There is in Ives' music a man who holds sacred all the values of the Union, and at the same time a man who wants to subvert it all.
By Mark Fenton
Published June 07, 2007
It's kind of weird, reviewing an album that was recorded in 1974 (Chandos Records Ltd, Jose Serebrier and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, with the John Alldis Choir CHAN 8397) and then deleted as soon as it was transferred to CD, and probably isn't even available now. But then I've directed people to weirder things.
This particular recording was the third CD I owned (I pulled it out of a delete bin in Calgary for $3.99 in 1989). The first two were Frank Zappa's Cruisin' with Reuben and the Jets, and Kate Bush's The Sensual World.
I know this only because it was with these three that I moved to Toronto in 1990 and I had only a CD player with me, and I'll admit these felt like odd choices for a library of three albums.
It doesn't get recorded that often, for all that it's generally regarded as the high water mark of American orchestral music. In fact, this may be the only recording other than a '60s performance by Leopold Stokowski, which I personally find a bit overly reverent. (Ives is nothing, after all, if not irreverent).
Part of the problem is the literally hundreds of people you need to perform it. Ives wrote it between 1910 and 1916, (remind yourself of this as you listen and wonder if time travel is really possible) and never for a second believed he'd get a performance, let alone recordings, let alone people listening to it on their iPods.
It's virtually impossible to get a recording studio big enough, and as you never have everyone together it makes sense to schedule bits of it with only the musicians needed, which according to the liner notes was a logistical nightmare.
They discovered at one point that the sixth trumpet player is only needed for one bar, and only one note at that. There are also several pianists (including a quarter-tone piano, which someone must have to build!) and a small army of percussionists.
It strikes me that overdubbing could be a way to go here, but classical music people tend to be purists.
I love how the dozens of people who constitute the choir only sing for about 30 second in the first movement and then about the same again near the end. I always laugh when they come back at the end just for the thought of them all standing there for 99 percent of the performance, getting all dressed up in eveningwear for that. I can hear Ives laughing his ass off at it too.
The second movement is maybe the signature Ives moment. Ives, of course, invented sampling back in the 1890s, about a century before DJs were pushing turntables in the South Bronx. He had to write it all out, every kind of contemporary pop song, field holler, hymn tune.
Mashed, speeded up slowed down, set side by side atonally and in polyrhythms. The whole thing sounds like every ghetto blaster in New York playing simultaneously as airplanes explode against buildings.
One of the more amusing details is the sort of drunken lounge piano that's being played before all hell breaks loose. You can't hear it during through all the noise, but dramatically it must be effective to see him going at it, oblivious to what the rest of the orchestra is doing, and when the noise thins out again, he's still playing it just as aimlessly as before.
There is in Ives' music a man who holds sacred all the values of the Union, and at the same time a man who wants to subvert it all. There is a story that when he played organ in church as a boy he would play the tune straight and then supply dissonant bass-lines that completely ignored the tonality of the melody. The congregation was horrified.
His first vivid memory was during the 4th of July when he heard two marching band approaching from opposite directions, and how he loved the smear they made as they passed each other.
Aside: It intrigues me that Ives's wife was named Harmony. You couldn't use that in a novel, it's way too much of a good thing.
When he arrived on the scene, American music didn't exist. There were Protestant hymns, polite piano songs by people like Steven Foster (who he loved and sampled shamelessly), and some forgotten "high-brow" composers making bland music on the models of European Classical Music.
Without Ives there would have been no Aaron Copland quoting American indigenous folk music; no Harry Partch building his own microtonal instruments on his farm and transcribing the speech rhythms and "rap" of hobos he rode the rails with in the 30s (and by extension no Tom Waits); no Conlon Nancarrow punching millions of holes in piano rolls to sound like 20 pianists playing simultaneously; no John Cage putting bolts between piano strings; no Henry Cowell and George Crumb playing inside the piano; no Elvis Presley melding gospel and blues and cheesey white pop music; no Jimi Hendrix turning the Star Spangled Banner into a Napalm attack (in fact, whenever I hear that piece I have an image of the crowd at Woodstock, and amidst the sea of tie-dye and hair there is a clean-cut man of an earlier era, in a business suit, smiling from ear to ear); no Frank Zappa; no Captain Beefheart; no Ornette Coleman; no Sun Ra; no Velvet Underground; no Sonic Youth; no Jandek.
