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Saturday, June 13, 2009
RECLAMATION PROJECT - Part Three: Ives Essay
Years ago, my friend Tim Quirk asked me to contribute a monthly page to an arts magazine called CURIO. This piece (and the accompanying art) was intended as my third piece for the mag, which folded before the piece ran. I put it on my old webpage and was flattered to find it linked to a comprehensive Charles Ives page on the web. Now that the old webpage is kaput, I place it here for your perusal. When this was written I had just finished Willoughby, and saw no chance that it would ever get released.
Of course, I subsequently had my small adventure in the music biz, made some more albums (the songs "Leslie's Coming Over" and "St. Ives" on Magic Beans are the soundtrack to this essay, btw), tossed away religious faith, began drinking again, mended Skel fences, lost most of my family, created a new one, bla bla, so some of this is no longer relevant. What remains relevant is my love for the work of Charles Ives. For most people, his music requires considerable effort to appreciate. For some, that effort is profoundly worthwhile.
A GLORY TRANCE
"I think there must be a place in the soul all made of tunes , of tunes of long ago"
(Charles Ives - "The Things Our Fathers Loved" -1917)
When I was a desperately lonely teen, that place in my soul was full of tunes created by maverick visionaries like Jonathan Richman, Brian Wilson, Lou Reed & Frank Zappa and cult groups like the Bonzo Dog Band & Stackridge. The eclectic individualism of these and similarly dissimilar artists (aside from providing necessary assurance that the fate of an oddball could include more than torment at the hands of slack-jawed, dull-eyed, Elton John t-shirt-wearing normals) prepared my ears for their first encounter with a man I frankly and unapologetically idolize: Charles Ives.
It was on a P.B.S. special celebrating the music of America. After 2 hours of Billings' anthems, Stephen Foster's exquisite parlor songs, the spectacular rags of Scott Joplin, sea shanties, slave hymns, cowboy ballads, urban blues and on and on, a soft piano chord sounded, beginning the brief Ives song I've quoted above. I forget the singer - manybe Sherrill Milnes - but his rich baritone still resonates in my heart. What seemed at first a sentimental melody of little distinction immediately began veering in unexpected directions... the strange, placid piano went buck wild with harsh, roiling arpeggiations and fanfares for fist. I was overtaken... agape, agog, and aswoon. I had a teenage crush on a song! In less than two minutes, it concluded on a gentle, unresolved dissonance that seemed to sum up the entire history of American song that preceded it ...and throw open the door to something vast.
That vast thing is what I've spent 20 years exploring, and writing a short article about it feels like trying to stuff a live pterodactyl into a bowling ball bag. There's an excellent biography by Jan Swafford, if you want to learn about Ives' unique life, several books by J Peter Burkholder that analyze his music with rare clarity and insight and a couple of volumes of Ives' own writing, in which he limns his own philosophy with high hilarity (not to mention numerous c.d.s of the music itself). All I'm aiming to tell you is how the perennially undervalued accomplishments of a Connecticut genius reached across this miserable century to transform the life of one obscure Long Island schmuck (So really, it's all about me. There's no reason why that should grab you, but hear me out; maybe some dispirited genius out there'll be inspired to continue creating work destined to transform the life of some other schmuck 100 years from now).
As soon as I began raiding Sam Goody for Ives l.p.s, I realized I was in a fix. Sure, the "Concord" sonata was his masterpiece - it said so right there in the liner notes - but all I heard was an unnavigable flood of jarring notes leavened with corny Americana, and so I forlornly filed it away. As taken as I was with this tale of a yankee iconoclast whose music was so innovative that he was forced to live as a businessman / secret composer... as inspiring as I found the tale of his discovery by young upstarts like Aaron Copland and Henry Cowell and his ultimate vindication in old age, the music seemed like, to put it bluntly, a fuckin' mess. So I took his "genius" on faith and enjoyed the few pieces I could comprehend - charming songs like "The Circus Band" and "Charlie Rutlage"; the static mysticism of "The Unanswered Question"; the prankish fun of his organ variations on "America". In fact, even those relatively sedate works perplexed my family. On account of the barrage of discordant orchestrations emanating from my room and the sudden blasts of familiar tunes gone as sour as last month's half-n-half, "sounds like Ives" became a catch-all witticism invoked any time a musician hit a wrong note or screwed up a rhythm. What the hell... the guy's music was kinda nuts.
