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Answering Questions about Charles Ives

IVES photo by Halley Erskine, MSS 14, The Charles Ives Papers in the Irving S. Gilmore Music Library of Yale UniversitySM.jpg"The Unanswered Question," a chamber orchestra composition, framed the "Charles Ives: A Life in Music" opening concert November 3, 2011, in the Strathmore and PostClassical Ensemble series of programs entitled The Ives Project. The three-day Project as conceived by Joseph Horowitz, PostClassical Ensemble artistic director, offered a master class with Ives specialist, pianist Jeremy Denk; panel and lectures discussions illustrated by live piano music and rare recordings of Ives playing and singing his original work; and three nights of concerts culminating in the intimate Music Room of the Strathmore Mansion with the JACK Quartet mixing contemporary composers and Ives. The Dresser was pleased to attend the opening concert and the panel discussion "Ives Plays Ives" that featured Denk and Horowitz with a surprise appearance of founding PostClassical music director Angel Gil-Ordóñez. PCE Apr 2011 - StrathmoreSm.jpg

From these panelists, the Dresser gathered these words and phrases to define the musical predilections of Ives: fixed on textures and tempos, obsessed with improvisation and revision, love of fragments and unfinished music, liking massive chords and complex sonorities, inspired by literature (e.g. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau), dealing with subliminal music. The Dresser believes the reference to subliminal music is wrapped up with the term sonic exuvation, an expression Nicolas Slonimsky, an early interpreter of Ives, used to describe how Ives overlays a tranquil passage of music with a temporary outburst of sound that may be dissonant and unexpected. Ives used this technique in "The Unanswered Question."

What continues to surprise audiences about "The Unanswered Question" is the separation of the four flutes and trumpet from the orchestra on stage, which plays a lyrical passage. In the Strathmore concert hall and in keeping with what Ives intended, the flutes played their shrill lines from the balcony positioned close to the orchestra while the trumpet, adding another layer of dissonance, played from a balcony at the back of the auditorium. A possible interpretation of the instrument separation is the voice of nature in the lyric lines of the instruments on stage, the questioning voices of mankind in the flutes, and the voice of God in the trumpet. Ives called this work a "cosmic drama."

To the Dresser's mind, the point of the Project was to answer as many questions as possible about Charles Ives (1874-1954), a composer whose work speaks to contemporary classical music, but was under appreciated in its time and still is. Before the Dresser loses sight of this comparison, Ives to classical music seems to beg comparison with Gertrude Stein to literature. Both born in the Northeast United Sates in 1874 and schooled in New England (she studied with Harvard professors and he with Yale), they each broke significant ground with experimentation that combined elements of high and low art and each were marginalized by their critics. Both had to self promote but both have come into the 21st century as major influencers on 20th century and contemporary experimental artists. Undoubtedly, Stein was better at getting the public to pay attention to her, though what she got was notoriety and not appreciation. Joseph Horowitz, inspired by a letter written by the composer's daughter Edith Ives, realized that it was important to present "Ives the man and Ives the composer," which Horowitz accomplished by putting actors on stage during his Ives Project. During the "Life in Music" concert, actors Carolyn Goetzer and Floyd King both narrated and assumed the voices of the composer and his beloved wife Harmony Twitchell. The audience heard their voices through these actors--Harmony addressing Charles as "My Dearest Anything-Everything" and Charles calling her his "Best Beloved."

Ives wrote over 175 songs and so the introductory Project concert offered songs that were both accessible and challenging. Some of the songs sport words by the composer and seem like compositions typical of the early American musical except the music often follows a complicated rhythmic pattern or some other quirkiness. For example is his text to "The Circus Band," which seems to offer contemporary turns of phrase in the last two lines.


THE CIRCUS BAND (1894)

All summer long, we boys
Dreamed 'bout big circus joys!
Down Main Street, comes the band,

Oh! Ain't it a grand and glorious noise!


Horses are prancing, knights advancing,
Helmets gleaming, pennants streaming,

Cleopatra's on her throne! 

That golden hair is all her own. 


Where is the lady all in pink? 

Last year she waved to me I think, 

Can she have died? Can that rot! 

She is passing but she sees me not.


With the confident piano accompaniment of Jeremy Denk, Baritone William Sharp was fun to hear and watch as he gave musical and dramatic interpretation to such songs as "The Circus Band" and "Memories," a composition that includes whistling and quickly delivered and repeated tongue-twisting words as "expectancy and ecstasy." Included in these accessible songs was "Feldeinsamkeit," (1897) a rather Romantically-inspired song with exuberant arpeggios where the young Ives was trying to best Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) who also wrote a song of this title based on the words of Herman Almers. The programming included the Brahms version (1878) allowing the Strathmore audience to compare the two compositions. The Dresser was surprised at how conservative the Brahms song sounded relative to the free flowing emotionality of the Ives version. However, the Dresser assumes that the difference in their ages (Brahms was 45 to Ives' 26 years) at the time of composing these songs played heavily into their respective approaches.

Certainly Ives moved in and out of Romantic influence and evolved with a much more complicated musical palette in his later compositions. In the second half of the "Life in Music" concert, William Sharp sang five songs with orchestral accompaniment orchestrated by John Adams, the renown contemporary opera composer (e.g. Nixon in China, Doctor Atomic) who wrote "My Father Knew Charles Ives," a tribute to the influence the work of Ives had on Adams. What was interesting about the five challenging-to-hear songs--"Thoreau" (1915), "At the River" (1916), "Down East" (1919), "Cradle Song" (1919), and "Serenity" (1919) --was the connection to popular religious songs. In "Down East," one hears strains of "Nearer They God to Me" while "At the River" and "Serenity" interpret respectively "Shall We Gather at the River" and the Protestant hymn drawn from John Greenleaf Whittier's poem "The Brewing of Soma."

In addition to the songs, "Majority" (1921) brought on stage the Georgetown University Concert Choir along with its director, Professor Frederick Binkholder and a pianist playing a baby grand located behind the immense concert grand that Denk played. To add to the uniqueness of this choral piece that made the Dresser think of intergalactic space travel (think sci-fi film soundtrack), the pianist played a series of tone clusters. At first the Dresser thought the pianist was suddenly switching from fingers to elbows, but when the Dresser got into position to see across the crowded stage, she realized the pianist was using her forearm to make this jarring sound. The Dresser also admires the strength of the composer's words in this text, which shows his democratic and Transcendental view of the world.

MAJORITY (1921)

The Masses! The Masses!
The Masses have toiled, 

Behold the works of the World! 

The Masses are thinking, 

Whence comes the thought of the World! 

The Masses are singing, 

Whence comes the Art of the World! 

The Masses are yearning, 

Whence comes the hope of the World! 

The Masses are dreaming, 

Whence comes the visions of God!
God's in His Heaven, 

All will be well with the World!


The balance of the program was instrumental pieces that included: "In the Inn," "The Housatonic at Stockbridge," "Largo Cantabile," "Over the Pavements," "General Booth Enters into Heaven," and "The Alcotts" (from the Concord Piano Sonata). What's always remarkable about Ives is his variety of sound. The Dresser while engaged in hearing all the concert selections, particularly enjoyed "Over the Pavements" for its rhythmic richness and "The Alcotts" for the virtuosity of Jeremy Denk's performance of this sweet lyric composition. Denk Pizza 2Small.jpgIt was also a great pleasure to hear once again "The Unanswered Question" in its entirety as the closing piece. The Dresser looks forward to hearing more Ives and better understanding the music of those like John Adams touched by the extraordinary range of Charles Ives.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on November 9, 2011 12:42 PM.

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