All of these people had Ives. Ives had no one. I'm not saying every last one of them studied Ives or even knew who he was (although most did and if you don't believe Timbaland listens to Ives, ask yourself why you're so sure of that).
I'm just saying that certain artists are a lightning rod for the realities and discontents of their culture, and that if you wait long enough their influence is incalculable.
Ives incidentally worked at an insurance agency all of his adult life. He went to Church every Sunday. He lived through both world wars (although he'd pretty much given up composing by 1916) and thought young men who didn't support the war effort were "pussies," to use his favourite expression of disdain. He was a teetotaler. He thought homosexuals should be put in jail.
I suspect that if he were alive today, he'd have voted for W. both times. Greatness strikes where it pleases.
Kate Bush (Image Credit: Gaffa)
Kate Bush: Not much of an Ives influence to her work, but she's mentioned so here she is. She's a great musician. Better looking too than most of the people mentioned in the review. That's nice.
Frank Zappa: Cruising with Ruben and the Jets (Image Credit: uva.nl)
Album Cover. What's better though is the gatefold, which boasts what I think is Mr. Zappa's high school grad photo. Worth the price of the album for that.
Album Cover: Symphony No. 4 (Image Credit: Classical Notes)
When I initially sent this article to Ryan, I attributed the world premiere to Leonard Bernstein, not Leopold Stokowski, and smugly included this photo of Mr. Bernstein in what appears to be ecstasy.
Leonard Bernstein (Image Credit: leonardbernstein.com)
Ryan, who turns out to be a one-man fact checking department comparable to the New Yorker, informed me that there is no Bernstein recording of this symphony, but there is a Stokowski version from the period.
I was sure he just wasn't looking hard enough. I thought back to when I took the recording out of the Edmonton Public Library's AV section, and listened to it in my parent's basement on a crisp spring day when I should have been out with boys my age playing road hockey.
It would be easy enough to check in this age of visual information, because what I remember most distinctly about it wasn't the performance information, but the particularly messed up cover-art presenting a stone female figure (some reference to the Statue of Liberty?) wrapped in an American flag in the foreground of a muted Andrew Wyeth-like landscape.
(They don't make classical album covers like they used to. For purely historical reasons I lament that I sold an old Richard Wagner LP whose cover-photo depicted the torso of a nubile woman concealing her breasts behind Volkswagen hubcaps, and yes, I agree these are the sorts of images men should look closely at if we're puzzling over why feminists are a bit uptight about male representations of the female body.)
So anyway, it should, I figured, be easy enough to pull this image up and confirm that Ryan was wrong; that the world premiere was by Bernstein.
I was wrong. It doesn't change my opinion of the evaluation of the performance (or my memory of it, this was 25 years ago after all). It makes sense, though, and I like that I've now erased an erroneous strike against Leonard Bernstein.
I recently listened again to Bernstein's recording of the Ives 2nd and 3rd Symphonies, not having heard them for years, and these are inspired and stellar, with that old analogue warm. Seek them out if you can.
DJ Kool Herc (Image Credit: Jamaican Pride)
DJ Kool Herc: I haven't heard anything by him, but I'm told he invented turntable beats in the Bronx in 1973. Pretty incredible, really - like being the guy who figured out 12 bar blues, or Sonata Allegro form or something. You'd expect it would have been easier to find a photo on the internet. Maybe there's a statue somewhere.
