You should listen to this
#15 - Impactful innovation may shock you, listening to Stravinsky and Kraftwerk
Last week I was blown away by Jeremy D. Larson's article — Why Do We Even Listen to New Music? It starts by recollecting the story of the premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring to show us how real novelty feels strange and can be rejected at first and how our brain is wired to feel pleasure and comfort with known tunes. Although these strange times call for calmer and predictable experiences, the author challenges us to explore the new and seek the discomfort where we may find a glimpse of the future.
When, in 1913, Stravisky’s The Rite of Spring premiered, people were shocked, lost, confused to the point they rebelled and rejected it. The audience was not looking for novelty, but just for another concert from a known musician with familiar tunes.
One year later, the same performance led to ‘unprecedented exaltation’ and a ‘fever of adoration’. And The Rite of Spring became a landmark in music history:
Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring is now hailed as the most sweepingly influential piece of music composed in the early 20th century, a tectonic shift in form and aesthetic that was, as the critic Alex Ross wrote in his book The Rest Is Noise, “lowdown yet sophisticated, smartly savage, style and muscle intertwined.” Within the brambles of The Rite are the seeds of an entire outgrowth of modernism: jazz, experimental, and electronic music flow back to The Rite.
Fast forward 57 years
I tried to imagine the surprise, but I needed to find a more recent example of avant-garde and strange novelty that would turn years later into a major influence — a parallel closer to home.
I already knew the now-famous Kraftwerk’s 1974 album Autobahn. For me, that was the starting point of their career. It was avant-garde enough, opening with a 22 min track full of electronic sounds and effects and featuring violin, flute, piano, and guitar. For perspective, the album came out in the year of ABBA’s Waterloo hit the charts and when Disco was becoming mainstream.
But if that wasn’t strange enough, now imagine being in 1970, in one of their first concerts:
Notice the puzzled audience, trying to get it, trying to get into the groove.
30 years later, we know that Kraftwerk would become widely recognized as major music innovators and pioneers of electronic music that would influence the next decades of music. You can trace their influence in 80’s pop, hip-hop, house, techno, and EDM. Bands like Depeche Mode, New Order, Daft Punk, LCD Soundsystem were inspired, influenced, and sampled their work.
Innovations that shocks you
Novelty requires effort and the right mindset. We need to be prepared for a gut rejection. We cannot appreciate the “New” with the same eyes (and ears) that we relish the “Old”.
Maybe that’s why innovation is so hard to pull off. Because if it’s easy to understand and accept is probably a minor continuous innovation that doesn’t change much. And if it’s farfetched, it makes us uncomfortable, unease, and our natural impulse is to reject it.
I wrote before how our brains are wired to minimize surprise and that innovation happens at the edge of chaos, between order and chaos. I guess that’s exactly how you feel when you listen to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and the 1970’s Kraftwerk concert for the first time.
So if you’re evaluating an innovation that feels strange, uncomfortable, unintelligible, out of place, you need to be mindful and recognize your natural rejection. It doesn’t mean you jump to it right away, but between rejection and excitement, you can find a place to let it sink in, take the time to appreciate it, play with it. Realize that most people will naturally reject it. But if you don’t want to be “most people”, you need to give it a chance, time and space.
One way to feel more confident with a “strange” innovation is to prototype it. We often think of a prototype as something that belongs to a lab. In fact, even if it’s made in the lab, the whole point is to put it out in the world so you can understand how it interacts and fits in. How people talk about it, how they experience it, how it connects to the context. The idea of building a prototype is to put yourself and others in the future where the innovation exists already inserted in the real-world.
That doesn’t mean you build, at this stage, an actual prototype, a rough version of the final product — that can be costly and unfeasible. But you can, for example, prototype it with a fictional story where the innovation is the protagonist. A story helps you figure out how it fits into the future world, how people interact with it, what changes. With a good story, you can explore not only functional but also emotional and social benefits in a way that a power-point slide cannot capture. Moreover, it takes you to a place and time where the innovation is no longer strange and ahead of its time, but integrated and showing its full potential. And when people can visualize this future, they can understand the potential without all the defense mechanisms they can show today.
To understand what fictional writing about the future may look like, you can check Yak Collective’s project Astonishing Stories, an anthology of short speculative fiction.
Thanks for reading,