As Ethan Iverson puts it, the Bad Plus, the forward-thinking jazz trio in which he is the pianist, likes to go for the obvious. In addition to its muscular original compositions, the band has become known for covering songs by Nirvana, Rush, and Black Sabbath, among others. They don’t go for obscure cuts; it’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “Tom Sawyer,” “Iron Man.”
So when the trio — Iverson, bassist Reid Anderson, and drummer David King — was commissioned by the performing arts series of Duke University to create an evening-length work, they started by “kicking around a bunch of bad ideas,” Iverson said recently from his New York studio. “And then we settled on the obvious.”
The obvious turned out to be Stravinsky’s epochal ballet score “The Rite of Spring,” whose (literally) riotous premiere happened a century ago. The Bad Plus’s trio arrangement of the “Rite” is called “On Sacred Ground” and is accompanied by a film by video artists Cristina Guadalupe and Noah Hutton. The band is bringing “On Sacred Ground” to the Institute of Contemporary Art for two performances Friday; in each, the Stravinsky will be followed by the group’s own compositions.
THE BAD PLUS: On Sacred Ground: Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring
So why was the “Rite” such an obvious choice? There is, of course, its centrality to 20th-century art. And the Bad Plus had already done one Stravinsky arrangement, an excerpt from the ballet “Apollo” that showed up on their 2008 album, “For All I Care.” But the band also felt that the “Rite” foreshadows much of what they do — not just their own pieces but many of their covers, from Milton Babbitt’s “Semi-Simple Variations” to Rush’s “Tom Sawyer.”
“It’s in the middle of all that stuff,” Iverson said. “It sort of prefigures so much of 20th-century music, whether it’s angular modernism or prog rock,” Iverson explained. “Even the harmonic colors of Miles Davis’s ‘Kind of Blue’ can be found in the ‘Rite.’ ”
One thing the trio decided they didn’t want to do was to create a jazz version of the piece, such as the 1971 “Rite of Spring” album by jazz flutist Hubert Laws, in which “they sort of play a few themes and then honk out on them,” said Iverson. “That’s completely uninteresting to us. Just to say that phrase ‘jazz version of the “Rite of Spring” ’ immediately puts me to sleep.”
Instead, he said, “we decided, essentially, to just play it down. Just play the piece.” They constructed their arrangement in stages, with King and Anderson putting together their parts first, leaving Iverson to “catch what I can of what’s left” in the score. (An exception is the score’s famously colorful prelude, the arrangement of which Iverson called “a little bit of a secret.”)
The point was neither to capture every note in the original nor to use the piece as a jumping-off point for improvisation. “We have, a decade into being a working band, our own language, our own folklore. And we wanted to put Stravinsky’s piece through that folklore.”
But what is a band’s “folklore?” Think of it as a rhythmic feel, one that subtly but unmistakably stamps an ensemble’s approach as its own. Iverson elucidated the idea with reference to the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra playing Strauss waltzes, perhaps the quintessential Viennese music.
“Anyone who loves that music can tell you that certain conductors, with the Philharmonic, get that certain thing,” he said. “They’re not changing any of the notes. But the rhythmic folklore — they pride themselves on having their own local accent for that local music. So what we have as a rhythmic unit — we definitely looked to infuse the ‘Rite’ with whatever magic we have in that department.”
“On Sacred Ground” premiered at Duke in March 2011, and that gig was pretty stressful, Iverson said. He estimates the group has played it 20 or 30 times. “I wouldn’t say now that it’s a walk in the park, but you do it enough, you can lay back a little more. What’s good about it is that we’re relaxing into it, breathing more, and having just a shade more of a casual attitude toward it, which is some of the magic of jazz.”
The Town of Lexington is celebrating its 300th birthday this year, and among the ways it’s marking the occasion is a new piece by Michael Gandolfi, a prominent Boston composer and the chairman of New England Conservatory’s composition department. The Lexington Symphony will premiere “Fortune, Fate, and the Fool” on a Saturday program that includes Korngold and Beethoven.
The piece has an interesting prehistory. It is one of a flurry of new works that the composer has written over the last year. To keep the composing process fresh, Gandolfi chose a different formal construct for each, he recently e-mailed. He initially envisaged “Fortune, Fate, and the Fool” as a ballet score, with a narrative shape to it. (The ballet idea was later dropped, but the episodic structure remained.)
Seeking inspiration for a story, he came by chance on the tarot deck. He mentioned it to Cambridge writer Dana Bonstrom, who referred him to Italo Calvino’s novel “The Castle of Crossed Destinies,” in which a group of travelers tell tales by means of tarot cards. According to Bonstrom’s program note, Gandolfi’s piece is based loosely on Calvino’s book.
The commission itself has a story. The Lexington Symphony reached out to local donors, and those who contributed had their names inscribed in the title page of the original score, which will reside in the town’s Cary Library.