Stephen Foster (Image Credit: Wikipedia)
Stephen Foster: They're still sampling Camptown Races on Club Mixes, which I'd like him to have lived another 150 years to be able to hear. The Byrds did Oh Susanna. I watched the opening ceremonies of the Kentucky Derby last year and the crowd sings his Old Kentucky Home as a kind of anthem (Ives beats the crap out of this tune in the scherzo of his Piano Trio, which you HAVE to own).
I listened closely to see what they were going to do with "Oh the sun shines bright on my old Kentucky home/It's summer, the darkies are gay." All they did, which I think is kind of lame and doesn't really acknowledge the racist legacy and made me cringe, is sing "It's summer, the people are gay."
Really, though, the line is probably unsalvagable for a whole host of historical/political reasons.
Aaron Copland (Image Credit: PBS)
Aaron Copland: I know I'm supposed to like that Stravinsky influenced/Nadja Boulanger school stuff he did in the '20s, but honestly I prefer the kitsch populist stuff like Appalachian Spring and Billy the Kid. They sound like Western movie soundtracks, and you can almost feel yourself spitting out a wad of chewing tobacco and squinting into a Technicolor sunset as you listen.
Harry Partch's Bamboo Marimba (Image Credit: Newband)
Harry Partch: Here is some guy playing Harry Partch's Bamboo Marimba (aka The Boo). Be prepared: when you decide you want to write for a 43 tone scale, you're up against making your own instruments.
Tom Waits (Image Credit: Starpulse)
Tom Waits: Charles Ives and Tom Waits both liked to make music that emulates a drunk guy singing along to a Salvation Army band. If you don't believe me download the Ives First Quartet onto your iPod, and follow it with Waits's "Lucky Day" off of The Black Rider. Great listening for that lonely Christmas we're all going to have sooner or later.
Conlon Nancarrow (Image Credit: Otherminds)
Conlon Nancarrow: Frank Zappa thought he was a genius, but I've never really 'got' this guy. Once upon a time there were there were these things called Player Pianos where you could buy rolls with holes punched in them and the piano would automatically play the popular songs of the day. People would walk by your house and think you were sophisticated because someone in there had had piano lessons.
Nancarrow kind of went nuts with the idea and made his own rolls of aggressive atonal, avant garde music. I'm sure it's great, but it mostly makes me want to hide. Conlan was accused of un-American activities and lived in Mexico for a while.
John Cage (Image Credit: RZ-Berlin)
John Cage: There's a piece of his called As Slow as Possible. You're supposed to play it - you guessed it - really, really slowly. Someone has decided to program an organ to take over 600 years (i.e. about the lifetime of an organ) to play the thing. As I write this, people without a life are standing there waiting for the first chord change. Should be something when it comes.
Henry Cowell (Image Credit: Schirmer)
Henry Cowell: I don't think he invented Tone Clusters, I think Ives did, but Cowell was the first guy to figure out how to write them down. It's a sort of black vertical bar on the staff indicating the top note and the bottom note and you're supposed hit every semi-tone in between, with your forearm or your head or whatever.
It works better on a piano than a clarinet, I'm guessing.
Hugely underrated. Check out a piano piece called The Banshee, which is just out there.
Cowell was a close friend of Ives and idolized him. After Cowell's release from prison on a morals charge Ives urged him to smarten up and get married, which he actually did. I hope that worked out.
George Crumb (Image Credit: georgecrumb.net)
George Crumb: This is Dr. Crumb's head inside a sample from his manuscripts. I know it looks like New Age stuff you just don't want to deal with, but trust me, this is some of the most beautiful music being made by anyone today.
Jimi Hendrix (Image Credit: Musicfanclubs.org)
Jimi Hendrix: It may be hard to make a connection between Jimi Hendrix and Charles Ives just by looking at pictures of them. But trust me, it's there.
Captain Beefheart (Image Credit: Freewebs)
Captain Beefheart: I'd recommend getting Safe as Milk first and living with it for a year as a way of steeling yourself up for Trout Mask Replica. But obviously you're your own person and are just going to go out and buy whatever you want.
