Monday, June 19, 2017

Pop Backstory, Chapter 7: Charles Ives, His Experiments, and My Limits

Like this, only looser, more unconventional.
"It's all right to do that, Charles, if you know what you're doing,"
- George Ives
George Ives was the father of Charles Ives, one of the first purely American composers of classical music, as in born, bred, and trained entirely States-side. I completely appreciate that this series is meant to cover popular music, not classical, but I'd argue Charles Ives’ music fits into the popular American musical tradition and with minimal friction. Ives approached music as a conscious innovator: technical, experimental, but still creative and always thinking about possibilities. He could produce delicate, harmonious compositions, but also threw from left field, playing with aural effects like dissonance (just glance at the notes in the early parts of the first song here), and narrative interpretation.

That yen for innovation came from his father, George, an avid lover of music and, from Richard Crawford's two-word biography in An Introduction to American Music, a "Yankee Tinker." George Ives experimented with any part of music, down even to suspending weights at the end of violin strings in order to stretch quarter notes out of them. A good website I found on Ives relates other experiments:
“George Ives would have his boys sing in one key while he accompanied in another; he built instruments to play quarter-tones; he played his cornet over a pond so Charlie could gauge the effect of space; he set two bands marching around a park blaring different tunes, to see what it sounded like when they approached and passed.”
Another concept, and one with more direct bearing with this project, was George Ives’ sincere appreciation for people who couldn’t “sing,” or pull off anything in the traditional sense. Charles Ives recalled a conversation he was had with his father about a stonemason who sang in the local choir. From Crawford:
“’You can you stand it to hear old John Bell sing?’ Father said, ‘He is a supreme musician.’ The young man (nice and educated) was horrified – ‘Why he sings off the key, the wrong notes and everything – and that horrible, raucous voice – and he bellows out and hits notes no one else does – it’s awful!’ Father said, ‘Watch him closely and reverently, look into his face and hear the music of the ages. Don’t pay too much attention to the sounds – for if you do, you may miss the music.’”
This picks up a theme from my chapter on Louis Moreau Gottschalk: elevating the soul of the music over technical perfection, is only part of it – specifically, the part that ties in with rock, a musical form founded on simplicity, (ample) repetition, and, God bless it, amateur enthusiasm. Ives strikes me as someone who could found things to like in everything, not least the music that came after him, even in popular music. I'm equally sure the infatuation would pass, but I can see him cheering each innovation. Moreover, why wouldn't he have incorporated sounds and motifs from today's songs into new classical compositions. What would Ives have done with jazz, for Christ's sake? I mean, why not? That’s what he did with the popular songs in his day. 

The quote I opened with came out of an anecdote when George Ives once found young Charles pounding the drumming parts from a song he’d heard George’s band play on a piano with his fists. True to form, George placed less emphasis on how his son produced sound than on, first, enthusiasm, then seeking out new avenues for expressing it. George died when Charles was away at college and, by all accounts, the younger Ives never stopped mourning the loss. (Also, let's pause here to reflect on how blessed any person is, who hasn't lost a parent early.)

It just occurred to me that people reading this might assume George Ives was famous. He was not. Charles Ives didn't strike out for fame either; he composed nearly all his major works in the spare hours he had left after establishing a very successful insurance company and behind closed doors. He composed music as early as his college years (“Here’s to Good Old Yale” and “The Bells of Yale,” among others), as well as minor compositions for the churches he played for (like father like son; that should fill in a blank). For all that, his opus, 114 Songs, dropped on a largely unsuspecting world in 1922. Unlike, say, Frank Ocean’s Blonde, that world didn’t even know it wanted Ives’ music; he self-published 114 Songs, and years passed before much of the country even noticed his work. It actually came out in the nick of time. Ives drove himself to exhaustion on multiple occasions and, if you believe in this sort of thing, it could have been a sixth sense that drove him on: just five years after 114 Songs came out, Ives would walked down his stairs to tearfully tell his wife that he’d lost his creative power to compose. He won the Pulitzer Prize 20 years later (1947), just seven years before his death, but he’d already done most of his real work in the world well before.