As years rolled on, other musical infatuations kept bringing me back to Ives. The fury of punk inflamed my skronk gland, allowing enjoyment of sonic violence like the "Tone Roads". Victorian relics like "Two Little Flowers" seemed right at home between "Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair" and Jerome Kern's elaborate Broadway Americana. Thelonious Monk gave me an appetite for acrid harmonies like those in "Three Places in New England". So, in increments, Ives' enormous achievement slowly seeped into this suburban skull. By my late 20s I was a songwriter of dubious ability and, with some friends, formed a band that aspired to a style somewhere between the Replacements and NRBQ. The Skels were actually decent, but failed miserably to get attention and took six years to realize it. In those chummy years of spiralling frustration and alcohol abuse, I'd force Ives on my pals. Between the Husker Du and Dylan albums they'd be subjected to the Gregg Smith singers' recording of "General William Booth Enters Into Heaven" accompanied by an inebriated rant on why it was "great rock-n-roll". Of course, it is...
An obstinate chord pounds like the "big bass drum" the Salvation Army founder is described beating in lyrics intoned basso-Tony-the-tiger-o. An eager choir keeps chanting "Are you washed in the blood of the lamb?" as Booth's parade procession of skeletal drug fiends, verminous boozers, thugs, lepers and other escapees from a Tom Waits operetta marches toward the front door of Jesus Christ hisself. The orchestra grows ever more frantic as the malodorous congress continues to gather, awaiting an audience with the Big Cheese. The whole cacaphonous frenzy slows down like an unplugged close-n-play when Jesus emerges to bless the motley throng. Here the music becomes tender, culminating in a queasy chord that is probably my favorite moment in music, and, as infirmities are removed, addictions lifted and despair turned to ecstatic faith, the tempo goes apeshit all over again. This time it surges upward with shouts of "Hurray!" and "Hallelujia!". Grace is manifested in a cathartic climax. Finally "Are you washed in the blood of the lamb" is sung with the naked simplicity of a Sunday-school tune - a moment of incandescent rapture stunning after all the earlier chaos -and the opening pianodrum dis-chord fades to silent peace.
As I awaited their reaction with wide eyes and the post-orgasmic grin of a true zealot , my tolerant companions would politely suggest that I go grab some beers and cue up the new Robyn Hitchcock record. Oh , well.
Anyway, in time the band disintegrated. Friendships wore out their mutual welcome. I eventually put the cork in the bottle for good and tried to suss out what to do next. By the time a ridiculously ambitious solo album was underway, depression had become a chronic affliction I visualized as a dark beast which, when it wasn't at my throat, waited nearby... salivating. I came to regard the long-gestating album as an elaborate suicide note, but managed to fight that adolescent silliness and finish the friggin' thing. After a few listeners heard it and reacted by suggesting I go grab some sodas and cue up the new Nick Cave c.d., I decided my album sucked, then curled up in a ball and whimpered. Fuck music. Fuck it all. Whaaaaah. That was when a friend mentioned an upcoming festival of "that Charles Ives shit you love so much." I hemmed and hawed, but rode with another friend up to Annandale, N.Y. for a weekend of Ives concerts. I wept during the first song recital, overcome by the nostalgic "Down East" to the point of childish sobbing. What gives?