Ornette Coleman (Image Credit: NPR)
Ornette Coleman: The plastic Alto is a trademark. I'm guessing it's lighter than metal, easier on the back. There could be a sonic reason to prefer it, too. I'm not a musician.
Sun Ra (Image Credit: Wikipedia)
Sun Ra: That stuff about believing he'd been to Saturn put me off for a while. He's got the chops though. Great bandleader.
The Velvet Underground and Nico (Image Credit: Wikipedia)
The Velvet Underground with Nico in 1966, from left-to-right by row: Lou Reed, Sterling Morrison, John Cale,Nico, Maureen Tuckerphoto by David Horvitz and Adam Dower. The classic lineup, although Nico really looks like she wants to be with a band that spends more time on hygiene.
Sonic Youth (Image Credit: Rolling Stone)
Sonic Youth: Sure, they've done everything and the back catalogue is mind-blowing; but, is it just me, or is there something almost too cool about this band?
Jandek (Image Credit: Tisue.net)
Jandek: You are on a blind date. First impressions are not good. Sartorial choices are unambitious to say the least. Eye contact isn't there. Body language isn't there. Your date makes no effort at conversation or even the minimum protocols of this universally tense situation, fraught with expectations.
Your date doesn't meet you half way. Your date doesn't meet you 1/100th of the way. Metaphorically your date doesn't seem to have gotten out of bed today. Any electricity you generate is instantly absorbed and dispensed with as though your date were a grounding wire into an endless desert.
For certain stretches your date is even catatonic and unresponsive to external stimuli. Just when you wonder if you should call for medical attention, your date indicates consciousness by picking up a fork and moving food into a mouth that's been half-open but largely speechless all evening.
Angry and hurt, you silently curse the friend/agency who set you up. Did the friend/agency honestly think you two would be a good fit? The only comfort is that you don't feel guilty about the fact that ten minutes into the date you stopped trying.
Later you rant to your friends about how you've not only been on the worst date of your life, you've been on the worst date of ANYONE's life. For purely conceptual reasons, you wish you could post a film of it on YouTube.
A strange thing happens. As you're cleaning out your desk one lunch hour, you re-discover the phone number of what you now refer to as The Blind Date From The Outer Limits of Hell.
Without knowing what forces override good sense and free will, you call to set up a second date. Perhaps, you tell yourself, it's pity. Perhaps too the psychologist in you is curious to penetrate a force so impenetrable.
The second date is no different than the first. But you are. You have no expectations. You start to perceive patterns, and these patterns are strangely compelling.
You keep getting together. It's not going anywhere, but you don't care. It's not like you're seeing anyone else right now. Soon you start to look forward to these dates.
In fact soon, you realize, you're meeting almost every day. The patterns, you've decided, are NOT strangely compelling: however ineffable, the patterns are groundbreaking manifestations of genius.
You stop caring that no one else would understand why you do this. You even enjoy the fact that you are not in competition with anyone, really, to be with this person.
You applaud the wisdom of the friend/agency that brought you together, that saw you as the rare person who would appreciate so radical a vision. Your relationship can only be described as passionate.
I've just described the, by stages, resistant, painful, puzzling, rewarding, and ultimately obsessive behaviour of an enthusiast for Jandek's music. I urge you to know this work. Fifty Jandek fans can't be wrong.
Timbaland (Image Credit: Timbaland Music)
Timbaland: Sort of ubiquitous in hip-hop today. Can't quite see Ives in this position, but those were different times. I should have been a producer.
Charles Ives and daughter Edith (Image Credit: Musicweb)
Charles Ives and his daughter Edith, 1924, in a Passport Photo. He'd already stopped writing music by this time, so all those pictures of the wise old man with the white beard don't tell us how he looked when he was putting pen to paper and making great music.
I've always liked this photo. It says to me that raising a family is more important than making music, or for that matter than doing almost anything. It doesn't suggest that we're looking at a giant of modern art.
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