We all know that everything is connected, and music is not an exception; there’s a curious story behind how Stravinsky, unbeknown to him, ended up being the author of one of the most used sounds in music and representing an era, way long after his death.
First, we have to settle something: no matter what anyone says, Igor Stravinsky was a trendsetter and his work was incredibly influential. It’s become transcendental due to his own innovative and game-changing way to both perceive and create music. In his 70-year-old music career, he developed a particular signature, that can be seen on his technical considerations on rhythm and harmony. And as if that wasn’t enough, he also developed his own musical voice stepped in twelve-tone principles, one of his most influential aesthetic turns as a composer.
Now, we can talk about what he can possibly have in common with pop music. Stravinsky was born in 1882, that year Brahms completed his Piano Concerto No. 2, Op. 83 in Austria. This was on the Romantic period of classical music. Stravinsky build a career over decades, until his death in 1971, a little time after The Beatles broke-up. A lot happened in the world in that period, but the work of Stravinsky in many aspects was ahead of his time, this is probably why it’s still relevant to the point that it turned into a default sound in modern music.
It all began with a single chord. One from the beginning of the ‘Infernal Dance’, part of the ballet and orchestra concert, The Firebird of Stravinsky. The complete piece is very powerful, but that one chord is a primal scream of emotions, something like a whiplash. And this is one of the features that make Stravinsky’s work so unique, the endless torrent of emotions that his music is capable of communicating with the public.
So, how did Stravinsky’s Firebird first movement make it to the top of the pop charts and also became a reference for 80’s music?
Well, we have technology to thank for that. In the late 70’s, music record studios started using digital audio workstations, one of the earliest was the Fairlight CMI, and the tiny sample known as ‘ORCH_2’, the ‘Orchestra hit’ was uploaded to the sampler by its creator Peter Vogel who had a vinyl recording of the ballet in his house.
Back in the 80’s, the use of samplers and synthesizers was a common practice for music producers who enjoyed experimenting with the creative possibilities of digital music. This lead to the overuse of this unauthorized chord in pop music, to the point that our brains make the association of that one particular song with an entire decade. That’s how the feeling of nostalgia is created, all thanks to default settings.
What’s more, he’s not the only one. You can easily find an extensive list of artists that bring this afterglow of classical music to other entirely different genres, yet the combination prevails in the time. That’s why we can find this orchestral stab in music from this early boom of sampling, like Duran Duran or Afrika Bambaataa to more recent artist like N’Sync in the 90’s or Bruno Mars in our days. Next time you’re listening to your favourite top 40 radio station, listen more carefully, you might catch an orchestral hit in the next pop hit of the summer.