I won’t dwell on Ives’ music much – which has everything to do with my personal lack of qualifications – but I want to talk up a couple things that the people who have qualifications bring up. To start with one, Ives wrote “Circus Band” (in the mid-1890s) to give musical shape to the thrill of a circus arriving at a small town through the eyes of several different eyewitnesses – a story-telling trick he pulls off by shifting the vocals around different singers. When I listen to a version of “Circus Band” with vocals, it sounds like any other march to me. I can pick up some of the things Crawford flags in his sidebar notes on the song (“sound piano drumming,” abrupt key changes, and the use of strings to “cloud” soften the shift), but only when I listen to the version without vocals; the off-beat rhythmic interjections – noted on the website as “his characteristic rhythmic quirks” – come through more cleanly. It’s a tricky little song, one that feels more baroque (in the sense of excess) as you pull it apart.

Another Ives song, “Putnam’s Camp,” feels like a call-back to his father’s experiment of having bands marching around the same park in opposite directions – or, as Crawford notes, “Ives creates the illusion of two bands, each playing a different piece, marching toward each other.” Inevitably, the busyness of this song goes well past that of “Circus Band” – in this version, it becomes cacophonous mud – and that's hard to digest if you didn't think classical composer played around with classical forms this much before the early 1920s. It’s messy enough that it’s fair to ask, who wants to listen to an orchestral pile-up? To make another point: I’m just excited as all hell that someone tried it

In the end, though, when I pull up and play any part of Ives’ massive body of work at random, I still hear…just classical music. I can tell one song from another, but my brain (sub-consciously?) flattens out the (ironically) expanded range of instruments to where I hear an undifferentiated sound that I understand as “classical music.” (As in, “I dunno, it’s a bunch of strings ‘n’ horns ‘n’ shit.”) They all sound the same to me, basically, and not even several readings of both Crawford’s chapter on Ives and the website linked to above stopped my mind from drifting away. That's even when I listened ever so closely, ear tuned for nuance...3...2...1...[classical music].

The only Ives song to actually catch my ear was “Central Park in the Dark.” It opens almost inaudibly, still. The music creeps in so slowly, almost one string at a time, building in volume and frequency until around the song’s fourth minute when the tune first brightens, then tangles and (remember dissonances) clashes. Everything goes quiet again, only faster on the way out, and, with that, you've just walked from inside Central Park into the streets of New York. Now, I can say I've been there in both senses of the word. Something about that clear narrative – maybe it's just walking past the Tavern on the Green on a shakin' night - that takes the music out of that "classical music" frame and translates it into something I can understand. Ives does the same in another song I stumbled across (through that website), “Decoration Day,” which relates the story of a (somber) town procession on the way out to honor the dead at the local graveyard, followed by a (happier) return back to homes and community.

For a true student, Ives could shoulder a master’s thesis or three. Because he's a classical composer, he’s not central to a round-up of “popular music," but a couple things about the man and his life feel second-, maybe third-degree, ancestral to American “popular.” His only musical connection to popular music comes with his serial re-crafting of popular parlor tunes and ballads for classical composition. His experimental side pulled him back to something most people won't sit through...but how foreign is that really to, say, an over-serious heavy metal guitarist? Ives’ modest iconoclasm renders him fit company for this series, as much as anything else – and, again, probably worthy of diving well deeper than I did here. Nothing I’ve read gives the impression Ives set out to up-end the existing musical order; more than anything else, I get the impression that he just wrote music because he could; his background in experimentation just made the music he wrote unique.

The reasons I gave myself permission to include Charles Ives in this series resides somewhere within that last paragraph. Each successive innovation in the history of popular music started with an open mind, the idea that there was no reason something couldn’t – or, in today's popular music, shouldn’t – be done. Ives fell mainly into the former (e.g. “couldn’t”) camp, but he did seem thrilled at the idea of trying on new sounds. In isolation, too, and without public acclaim or encouragement to spur him on. That, I find more impressive and incredible than anything else.

In the context of everything above, it makes sense to note that the guy wrote the composer’s equivalent of the first “concept album.” (And the songs for it: "Emerson," (pt. 1 and pt. 2); "Hawthorne," "The Alcotts," and, finally, "Thoreau." (And, wow, turns out I listened to the wrong stuff; the fingering contortions Ives puts the pianist through in "Hawthorne."))  Or at least the first American version. I really struggle with classical music, and this particular chapter didn't change that. It did broaden my sense of how music moves forward, though, and that felt worth the detour. (OK, ending the apology tour now.)

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