Monday, June 16, 2014

Charles Ives

I’m most often moved by words. No, that’s not right. I’m most often moved by music. No.

A conundrum. I guess it’s more that I’m moved by either or both. I have an amateur’s ear for both music and words; perhaps if I had ever mastered either I could discuss what all this means.

To go back to the beginning, to what most recently moved me: a piece in The New York Review about a book recently published by Stephen Budiansky about Charles Ives. I’ve never been a fan of Ives’s music, and apparently I’m not alone in that. What caught me in this review was the first sentence: “Charles Ives, the crazy and brilliant patriarch of American music, loved a good cacophony.” What I remember of Ives’s music is just that: cacophony. I find most modern music difficult, with a few exceptions such as the work of Aaron Copeland and others who have written for the movies. Perhaps, I thought, I can get something from this.

I assume that Jeremy Denk, the author of the review, was reporting more or less what the book’s author said about Ives, but Budiansky is actually quoted very little; indeed, his name is not included very often in the piece. But no matter. What I read was the first clear description I’ve seen of what Ives thought and felt and composed. He was considered naïve and amateurish by some of his more well-known contemporary composers, and a genius by others. The core of the controversy, it seems, stems from his use of traditional and easy melodies juxtaposed against dissonant crashes and conflicting themes. It’s difficult music to understand.

Ordinarily, such esoterica would have caused me to turn the page and look for something I could follow more easily (my amateur’s ear). But I found myself hooked. Denk obviously admires Ives. He explains what all the dissonance and conflicting passages mean, and at the end I realized “I got it!”

Throughout the review, I wished I could hear the passages he describes. If I had recordings of Ives’s music I would have been tempted to put them on and listen, even though I’d have to wade through a lot of music just to find the examples, and I know from experience that the distraction of that process spoils the curiosity that has led me there. I get lost. But what was amazing to me, just reading Denk’s words gave me a sense of Ives that I’ve never experienced before. Now I need to hear some of that music while I’m still in the thrall of the prose. I’ll be looking for those little things that he says represents what Ives meant in his music. I suppose that’s what reviews are for: to expand one’s curiosity.

Would I ever get to the point where I’d choose to listen to Ives more than to Rachmaninoff? Not likely. I’m a romantic about a lot of things. Still, I have curiosity about the rest of the world; that’s why I read things like the New York Review. At my age, my neurons are disappearing faster than I can build them, so there’s no way I can become who I always thought was my destiny. (Welcome to the club, my father would say if he were still around.) I have to be content to occasionally feeling moved.

No comments: