June 2, 2013

Danse de la Terre

Posted by Austin Elliott

Last week marked 100 years since the debut of my favorite piece of music of all time: Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. The ballet debuted to a legendary amount of controversy, but its cacophonous, haunting beauty has been recreated and rechoreographed countless times in the past century, including for example this 1975 Pina Bausch version of the culminating “Sacrificial Dance,” which I’m pretty certain forms the main inspiration for the 1983 Thriller zombie dance in MJ’s iconic video.

I love this work for a whole host of reasons, but one of my favorites is that Stravinsky wrote an earthquake into it.The first of the piece’s two parts culminates with the “Danse de la Terre,” conceived as a ritual sacrificial Pagan dance, and coming about as close as orchestral music has to recreating the drama and tumult of an earthquake. Listen to the movement (and follow along with the score) here:


The music alone conveys pretty accurately the onset and violence of an earthquake, but if it takes a little too much imagination, Disney’s 1944 animated voyage through music Fantasia conjures the scene for you:


The earthquake seen above is followed by a roiling tsunami, captured in this questionably permitted YouTube clip which may or may not last–maybe you should just get the DVD.

That Fantasia earthquake is ingrained in my brain from scores of viewings as a child in day care, but it really hit home when my high school biology teacher used Fantasia’s conception of The Rite of Spring to teach us evolutionary biology and the history of the planet. The artists did a dang good job, which I still find profoundly moving and broadly accurate.

Their animation of an earthquake may be a bit misleading, if we’re going to nitpick about things, but I’ve been reminded of those visuals myriad times in my exploration of faults and earthquakes in the field. Just look at this video of the lava dome growing at Mt. St. Helens–straight out of Fantasia’s earthquake:



…or imagine the formation of these fresh fault scarps during a violent earthquake rupture:

2010 rupture of the Borrego fault from the M7.2 El Mayor-Cucapah earthquake


This exposed ancient fault plane in western Montana has always evoked memories of the Fantasia version, ever since I first came upon it during field camp:

Mesozoic fault plane preserved and exposed near Block Mountain north of Dillon, MT


Technically, we coud also draw playful connections between the frequency content of the musical movement and that of actual earthquakes. The rhythms are briefly described by the Music iPreciation Wiki,

In this brief selection, the rhythmic complexity is astounding. Unlike other sections of the Rite, the meter itself does not change frequently, but the subdivisions within the measures are amazingly intricate. The first few measures will demonstrate how precise and disparate the various instrumental parts are. The dance begins with a rest on the downbeat (in 3 4), followed by a bass drum playing a triplet division of the quarter note. The bass drum maintains this triplet figures against the entrance of the timpanist, who is playing a subdivision of four sixteenth notes per quarter. The various instruments that enter in the second measure sweep up arpeggios of either six or seven notes, simultaneously. When the French horns enter, their subdivisions are five or three. The violas and string basses keep to their ostinato pattern (in duple divisions) while the violins, cellos, and winds accent various parts of the measure. The bassoons outline the same ostinato as the violas and basses. This dizzying array of rhythmic patterns takes place in the space of less than a minute!

Earthquakes generate seismic waves of all sizes, causing the “chaotic” shaking people experience, a sensation that varies by location and substrate as the waves mix and mingle just like melodies in the Rite.

For a cursory exploration of the phenomenal musical piece, the San Francisco Symphony has an awesome interactive feature letting you follow along with snippets of the score: http://www.keepingscore.org/sites/default/files/swf/stravinsky/full

For a hypnotic and breathtaking experience of the piece, I’ll leave you with a link to this visualization of the work in which it is played along with a colorful, captivating animation of the score:


Enjoy now appreciating this music as much as I do.