Monday, March 10, 2008

Bourland has Ives wrong

Roger Bourland repeats a commonplace about Ives, and one that is sorely wrong:

Charles Ives could have been even more formidable had he heard more of his music, especially the music he took chances with.

Ives heard all of his music, as many great composers hear his or her music: as ideal, imagined performances, but also through playing for himself, through scattered tryouts with other musicians, sharing the ears of trusted musicians and loved ones, as well as the occasional performance. Listening to recordings of Ives playing from scores and improvising at the keyboard is listening to an experienced musician translating from his imagination into immediate, physical, sounds, with all the license to play about the score that a composer/performer is allowed; reading the scores and sketches of Ives is an encounter with a musician going profoundly beyond the extemporaneous and negotiating the translation of the wildest musical thoughts into practical performance materials.

Did Ives' music suffer from not being immediately performed by real life musicians in concert halls? While audiences -- and subsequent music history -- may well have suffered from the absence of Ives' music, so much of the music, and especially that in which Ives is "taking chances", represented (and, to be honest, often still represents) such a challenge to musicianship that it is hard to believe that the situation could have been much different without Ives significantly altering, i.e. simplifying, his work to meet contemporary performance practice standards and rehearsal conditions. In his test-runs with New York theatre orchestras, Ives was arguably working with the most fluent and flexible musicians available at that time in the US, and his mature scoring techniques amply reflect this practical experience. Not only is Ives' sense of ensemble balance is especially remarkable for a composer supposedly underexperienced with real performing situations, but one can immediately recognize that Ives' sense of temporal proportions matured considerably, for example from the excessive Second Symphony to the economic Third and the masterful Fourth.

The interpretive problems with Ives' catalogue, the problems which would supposedly have been solved by more performances, are broadly the same as those with any other major art music composer: tempo, balance, expression. Ives did leave a mess of manuscripts, but given his unanticipated and tragically curtailed composing career, one has to consider it our good fortune that he left so many rich ideas, even in partial or ambiguous form, than had he limited himself to leaving a far smaller number of pieces in perfected, clean-copied form. Even then, he did publish a substantial number of pieces in a form that he considered sufficiently finished, and it is clear from the 114 Songs, for example, that Ives recognized that musical works could exist in various degrees of performability -- from the immediately so, to songs that likely never find an ideal performance.

If Roger wants to support his claim -- and them's fightin' words to me, Doc Bourland -- then he's got to identify, concretely, what would have been different in Ives' music had it been more widely performed, and then to make the case that those differences would have been improvements, especially for the works which are more experimental in nature. Until then, we have the examples of works by Ives that are among the most performable and successful in the classical repertoire, including some works that were playable from the get-go (from The Unanswered Question to the extraordinary Second Orchestral Set) to works that we are still learning how to play (from the Concord Sonata to the Fourth Symphony).

We are still learning how to play (and to hear!) The Art of the Fugue and the Grosse Fuge, works which seriously tested the musical skills commonly available in their times as well as now, and we do not find them any less formidable for that fact. In fact, it is precisely the characteristic that these works share with much of Ives -- the unwillingness to accept the state of affairs as is, and the openness to a state of affairs that might be -- that continues to keep this music exciting, enriching, and, dare I say, still worth renewing our acquaintance.


kraig grady said...

There is a story about the premiere of the fourth (?) symphony. Ives missed it cause he ran across an old friend on the street and they went into a restaurant and lost track of time. Someone asked him about it later and his response was "I already know what it sounds like!

Roger said...

I guess I'm talking about all the odd ball chamber pieces he did - you know, the Schuller collection, it just seemed like they all were raw and in need of revisiting.

I know Charlie had the money to afford hearing all his music, but I have always been under the impression that he did NOT hear a lot of this music. Now, I'm not talking about the Symphonies, I'm just talking about the odd ball chamber pieces. Not the violin sonatas or the piano sonatas, or stuff he could play.

My grandfather knew him well. Called him Charlie Ives and only knew him "as a damned good insurance man." Didn't know he was a musician.

But, Daniel, I'm gonna stick to my premise that composers need to hear their music to grow. And if you wanna fight on that count, put up your dukes dude!