Understanding Charles Ives.

Pop, jazz, and classical.
May 17 2004 7:07 PM

How Ives Jibes

Understanding America's contentious composer.

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Even at its wildest, his music is often a texture of quotes from familiar national tunes, plus echoes of Beethoven and other giants of the past: a universal symphony of myriad voices resembling, if anything else, the universal language of Joyce's Finnegans Wake. When Ives quotes a hymn or a march, he quotes them with feelings and setting added. That can get complicated—as in the Fourth Symphony or this march from " Decoration Day", which is not just a march but a whole parade. Like Joyce, Ives intended his work, however formidable it turned out in practice, to exalt the common man.

Ives hated tidy categories and labels. Much of that came from his Emersonian sense of inner truth that transcends outer doctrine and show. In his Essays Before a Sonata, Ives called the exterior part of music "manner," the inner spirit "substance." "Manner"is mere consistency, polish, style—even sound itself. "Substance"is the feeling behind the notes, the deeper consistency that can unite apparent contradictions. Thus Ives' startling question, "What does sound have to do with music?"

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Paradoxical? Sure. For Ives, paradox was a high road to truth—and truth never stops moving. Hence his, or rather our, problem with labels. We think of "great" composers as having a "style." But Ives wrote everything from Victorian parlor tunes to music as ferociously complex as anything ever put on paper, and he meant them all. We expect composers to have a sense of historical place, to be Romantic or Modern, or a Transitional Figure. Ives embraces the past along with the future; moment by moment his harmonies can range from hymn-simple to massive clusters of sound and anything in between, as in this bit from "Hawthorne", part of his Concord Sonata.

Nor does Ives' polystylistic bent make him a prophet of Postmodernism. In its games with styles, Postmodernism involves a certain ironic disengagement. Ives is always engaged, serious, and ultimately religious, even when he's uproarious. The amateur bandsmen in his comic masterpiece "Putnam's Camp" are missing notes and falling all over the beat, but they're still playing their hearts out. "Bandstuff," Ives wrote. "They didn't always play right & together and it was as good either way."

If we judge Ives in terms of what he set out to do, he was a splendid success, a great composer indeed. He wanted to open up our ears and minds. If we let him, he will.

Jan Swafford is a composer and writer. His books include Johannes Brahms: A Biography and Charles Ives: A Life With Music.