Monday, January 21, 2008

"100 Greats" #069: Charles Ives, The Holidays Symphony

Around 1985, after a crisis of conscience and career on a bridge in Nova Scotia, I had gone back to school at the University of Massachusetts/Boston, a concrete canyon of a campus at the south end of the Red Line, at the opposite end of which Dharmonia and I lived in Cambridge’s Porter Square. Given our poverty—voluntary, because either one of us could have gone and gotten a soul-killing straight job, and yet we both persisted in trying to make it work as free-lance musicians and music teachers—UMass Boston was my only option: tuition was $79 a semester and they had a department granting an undergraduate music degree. I met some great teachers there, including my mentor Bob Prins, who first suggested graduate school, and then Indiana University, in that order; Joe Dyer, whose gentleness and mild librarian’s manner concealed a ferocious intellect and first-rate scholarship; Dianthe Myers-Spencer, an excellent jazz pedagogue; Robert Peatty, a crewcut ex-Marine, formerly stationed in Japan, teaching East Asian history and now, I realize, perhaps the first Buddhist I’d ever met; and I also met some nimrods.

I didn’t really know where an undergraduate music degree was going to take me—all I knew was that it was the closest disciplinary concentration to being a freelance musician that was available. I certainly wasn’t thinking in an informed fashion about where I’d end up, or the long, complex, and infinitely rewarding journey that Dharmonia and I would take to get there. But I was starting to discover the places and environments within academia that felt workable and comfortable. After the days of my depressed winter at the University of Chicago, where I cut classes to read and sleep in the library, it was a wonderful and very welcome change to slog up to the top floor of the UMass university library, a reasonably well-stocked collection with coincidentally amazing views of Boston Harbor, and, on breaks between classes or before schlepping back to the Harbor Campus subway stop, to wander the aisles of the stacks. It was there, literally just by trailing my finger along the titles in the ML410s (biographies and studies of individual composers), that I stumbled across David Wooldridge’s From the Steeples and Mountains, a rather impressionistic and subjective study of Charles Ives. I would subsequently come to see that book rather differently, but at the time it moved me inexpressibly, because it captured the ways in which Ives’s compositional philosophy—contradictory, judgmental, ideological, but at the same time open, deeply compassionate, inclusive, and heart-on-the-sleeve honest—was a reflection of who he was as a person: a product of his background, terrain, historical moment, and personal experience.

Ives’s music expresses, more clearly than any book or (certainly) than he was capable in his own convoluted writing, precisely who he was, warts and all. He was a Yankee tinkerer and a secret lover of Dvorak and Debussy; a straitlaced Victorian who ranted about the “long-haired nancy-boys” and “pansies” that he saw the late Romantics and (especially) the Impressionists to be, but who also (secretly) paid the legal and bond costs to get Henry Cowell out of jail after he was imprisoned on a criminally unjust morals charge; a devotee of Thoreau and Emerson who—realizing that writing the music he wanted to write would preclude ever making a living as a professional musician—made himself a millionaire in New York insurance company, virtually inventing the concept of life insurance (and, for that matter, worker’s compensation) at the same time; a man who prized “manliness” and “vigor” in music and in life but for whose last four decades was virtually an invalid after a series of massive heart attacks, and who would break down in tears after visits by younger composers who he admired but who couldn’t get performances or even readings of their own works. He was an infinitely brave, infinitely contradictory man—both in his Memos (autobiographical and philosophical jottings and scribblings which are often hilarious and apposite but equally often contradictory and incoherent) and in his personal conversation—who said “I’ve never written anything I couldn’t hear” but hated recording his own music; a man who idolized his Civil War bandmaster father to the extent of turning George E. Ives into a larger-than-life myth and denying the influence of his college composition teachers.

To quote his disciple Cowell, Ives wanted to “live in the whole world of music.” Raised as piano accompanist for folk fiddlers, as church organist and snare-drummer in his father’s bands, trained by George in the European skills of harmony, theory, and counterpoint, intimately familiar with the German Romantic tradition and proud of his allegiance to it, he simultaneously concealed his debt to Debussy and Wagner, two composers who had an enormous impact upon him but whose public personae he felt obligated, as a staunch small-town Connecticut Victorian, to repudiate. He himself had the public persona, late in his life after the heart attacks had almost killed him and had ended his active period of composition, but was kept alive by the careful calm ministrations of his wonderfully-named former nurse and current spouse Harmony Twitchell, of the white-bearded cranky old Yankee (there’s a wonderful photo of him, age 70, glaring fiercely into the camera while clutching a canoe paddle, which comfortingly down-state prop had been suggested by the photographer).

