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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…

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