where everything he has done must be scrutinized as art, even though in many cases he was just having fun. Many critics of Stravinsky don't believe that there is artistic merit in abandoning intellectualism and just deciding to do something crazy. Of Montreal are vice versa: Although their image leads many to believe they are just making quirky chamber pop, they make very tasteful and complex music. Both artists lead to a very important question: Why can't art be entertaining, and why can't entertainment be art? 

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