Sunday, April 2, 2017

Ostinatos; making a lot from a little (2. Rite of Spring)

Further to my previous blog entry
If the 339 consecutive repetitions of a 2-bar rhythmic ostinato pattern in Ravel's Boléro (1928) don't constitute overuse of an idea, then what does?
Or, to rephrase the question in a less acerbic way, Ravel's Boléro is his most popular work (according to Wikipedia), yet from start to finish it repeats a 2-bar rhythmic pattern without change or interruption; how does Boléro maintain our interest? Why are most listeners not bored, troubled, or driven mad by the 339 incessant repetitions of this ostinato rhythm?

The explanation is that there are other musical aspects that change and evolve continuously throughout the work, and these are what sustain our interest, such as: 
  1. It begins almost inaudibly (so quietly that, when I worked as a record department sales clerk as a student, many people who purchased the album tried to return it, thinking there was something wrong with the audio), and grows steadily and inexorably over its 15-16 minute length to become as loud as possible at the end; it is a study in how to write an extraordinarily-long crescendo for orchestra
  2. As such, it is a masterpiece of orchestration, filled from start to finish with colour and texture changes that reflect Ravel's brilliance as an orchestrator. The two-part theme is repeated many times, but each presentation uses a different orchestration (and hence a different colour), and the orchestration also changes within thematic presentations as well.
  3. Its form is essentially a theme and variations, and just as in the best examples of this form, our interest is sustained by hearing many permutations of the main theme, instead of becoming annoyed that a given theme is played over and over again. The unusual aspect in Boléro is that the pitch content of the theme is never varied (except for a modulation in the final 40 seconds), just the colour (orchestration and texture) and dynamics. 
  • This idea is not original to Ravel, however; another mono-thematic work that begins quietly and, over the course of multiple thematic repetitions, eventually becomes very loud, is Grieg's "In the Hall of the Mountain King," from Peer Gynt (1875), composed 53 years earlier.
If Boléro consisted only of 339 repetitions of a short idea, and nothing else, I'll go out on a limb and speculate that the composition would be less popular.  😄

Or perhaps it would have become celebrated as the grand-daddy of minimalism… 😴

Igor Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring
Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring (1913) makes extensive use of ostinati, and, more generally, repetitive elements, so today we will look at some of the ways Stravinsky used one particular ostinato, the repeated four-16th-note idea in the excerpt below.

It is introduced at the end of the first section (Introduction) of Part 1, played by pizzicato violins, while a clarinet sustains a lengthy trill (this is at about the 3-minute mark in the YouTube video at the end of this post; all other timings indicated below refer to this video):

It is a pretty simple idea by itself, but its simplicity makes it useful, because it works well with many other ideas. Therein lies one of the keys to writing a good, multi-purpose, ostinato: While good music can be written with longer and more complex ostinati, a short, simple idea is probably more flexible, because it can support a variety of other ideas.

The above excerpt introduces the ostinato somewhat hesitantly, instead of introducing the idea and immediately continuing with almost incessant repetitions, as we found (see previous post) in Boléro. Stravinsky is saving more regular repetitions of this idea for the next section. He is "planting a seed," giving us a taste of an idea that will become increasingly prominent and repetitive.

Sure enough, about 10 seconds later, he gives us a somewhat longer version of the ostinato, which leads to the strongly-rhythmic bitonal (E (enh.) in the lower strings, Eb7 in the upper strings) chord repetitions that are one of this work's most memorable features, which mark the start of the next section, Augers of Spring/Dances of the Young Girls. This starts at 3:20 in the video below:

Incidentally, for those interested in "golden mean" ratios, note that in its first three presentations, the ostinato is heard twice, once, (thus three times so far), and Five times, adding up to eight times, all of which are numbers in the Fibonacci series (1, 2, 3, 5, 8…). Sadly, the next time we hear the idea (see excerpt below) it is only presented four times, which is not a Fibonacci number. 😢 It is used eighteen times consecutively the time after that (part of which is two excerpts below), and this too is not a Fibonacci number. 😭 This is a work clearly in need of a revision! 😎 [Okay, I promise to insert no more emoticons in today's post. The are very useful, though…]
Very soon after the previous excerpt, at about 3:35 in the video below, the heavily-accented repeated chords are interrupted, and we hear the first presentation of the ostinato figure with counterpoint, consisting of an arpeggiated chord in the bassoons, which is itself repeated. Notice that the bitonality continues, this time between the ostinato (Eb7) and the counterpoint below it (E enh.):

This next excerpt, which starts at about 3:45 of the video, gives us another melody, once again with repetitive elements, this time above the ostinato. Note the frequent colour changes in Stravinsky's orchestration of the melody; the reduction below does not accurately reflect this, but there are 6 colour changes to the melody in 6 bars. When you listen to the full orchestra version (in the video below), note as well that the ostinato at this point is buried in the texture, almost inaudible within the heavily accented chord repetitions (not shown in this example, but the chords are the same as in the last 2 bars of the previous example):

New melodic fragments are superimposed on the 4-note ostinato over the two minutes that follow the previous excerpt, one of which is this one, which is again repetitive, and occurs at about 5:25 of the video:

Please suggest other works that make prominent use of ostinati – one such piece is Stravinsky's, L'Histoire du Soldat – and I will possibly (see explanation at the end of this post) discuss them in future blogs… At the very least, I can compile a list with your suggestions. If you can, try to be specific about where the ostinati occur within the work you are citing. In the mean-time, I already have an idea for a third post in this series.

Below is a recording of The Rite of Spring on a video that shows the score. Try to find other uses of the ostinato discussed above. As well, try to listen to it more than once, in order to find other ostinati, and the degree to which repetition of musical ideas is used. If you don't have enough time to hear the entire piece, listen to at least the first 6 minutes; all of the above examples occur within that time.