But that was all a mask: a mask for the gentle, sensitive, idealistic, courageous, endlessly creative man that he was. Ives never resolved the conflict between his personal ethos of Victorian morality, the mask of old-Yankee idiosyncrasy that was imposed upon him by his younger ‘rediscoverers’, who desperately wanted to find in him a rough-hewn genius who would finally, after centuries of Europhilia, give them their “American Beethoven,” and his prototypically 20th-century modernism. In fact, it was that fruitful conflict—the rough edges of his personality and artistic identity—that made his personality impossibly contradictory and his music astonishingly innovative. He never resolved that conflict in his personal worldview—in fact I think it’s that conflict which damned near killed him with a series of heart attacks—but at the same time, I think it’s what gives his music its intensity, its courage, and its power. His only peers in the century are Schoenberg and Stravinsky—both of them far more public, far better known, far more influential, the scions of compositional schools, far more extensively feted and idolized, but not a bit more creative than he.

He made C’s at Yale University, but unlike a much more recent “Gentleman’s C” from Yale, whose name I won’t even write in the same essay but whose greed, sociopathy, sense of entitlement, and pure unremitting ego have destroyed as many lives as Charles Ives’s music enriched, Charley earned his low grades honestly—by refusing to write in the way that his (Germanophile late-Romantic) composition teachers wanted him to. Horatio Parker, founder of the Yale composition department and a noted member of the “Boston Classicists” (McDowell, Paine, Griffiths, Parker), has gotten an unfairly bad rap in pop-Ives scholarship, mostly because Charley himself, in the Memos, says such dismissive things about him. But that dismissal had more to do with Charley’s frustrated (and unrealistic) attempt to compare Parker to his father—and it was exacerbated when Charley lost his dad at the age of 20, while he was still at Yale.

Charley tried, briefly, to make it in the world of late-Victorian “respectable” composition: writing a first symphony after Dvorak and a cantata (The Celestial Country) under Parker’s later-repudiated influence, and putting his virtuoso organ chops at the disposal of a succession of Congregational church congregations. But around 1899, he underwent something of an artistic crisis, concluding that the kind of music that he wanted to write, the values he’d learned in Victorian Connecticut, and the lifestyle, economies, and (let’s face it) disreputability of the composer’s associations were inimical to one another, and he went to work in the nascent insurance business—at that time (some different from today!) an industry with relatively high moral goals: e.g., promulgating the idea that a “workingman” could invest a few dollars a week in a life-insurance policy, and thereby assure a minimal living stipend for his family if he should be maimed or killed in one of the notoriously hazardous factories of the day.

It made Charley a millionaire, but it robbed him of the irreplaceable treasure of a lifetime’s worth of time to compose (say, 30 hours per week times 50 weeks per year times the 31 years he worked in business = 46,500 hours), and it meant that he wrote music at night and on weekends and on the commuter train between New York and Connecticut, and piled up the music in his barn and his spare music room. And during his active years of composition, the only people who heard his music were his bachelor-flat roommates, who thought much of it great japes & pranks; his saintly wife Harmony; and the occasional small-eared and tiny-minded New York violinist or flutist who he would pay to come out to Danbury and sight-read haltingly through the manuscripts.

There are two things that happen to a composer who is forced by choice or circumstances to work in this kind of isolation. The first is that she or he has remarkable freedom to hear outside the box of fashionable or “good” compositional technique—to try virtually any sonic idea that occurs, and typically to avoid the closing-down of the ears that academic composition can impose on too young a developing musician (Frank Zappa avoided conservatories like the plague for precisely this reason). But the other impact, the negative one, is that a composer working in isolation typically lacks the feedback from players—or from mentors—that lets them begin to learn the boundaries of the possible, and to recognize that player’s-knowledge might both help him get the effects he wanted, but also elicit the kind of feedback that made sure those effects were scored in sufficiently playable fashion that they could be executed well. Ives never got that latter feedback, until the far-too-late contributions of pianist John Kirkpatrick, who only began working with him years after Ives’s active compositional career had ended.

So he worked at Ives & Myrick during the day, and piled up music in his barn at night and on weekends, and (always anonymously, always generously) used his fortune to subsidize younger composers and their publications (Perspectives in New Music would never have debuted the hundreds of pieces it printed over the years without Ives’s subvention).