The next day, pianist Alan Feinberg gave a performance of the "Concord" sonata that was ideal - so exciting, multifaceted and rich with melody that I finally understood what the word "masterpiece" means. All the note clusters, the schmaltzy measures, sudden displacements and abrasive stretches wove themselves into a coherent and expansive whole. Like any human life spent struggling with confounding contradiction... like a new continent covered with unpredictable terrain, it all wound up making vivid sense. It was my first crush on "The Things Our Fathers Loved", grown into mature love and consummated. Cigarette?
All this led to that evening's performance of the "Holidays" symphony. As the August sun settled into the lush hills along the Hudson, my friend and I sat in a vast tent with hundreds of others. The orchestra invited us to inhabit this music in a way no recording could ever have suggested. Ives' rich recreation of his New England boyhood reeled us in. It made us laugh out loud, sigh with longing and feel as if each one of us were a Connecticut kid in knickerbockers or pinafore, romping around through those long-ago seasons. It wasn't music to tap one's foot and hum along with, but to enter into and taste and breathe deep and fill the lungs with. Well into the 4th and final movement, "Thanksgiving and Forefathers' Day", I began to experience a vague anxiety. The slow unfolding of this stern and deeply beautiful devotional music only increased the anxious energy building inside. I glanced around to notice a number of audience members swaying, smiling, rapt in assorted individual modes of absorption. My anxiety mounted, and there was a queer sense that something... gulp... was about to..."happen"... to me.
Homina Homina! Baffled and distracted, I decided - "Enough; surrender and let the music do whatever it means to do". In an instant the choir stood to sing the last magnificent measures of the work. My mind flooded with a radiance. Glory. Lifted from the folding chair - bodily, it seemed - up through air now filled with sparkling, evanescent notes of pure music. I felt my forehead kissed by the lips of God (whatever that is...that thing or idea I'd prayed to with little or no faith on countless desolate nights)... and then , with a palpable physical force, the beast of depression was yanked from my soul. (Look, I think it sounds like a bunch of new-age hooey, too. But blow me... it happened just like that.) Afterwards we walked, speechless and shaken, away from the concert site to a sleep of slendid dreams.
The next morning I could still barely stammer in amazement as we attended a final choral concert, and began the long drive home to Long Island. On the road, we passed the hours listening to the entire recorded legacy of my ill-fated band. It all sounded fine; pleasant memories returned and a modest pride and satisfaction replaced the bitterness I'd long held toward those songs. Although I still run the usual homo sapiens mood gamut from joy to sadness to "what's on C-Span?", the beast has never returned. As for the solo album I was so heartbroken over, I think it's... well... a masterpiece. Though my distaste... hell... incapacity for attempting to woo the favor of scumbag record-label types will ensure the permanent obscurity of this opus, I intend to painstakingly craft as many more of 'em as my piddling finances allow. They too will languish on my tape shelf, and that's okay. Making music has become a vital, sacramental act for me. If the stuff has any outside value, it'll keep.
I'm no genius, but this Genius taught me to trust that essential idiosyncratic impulse which originates in the infinite... that tiny fragment of God's voice we all possess a share of; which doesn't even exist until we're brave and honest enough to sound it and create our part of God. It's the reason America's music is the only demonstrable realization of the "American Democratic Ideal". The reason Ives' beloved vision of a "people's world nation" can only really exist in music, where bullshit, dogma, mockery and fraud are eventually exposed and discarded.
I don't believe, as Charles Ives did, that people are inherently "good", but I believe it's a possibility while I'm listening to his work.
I hope he convinces me, though, and I've no reason to doubt that he will. He's already spent 20 years whispering and hollering in my ear... convincing me to live and to sing whatever corny or thorny sounds my feeble inspirations dictate. He was a courageous, resolute artist who built his Palais Ideal out of garbage and raw gold, and it shames the architecturally perfect cathedrals other, more lionized composers have constructed, because while so many of theirs are empty monuments to vanity, his is filled with unbowed belief and the roaring Sandburg slang of real-live humanity. & with that I'll split and go compose a goddamn masterpiece. You too... get crackin'.
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