Explanation of my use of the word "possibly" with regards to doing more blogs on this topic:

My only hesitation is that the amount of time involved doing a post such as this one is daunting. It involved making score reductions in Finale of the sections I wanted to use as examples, saving them as GIFs and importing them into this blog, recording the musical examples, importing them into Audacity and splicing them into sections that corresponded with the notated examples, saving them in two different audio formats (MP3 and OGG) because not all web browsers read MP3s, uploading the audio files to my website, and then inserting the code that lets the Blogger website read and play audio files on all major web browsers. Plus the time spent fixing things that didn't work along the way. Not complaining, mind you! I enjoy doing this, but it is time consuming.

That said, and to repeat what I wrote above, I do have another post in the works on this topic, so there will be at least three in the series, and possibly more if people make suggestions regarding other works with prominent use of ostinati.


Robert Humber said...

Great post Dr. Ross! It's awesome to see that you have dedicated a whole post to arguably my favorite piece! Hearing the Rite of Spring for the first time was like entering a new planet for me... it is so incredibly evocative and unique. I like what you said about simpler ostinatos being easier to throw into different situations. That "Rite of Spring" ostinato just keeps coming back, but it is almost chameleon-like in its ability to blend and adapt into its surroundings. Writing simple figures like that can make me self-conscious because they can seem uninventive. However Stravinsky (and Ravel) prove that it is what you do with the ostinato that matters.

Jack Etchegary said...

To throw some percussive knowledge into the discussion yet again - this is coincidentally another piece that Vic Firth makes specific mallets for! The Vic Firth "Rite of Spring" bass drum beaters have smaller-than-normal wood tips to emphasize rhythmic attack and articulation, much of which is needed in performing the bass drum part of this piece. There is a specific excerpt which is quite commonly asked for in orchestral percussion auditions. I quite enjoy this discussion of ostinati, because as you know, I can be a big fan of repetition (sometimes in unreasonable amounts...) but reading about both the Stravinsky and Ravel have made me think more and more about how to achieve tasteful repetition. I think Stravinsky is successful here much in the same way the Ravel was in Bolero. Although the initial entry idea of the ostinato is different between these two pieces, I believe that listeners to do not grow tired of hearing the ostinato because so many other musical aspects of the pieces are constantly changing and surrounding the ostinato ideas. I think that simplicity and accessibility of Stravinsky's ostinato, as you mentioned, definitely facilitates greater freedom to explore other musical ideas while keeping the ostinato going. Looking forward to reading the next post in the series!

Kristin Wills said...

I have always been fascinated with ostinato patterns. When I first started to write music, almost all of my pieces were based on short, repetitive bass lines. It was a good way to keep my ideas organized, because at that point I had very little theory training. At that time I was also very interested in Bolero, because of how the colours change so dramatically even though the bass line stays the same. I always that thought the modulation at the end was particularly satisfying and that it occurred at exactly the right time.
I think the use of ostinato in Dido's Lament by Purcell is very interesting because of the way the bass line interacts with the melody. The ostinato keeps repeating through the whole piece, but the melody and the bass line are different lengths, so in every phrase, the emphasis is on a different part of the bass line. This makes the piece seem a lot less repetitive than it really is.

Peter Cho said...

One thing that has always struck me about ostinati (ostinatos?) are their prominence in Popular Music. Sure, examples of ostinatis can be found from music from any origin, but Popular Music is chalk full of songs that uses this technique. A standard way of writing a song is to have a "riff" which repeats over and over again and probably goes away for a chorus but then returns for verses. I have always wondered why this technique is so abundant in Popular Music. A possible explanation is that it makes a piece of music easy to digest. If you here a "riff" 100 times in the span of 3 or 4 minutes, it is hard to not understand some at least some of the motivic material of the song. And I think songs like this keep things interesting in two ways:
1. The songs are usually short. Not a whole lot of development happens of the ostinato idea so the length of the song reflects this.
2. Lyrics. Even if the instrumentation or melody is not changed up very much, changes in lyrics provide the bulk of the interest.
However, Popular Music still remains a bit of a challenge for me to listen to sometimes because of the repetitive nature of the music. And on top of that I am really bad at listening to lyrics so I miss that whole aspect of the music.
Sorry I didn't talk about Rite of Spring! :)

Benjamin Taylor said...

This is a great post! I always knew about the ostinatos in the Rite of Spring but never knew the severity and variations of them in the piece! You can also view marching pieces as constant, never get old, ostinatos. More specific would be the Folk Dances from Shostakovitch. He has the tubas on the move throughout the whole piece while adding different instruments like trombone or saxophone to accompany them with variations or off-beats of the same idea.

It seems if a composer can truly grasp a great ostinato and somehow morph, form, and create variations of it, it can be used in a variety of ways in a composition.

Josh McCarthy said...

Interesting post! As you are well aware with my writing, you know that I am quite fond of using ostinatos in my works. So this post strikes a chord with me in a way. I always love reading about pieces I previously didn't like, but then finding something out about them that really interests me in the piece. For instance I had no idea that the Rite of Spring had such heavy use of the ostinato, most likely because it is such a intricately scored piece, it may just get lost in my ear. I feel like this post has given me ideas to help grow my ostinatos in terms of variation and transitioning.

Cleary Maddigan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Cleary Maddigan said...

Like Josh, i also did not think "The Right of Spring" had an ostinato in it. When I think ostinato, I often think of minimalism.Many works of giants such as Glass Reich and Adams are based on the repetition and often phasing of interesting motives. A great example of this would be "Clapping Music" by Reich. It seems like throught history the ostinato is something that one cannot get rid of. Composers throughout history employed it. Pachabel, Purcell, Ravel, Stavinsky, and the Minimalists used it.