Dharmonia and I moved to Bloomington in 1987, not really knowing what we were getting into, scared but intrigued about the possibility of “graduate school” (whatever that was). If we’d known it would take 12 years, we might not have done it at all—but we also would never have met the great Buddhas and comrades-in-arms which the experience was going to provide. By the time we arrived in a hot July, I had already fought my way through the alcoholic incompetence and backhanded sabotage of the two associate deans whose every effort for the balance of the time we were there was aimed at purging the place of just such as we (it’s no coincidence that these two bums hated Tom Binkley and roadblocked him every chance they could get) and had gained admission, through the intervention of my revered teacher David Baker, to the Master’s/Jazz program, and Dharmonia (after a hair-raising audition with Tom, which I’ll let her tell in her own time) to the Early Music program. So we were there, and we weren’t gonna leave—and certainly not at the bidding of cowardly and bitter jumped-up accordion players and music theorists.

That same year I met the Ives scholar Peter B, who though only a few years older than I, was going to be one of my chief mentors, and someone I still look to for advice and as a role model. He’d written probably the best-informed dissertation about Ives, as a student at the University of Chicago, and he had transformed the field of Ives studies, both in adding to the information about the indigenous and specific musical sources tunes in Ives works, and more importantly by demonstrating, in the calmest and most precise way possible, the degree to which despite his own denials Ives had been indebted to the lineage of the 19th century symphonists. It changed how people thought about Ives, allowed scholars to let go of the tired old canard that Ives was a primitive genius “original” (as if that was mandatory to explain his greatness) and in turn the stupid burden of “only when we find our ‘American Beethoven’ will our music measure up”.

That clarity—that Quaker-theology-rooted ability to see and acknowledge what was there, instead of what someone wanted to find there—and the calm and objective acknowledgment of the truth, are some of the greatest gifts he gave me. Peter is one of the bravest scholars I’ve ever met—not least because too many scholars are too cowardly, too opportunistic, too indebted to the power elites who endow buildings and sit on Boards of Regents. He showed me both the moral relevance and the pedagogical validity of being a true public scholar: someone who manifested the high ethics and the commitment to the truth-without-bias which scholarship is supposed to espouse—but which too few scholars, their personal lives inadequate to scrutiny, are prepared to embody.

Peter was.

I remember when Dharmonia and I were invited to his wedding, the first Quaker meeting I perhaps had ever been to. The Quakers are an old, old tradition in North America, and they’ve done a remarkable job of retaining the anti-war, anti-class, “speaking truth to power” strictures of their first immigrant founders (see David Hackett Fischer's wonderful Albion’s Seed for a fascinating exegesis of this intellectual heritage). And I saw that in Peter B: in the calm, the objectivity, and the unflappable and unflinching dedication to principle which he tried to teach me (I was a slow learner but a hard worker). Peter later married a man named Doug, who he’d met in the local Friends Meeting, and that local Meeting was, despite the resistance of the Yearly Meeting (the regional organization that is Quakerism's closest analogue to a diocese or Presbytery), sanctioning the wedding. As I understood the story, the Yearly Meeting had said to the Bloomingtonians, “we can’t sanction this,” and the local Meeting had, calmly and unconfrontively but with remarkable clarity, said “we don’t care; WE are sanctioning it.”

It was held in the upper floor of the local arts center, and run like any other Quaker meeting: there was a brief formal address by community leaders, and then brief statements of intent and commitment from Peter and Doug, and then we sat there. And sat there.

Because that’s what they do, in the Society of Friends, and have done for the past 400 years. There is no hierarchy in the Friends; there is also remarkably little dogma. There is simply a conviction that individuals should be allowed (expected, required) to rule themselves, and to make life decisions based on the dictates of the Spirit moving within them. And that, if the Spirit intends something, it will be revealed. Finally—and most radically and disorientingly, considering in the cacophony of most North American religious denominations—the Friends believe that the way provide room for the Spirit to speak is to sit quietly and listen.

What a remarkable thing: a church service, a community of friends, the celebration of a marriage and a new life together, in which the expectation is simply that all present should sit quietly, reflect, and await the Word. It’s as close as we ever got in North America’s Anglo traditions to the “just sit” dicta of Zen Buddhism, and it’s a remarkable experience and vision of how to be a community.

