A Pitiless Symphony

From Proust Was a Neuroscientist by Jonah Lehrer:

Stravinsky’s music is all violation. While the cultured public thought music was just a collection of consonant chords played in neat meter, Stravinsky realized that they were wrong. Pretty noises are boring. Music is only interesting when it confronts us with tension, and the source of tension is conflict. Stravinsky’s insight was that what the audience really wanted was to be denied what it wanted.

The Rite of Spring was the first symphonic work to express this antagonistic philosophy. Stravinsky anticipated the anticipation of his audience and then refused every single one. He took the standard springtime song and made art out of its opposite. Dissonance never submits to consonance. Order does not defeat disorder. There is an obscene amount of tension, but it never gets resolved. Everything only gets worse. And then it ends…

…Although music begins with our predilection for patterns, the feeling of music…begins when the pattern we imagine starts to break down. The Rite, of course, is one long breakdown. Stravinsky didn’t just invent some new musical patterns; he insisted on murdering our old ones. He introduced fragments of folk songs, then destroyed them with a gunshot of chromatic bullets. He took the big sonoric brushstrokes of major chords and put them through a cubist machine. Strauss is punked, Wagner is inverted, Chopin is mocked. Classicism is made cynical.

The sadistic newness of The Rite’s patterns, its stubborn refusal to conform to our learned expectations, is the dirty secret of its discontent. By disobeying the rule we think we know, Stravinsky forces us to confront the fact that we have expectations, that the mind anticipates types of order, followed by certain types of release. But in The Rite, these expectations are rendered useless. We do not know what will come next. And this makes us angry.

The emotions generated y musical tension—a tension taken to grotesque heights by Stravinsky—throb throughout the body. As soon as the orchestra starts to play, the flesh undergoes a ranges of changes. The pupils dilate, pulse and blood pressure rise, the electrical conductance of the skin lowers, and the cerebellum, a brain region associated with bodily movements, becomes unusually active. Blood is even redirected to the leg muscles. (As a result, we begin tapping our feet in time with the beat.") Sounds stir us at our biological roots. As Schopenhauer wrote, “It is we ourselves who are tortured by the strings.”

Stravinsky, of course, knew exactly how to raise our blood pressure. At first glance, this might seem like a dubious achievement. Must modern art really be so cruel? Whatever happened to beauty? But Stravinsky’s malevolence was rooted in a deep understanding of the mind. He realized that the engine of music is conflict, not consonance. The art that makes us feel is the art that makes us hurt. And nothing hurts us like a pitiless symphony.


Why is music capable of inflicting such pain? Because it works on our feelings directly. No ideas interfere with its emotion. This is why “all art aspires to the condition of music.” The symphony gives us the thrill of uncertainty—the pleasurable anxiety of searching for a pattern—but without the risks of real life. When we listen to music, we are moved by an abstraction. We feel, but we don’t know why.

…To find the echo of order in The Rite, we have to pay exquisite attention. If we fail to listen carefully, if we tune out its engineered undulations, then the whole orchestra becomes nothing more than a mutiny of noise. The music disappears. This is what Stravinsky wanted. “To listen is an effort,” he once said, “and just to hear is no merit. A duck hears also.”