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The Oracle Hysterical: Stravinsky's Hip Hop Opera

img  Tobias

Was your choice of retelling „The Rake's Progress“ more a question of selecting an opera which was representative of your musical aesthetics or rather because the story intrigued you?
Brad Balliett: The two meet so clearly in Stravinsky’s opera that it was a natural choice. Stravinsky’s music is a deep part of my musical belief system, and we even used some Stravinsky music as the source for beats on our first EP. (As a bassoonist, a love for Stravinsky comes naturally– the opening of ‘The Rite of Spring is just one example of the great parts we get to play.) The story of The Rake’s Progress has such rich potential to be transposed to other realms of music that it seemed to be asking to be put into hip-hop form. The character of Tom Rakewell, in particular, seems to have a lot to say, but we are treated to very little of his inner thoughts during the Stravinsky opera. This project is something of a supplement in that way; a supplement in which the speed of speech must be much faster than in a sung opera, because it moves not at the speed of action, but of thought.

The plot of is really one of those timeless stories that can be mapped onto virtually any style of music – a typical Faustian tale of a deal with the devil gone wrong; fabulous wealth in the big city, ultimately resulting in the loss of both his true love and his sanity. What attracted me to the piece initially is Stravinsky’s realization of Auden’s brilliant libretto into a twisted Mozart-style opera, complete with recitative. Stravinsky looks backwards and comments on the conventions of opera, while bowing to them at the same time. Our version does as well.

You could have taken the concept to Pop, Rock, Metal, Electronica or Jazz. Why, then, did you decide on HipHop?
Elliot Cole: Momentum and curiosity. We made a self-titled EP a few years ago that used samples from our favorite music -- Dillon, Birtwistle, Bach, Stravinsky, Ferneyhough -- and we knew we wanted to keep going in that direction, keep doing it better. It has a lot of potential, I think, not just because it's a great way to tell a story, but it's also a genuinely taboo style-space. You come across plenty of composers these days who are getting up the courage to admit that they're influenced by rock or electronic music, and of course there's a lot of respect for jazz, but there is almost zero mutual respect between classical and hip hop types. It's a dark spot on the map, and that's a good place to be. Logically, nobody thinks this can work in any sort of credible way -- so it really has a chance to surprise people.

To me, the most difficult aspect of the production would seem using samples from chamber music, applying them to a more rigid rhythmical grid and yet creating the same fluent movement of chamber music again. How did you go about achieving this?
Elliot Cole: We learned a lot about this making our last EP. We were chopping up some Ferneyhough string quartet and laying the loudest, clearest attacks on downbeats but then letting everything in between happen chaotically. What resulted was the grooviest, squishiest beat we'd ever heard -- a thousand variations of swing. It was an epiphany. You don't have to quantize to the smallest perceptible unit. You don't have to impose a rigid grid on every scale. There's a grey area between rhythmic and arhythmic.

Your version uses extracts of your own chamber music. So does that mean that there a direct compositional connection between your own work and that of Stravinsky?

Elliot Cole: My writing has never really had much connection to him, oddly. Lots of people have a really intense Stravinsky phases, but I just haven't had mine yet. Maybe my music's too slow -- I bet he'll visit when I discover rhythm.
Brad Balliett: Not beyond the influence he’s had on my composing style since I first heard his music. We chose pieces based on atmospheric factors (for setting) and grooviness factors (potential to be turned into a beat). We also sampled some Ravel, Scelsi and Feldman.

Did you, in a way, want to create something Stravinsky himself could have enjoyed?
Brad Balliett: If Stravinsky were alive, he’d be well aware of hip-hop music and find a way to swallow it into his all-consuming musical personality. And I think he would’ve gotten a kick out of hearing Tom Rakewell rapping. I think we’ve imagined a side of Tom Rakewell that Stravinsky and Auden would find perfectly viable, perhaps even apt.
Elliot Cole: I bet he'd say "Vy all zis four-four?"

Most regard serialism and Schönberg as the single-most important influence on American contemporary composers. Would you say the influence of Stravinsky is generally underrated?
Brad Balliett: Stravinsky didn’t invent anything as radical as Schoenberg, so he doesn’t get the kind of messianic treatment that Schoenberg does in the music theory world, but Stravinsky opened at least as many new doors in music, and I think you can find his influence in a lot of places, whether it is openly recognized or not. Stravinsky was one of the first to ‘remix’ music from a previous generation to make it suit his aesthetic while keeping the piece essentially intact – an idea integral, of course, to hip-hop.

There is a certain theatrical quality to the music. Are you considering the idea of turning it into a real opera at some later stage?

Brad Balliett: We’re working on it now. I plan to enlist my identical twin brother (double bass player in the San Antonio Symphony and fellow rapper) to perform as one lobe of an arguing Tom Rakewell’s psyche.
Elliot Cole: We actually have one new music group in New York interested in producing it. We'll see. I hope we get a harpsichord.

Homepage: The Oracle Hysterical

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