In the event, it was remarkable: people sat and simply felt (if others were feeling anything like what I was) grateful to be there, to be able to contribute to this celebration by their presence, and joyful about this union. The words that rang in my head all during that time of silence were, curiously enough, a quote from Rastafarian doctrine: Give thanks and praises.

There was a lot of humor, too: when, eventually, individuals began to speak, there were funny and loving tributes to Peter and Doug as individuals, including some ruefully affectionate reminiscences by friends and prior partners. I remember when, in line to inscribe the guestbook commemorating the occasion (a signature which felt like more than just a memento—it felt like a commitment) my great teacher David Baker, a Naptown-born and –bred bebopper of the Old School, who’d gigged with Wes Montgomery and written charts for Eric Dolphy and George Russell, was introduced by Peter to “my new husband, Doug”, and, after they’d turned away, shook his head and said “well, I ain’t used to it, but I’m workin’ with it.”

And there was one moment in which the magnitude and the beauty and the courage of what we were sharing snapped into focus: that moment when a late-middle-aged gentleman in a conservative blue suit stood up to speak. Peter picks up George’s story:

He gave us a hideous yellow glass candy dish that we treasure and leave out on display because we treasured him (he died, alas, more than ten years ago).

Anyway, George stood up, and it became apparent that he was almost completely overcome with emotion—he could barely get the words out. And you realized, at that moment, that this conservative-looking banker-suited gentleman, at that moment, to the Friends’ Meeting which was celebrating Peter and Doug’s wedding, was coming out as a gay man.

He said, stumbling over the words, “I am so grateful to you young men….Because…when I was young…we had to love in secrecy and in silence”. And it brought home both the sadness and injustice of that past history, and the joy and import of what we were all there to do.

And the entire room gasped with tears.

That love, that conviction, and that deeply American internal paradox between what we say we believe in the abstract about “those People,” and what we realize we feel in the flesh-and-blood moment of those we love right now, runs throughout Ives’s music. It’s the sense, as the great Hunter Thompson put it, of the gulf between what we are as a nation and what we could be, if we could “just keep the nation out of the hands of greasy little hustlers.”

There was nothing small about Ives, no “foolish consistency as a hobgoblin of little minds” about his music. In Ives’s music—in the tactile nostalgic beauty of Three Places in New England, the magnificent detailed sonic memory of Central Park in the Dark, the mourning and healing Transcendentalism of From Hanover Square North at the End of a Tragic Day—there is (almost) everything that--at the opening of the “American Century,” with slavery (seemingly) ended, the shadows of our imperialist damnation not yet looming over the horizon, the chance of a New Jerusalem still seeming possible--made us think we could still be great.

Ives believed that: he believed that art could make us bigger, richer, more joyful, more (let’s face it, he was a conservative patriarchal New England Yankee) “manly”—and that art that failed to do that was bad art, and bad for us. He believe that art could heal us. That it could make us great. That art could make us what the Creator had intended us to be.

There’s a beautiful, heart-wrenching story about Ives in Vivian Perlis’s wonderful and loving Charles Ives Remembered collection, late in his life long after he’d ceased composing, and had abandoned the idea of ever completing his planned Universe Symphony, a magnum opus intending to express nothing less than the beauty of the entire creation, to be scored for four orchestras playing from each of four adjacent mountaintops. Harmony tells the story of a beautiful summer afternoon in Danbury, when Charlie was “staring out the window and looking at the mountains, and humming and whistling under his breath. Finally he stopped, and he turned and looked at me with tears in his eyes. I said ‘what on earth is the matter, Charlie?’, and he said ‘The Universe Symphony—it’s all out there, in the fields and mountains. If only I could have done it.’

Whitman said “I am large—I contain multitudes.” Whitman had the courage to acknowledge those multitudes: both divine and earthly love, the beauty of the natural world and of the New York streets and of common people’s conversation and of the boys he desired, the colossal waste of Appomattox and Shiloh, the greatness of Abraham Lincoln and the catastrophic loss of his death, and the possibilities a true democracy might still realize.

There was nothing small about Charlie Ives, and the courage, stamina, and honest internal contradictions with which he struggled to integrate the irreconciliable. There was nothing small about Ives, or Whitman, or Stephen Crane, or Henry Cowell, or about the love, respect, and moral courage that Peter and Doug taught me.

I hope I live up to their example.

Thanks to Peter B for his clarifications of Quaker terminology. 20 years on, he is still (gently, accurately, wisely) helping me correct my errors of fact.

This post is dedicated to my great teachers.

Now playing: Zappa - 04 Black Napkins

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