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 keep talking about classical composers that might feel off in a series devoted to American popular music, but Charles Ives’ music fits into the popular American musical tradition with only a little friction. It’s his spirit of his approach to music, more than the music itself, that makes that possible. While capable of producing delicate, harmonious compositions, he favored complexity and experimentation, 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 musician who Richard Crawford evocatively described as a “Yankee tinker” in An Introduction to American Music. Crawford noted experiments by George Ives like 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 (see?); 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 about music, 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.’”
The idea of elevating, for lack of a better word, the soul of the music over technical perfection, or close, clean adherence to the prescribed pitch of the notes is only part of it – and, specifically, the part that ties in with rock, a musical form decidedly founded on simplicity and (my personal preference) amateur enthusiasm. That notion goes some distance toward convincing me that Ives would have found his own value in rock ‘n’ roll, or some other manifestation of American popular music. In fact, he probably would have incorporated sounds and motifs from the songs of today into his classical compositions - because that’s precisely what he did with the popular songs of his own era. 

The quote that tops this post comes 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’s keyboard with his fists. As with the man in the choir with the…non-traditional voice, George placed less emphasis on how his son produced sound and music than on, first, enthusiasm, then seeking out new avenues for expressing it. George died fairly young – when Charles was away at college, in fact, having Yale’s faculty (this guy; ooh, and he gets second billing, e.g. "best remembered as") squeeze formalism around the experimental sense and knowledge Charles learned from George – and, by all accounts, the younger Ives never stopped mourning the loss.

Nothing feels quite so bold about Charles Ives as the fact that he composed nearly all his major works behind closed doors, and in the spare hours he had left after establishing a very successful insurance company. 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 some minor compositions for the churches he played for, but he dropped his opus, 114 Songs, on a largely unsuspecting world in 1922. Unlike, say, Frank Ocean’s Blond, that world didn’t even know it wanted Ives’ songs; he self-published 114 Songs, and it took years before his work achieved any meaningful kind of public acclaim. It actually came out in the nick of time: Ives drove himself to exhaustion on multiple occasions and, by 1927, he 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 that kept coming up, 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 there as well. At any rate, it’s a tricky little song an, once you start pulling it apart, you start to notice just how baroque (in the sense of excess) that song is.

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 by the end of the song – and, to own up to my naivete a little, I simply didn’t know that a classical composer of any kind was playing around with classical forms this much before the early 1920s. It’s messy enough to touch on disorienting, and it’s fair to ask, who wants to listen to that? My answer: I’m not sure, but I’m just excited as all hell that someone tried it. Ives did that, and while only moonlighting as a composer. That’s badass. No other word for it.

For all that, when I pull up and play any part of Ives’ considerable body of work at random, I still hear…just classical music. Even if I can tell each song from any other one, my brain somehow flattens out the (ironically) vastly expanded range of instruments until I hear it as generic, undifferentiated sound that I don't hear so much as contextualize as “classical music.” (As in, “I don’t know, 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 as I listened to Ives, ever so closely, ear attuned for nuance…until my ear drifts off too. It took four hours of listening for the first song by Ives to actually catch my ear, “Central Park in the Dark.” It opens almost inaudibly, still; then the music builds until around the song’s fourth minute when the tune first brightens, then tangles and (remember dissonances) clashes. And then it’s still again. Something about that clear narrative – I think walking past the Tavern on the Green on a shakin' night - takes the music out of that "classical music" frame and translates it into something I could 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, and the (happier) return back to homes and community.

Every time I acknowledge selling any subject short, little doubts about what I’m doing with these posts sneaks in. That definitely applies with Charles Ives, a figure who seems big enough to shoulder a master’s thesis or three. As a classical composer, though, he’s not central to a round-up of “popular music,” but a couple things about the man and his life feel very much like they run through veins at least parallel to “popular.” His only musical connection to popular music, however, comes with his serial borrowing of popular parlor tunes and ballads for compositions that he would redraft as classical; then again, against that, his experimental side pulls him back out.

Ives’ thorough uniqueness, which feels a little like 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. What leads someone to compose, or write any music at all, but to give the world something it hasn’t heard yet? (Or glamor/groupies; then again, Ives enjoyed one, long happy marriage.) Nothing I’ve read leaves the impression that he set out to up-end the existing musical order; his work seemed to grow from trying to find as much space within existing forms as humanly possible.

Everything that compelled me to include Charles Ives in this series resides somewhere within those last two paragraphs. If anything brought about each successive innovation in the history of popular music, it started with an open mind, the idea that there was no reason something couldn’t – or, in particular context of a lot of today's popular music, shouldn’t – be done. Ives fell mainly into the former (e.g. “couldn’t”) camp, but the spirit of the original drove him. In isolation, too, and without public acclaim or encouragement to spur him on. And that’s something I find absolutely incredible.

Also, 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. Like I said, I really struggle with classical music. (And, to pick up something way up above, I seriously key on lyrics in music, like to the point where I tune out a lot of other things. Narrative matters a lot to me, apparently.)

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