Tag Archives: Charles Ives

Once again, our definitions are vague.  These labels that we’re using are becoming less and less useful.  It appears that the term Totalism can be identified by two (or more) tempos going on at the same time, both of which are audible.  I can’t help but think of Ives and wonder if, by that definition, his music would be accepted as Totalism.  While listening to some samples, I ran across a lot of garbage, dredging up the bad memories of Robert Ashley’s Perfect Lives.  One especially awful piece is Mikel Rouse’s Dennis Cleveland, billed as a “Talk Show Opera.”  The music is incredibly cheesy and the previews on YouTube are even worse.  I get that most talk shows are “in the box,” but this piece fails to instill anything except disdain for composers who want to be innovative and end up with a fifteen-year build up of crap!

Another sad excuse for a musical composition is Michael Gordon’s Four Kings Fight Five.  It’s as though Gordon took all of the cheesy electronica of the 1980s and crammed it together into one ridiculous episode.

And then I ran across a gem.  I enjoy piano music, for the most part.  I rarely find a piece of music these days that I’m listening to for the first time where I get a reaction different than “wow, that’s utter crap” or “that’s half decent.”  With Larry Polansky’s Lonesome Road, I was completely blown away.  I haven’t responded to positively to a first listen of a piano work since I first heard Ives’s “Concord” Sonata a decade ago!  Perhaps this reaction is relative to the previous drivel I had subjected my ears to, but Polansky’s writing is wrought with imagery and emotion and is easy on the ears, although atonal at times.  A few of the movements walk a fine line of cliche, but Polansky always avoids the pitfalls that his colleagues have fallen into, and the result is quite appealing.

And then we come to Postmodernism: “Postmodernism describes a range of conceptual frameworks and ideologies that are defined in opposition to those commonly associated with ideologies of modernity and modernist notions of knowledge and science, such as, materialismrealismpositivismformalismstructuralismdogmatism andreductionism.” [1]  That’s about as vague and all-encompassing of a definition as I could imagine.  Great.  So what does it mean?  It’s as though a bunch of artwork has been made in which no one can quite label, so it’s all one “post-modern” movement.

From the handful of examples I’ve listened to, nothing stands out as terribly inspiring, however I must commend the composers for writing actual music.  William Bolcom’s Songs of Innocence and Experience is especially successful in its orchestration!  Thinking back on it, I haven’t heard the use of a full orchestra this well done since we were discussing Ives.  The addition of electric guitar as well as harmonica were lost on me a little, but the transitions are smooth and the musical intent flows nicely.

Lukas Foss’s Time Cycle is an interesting selection.  Composed in 1960, Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic performed this work twice in one night on the eve of its world premiere. [2]  Again, the orchestration is masterful!  Due to the time period, it’s surprising this work wasn’t grouped into some other category, like, perhaps, neoromanticism… but George Rochberg’s music was also referred to as neoromantic postmodernism.[3]

And so once again, our labels are unable to contain this music.  What the future holds for music is difficult to predict, but I am certain we will continue to attempt to label everything as it comes out, but we will not be able to contain the success or the failures of that music under any one identity.


When I was a teenager, visiting some relatives in upstate New York, we decided to go to the opera.  Now, upstate New York does not have many opera houses to choose from – I think we ended up about 45 minutes to get to what I now realize was the Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown. My parents didn’t tell me anything about the opera we were going to see, and, having grown up on Mozart, Puccini, and Verdi, I was expecting to see something I knew.  Then the overture started…

Like something out of a strange dream, The Mother of Us All is awkward but memorable and insanely American.  It has been ten years (maybe more) since I saw the performance at Glimmerglass and I have chosen to not go out of my way to hear the opera by Virgil Thomson again… until this evening.  And it wasn’t any more enjoyable than it was the first time, even with a much more thorough understanding of what music is and can be.  The music is dry and uber-patriotic, complete with militaristic snare drum and quasi-minimal vocals.  I’m still not surprised it took me over ten years to run into this work again – I struggle to find any real substance within this music.

I was surprised, however, about Roy Harris’s Symphony No. 3, a piece previously unfamiliar to me.  Symphony may be a poor label for the work as it fails to live up to the grandiose nature the symphonic tradition that had been developing for the past two hundred years, however the work has nice layers of color and line and its overall affect is rather intriguing.  There is an American optimism in this music that I’ve only really heard in works by Aaron Copland and it was interesting to hear this sound, although notably different, created by the pen of a different composer.

In many ways, listening to these two works, it feels as though the floor fell out from beneath the American composer’s feet – the music feels much more introverted and significantly less experimental.  The stock market crash in 1929 is distinctly audible when comparing American music from the 1920s and the 1930s.

I have begun reading Kyle Gann’s American Music in the Twentieth Century and just completed the first chapter, “Forefathers”.  Although many names are tossed about throughout the chapter, the primary focus is on Charles Ives, Carl Ruggles, and Charles T. Griffes (considered merely a ‘contemporary’ to the first two).  Two major things jumped out at me about these composers:

  1. All three composers are from the New England area (CT, MA, and NY, respectively).
  2. Neither Ives nor Ruggles made their primary income from musical composition, and it sounds like Griffes struggled to make a reasonable income out of it.

It is remarkable how geographically concentrated “early” American music was.  Even with the fledgling country consisting of colonies along the East coast, American music seems to be largely defined by those composers within the New England Region, specifically New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York with schools such as Yale, New England Conservatory, and Harvard being frequently mentioned and the orchestras of Boston and New York leading the way in premieres.  The only real exception to this geographic focus seems to be Louis Moreau Gottschalk, who was born in New Orleans, but much of his music was heavily criticized by the New England elitists.

Having listened to much of Ives in the past as well as a little Ruggles, this music no longer sounds new to me.  I think back to the first time I heard “Three Places in New England” and I recall thinking about how something like this work even gets thought of.  Hearing the stories of the musical experiments by George Ives (Charles’s father), where he, supposedly, would have two bands play on opposite sides of a space at two different tempos with different pieces of music, I can see how Charles was used to this “tonality.”  Putting this idea into the context of the avant garde and experimentalism, the idea of placing two (three or more?) layers of the same piece (or different pieces), the same tune (or different tunes), at the same tempo (or at different tempos), in the same key (or in different keys), at the same time is the epitome of what experimentation is.  I love the idea of having two bands march past each other playing different tunes; what surprised me the most is that this sound is familiar.  We’ve all been to those parades where we can still hear the band that just past and the next one is approaching, or sitting in a concert hall before a performance where the musicians are warming up (practicing their part?) on stage before the tuning note (or during!).  As atonal and “modern” as the sounds coming from an orchestral work of Charles Ives are, they’re amazingly reminiscent of those moments in our lives when we experience the cacophony of sound produced by two or more players playing two different things at the same time.

The music of Carl Ruggles inspires me less.  I hear atonality as an attempt to specifically avoid tradition, whereas with Ives I hear atonality more as the next step in the evolution of tradition.  Having just listened to “Sun-Treader”, I am reminded of the opening of some 1930s horror film – or even the background to a particularly creepy episode of the X-Files.  I can’t place my finger on it, but this music, much more so than Ives or the Varese that I’ve heard, reminds me of movie music more than performance material.  Perhaps with more listening I might be able to come up with a more concrete ideas as to why…