Happy birthday, Charles Ives! If I had a dollar for every sour look I have gotten when I have mentioned a work of Ives, or simply his name… Perhaps the Greatest Sour Look Award must go to pianist Andras Schiff, who pronounced the name with an unforgettable, Grinchian sneer which seemed to want to rob not just me, but every citizen of planet Earth, of any joys I or they might now or later find in his work. Luckily the looks always wear off. The scores themselves give much more powerful, long-lasting looks, and I look back at them, with amazement and love. And so just now, just playing the simple “Alcotts” in my living room–as a birthday tribute–I found myself touched again by something that is only a hair’s-breadth away from hackneyed Americana… “common” beyond belief, deeply and embarrassingly sentimental; something that is not really at all of my experience, which dredges up an America utterly different the one I know; how can I associate with transcendentalism, hymn-tunes and marching bands, while watching Seinfeld and eating Baked Cheetos? (I don’t know which is more cynical, the show or the snack.) It definitely drove home for me how much America has changed: culture’s drifts and trends, our post-post-modern predicament…


The other night I was sitting with my friend in Carnegie Hall (that American cathedral of music), preparing to hear Richard Goode and Orpheus play a truly astonishing Beethoven C minor Concerto, when a man in the row behind me piped up. “The piece we’re about to hear,” he said, “is the fulfillment of the piece we heard on the first half.” He was referring to Mozart’s K. 271. He went on: “In the first three concertos, Beethoven stuck with the classical mold; in the last two, he broke the mold… this piece does not break the mold, it fulfills it.” He was quite audible and so I was able to commence my listening experience with delicious thoughts of fulfilled mold. Need I say?–the comments were offered in a fairly tendentious tone, bespeaking minutes immersed in music appreciation textbooks. I wondered: did his companion find these comments helpful? Did she (or he, I couldn’t see) listen to that menacing, dark opening tutti, attuned solely to how Beethoven conformed to the mold? Or did she/he just go with the flow, let the mood carry her? Or (option three): did she/he just sit there, unable to listen, stewing about how annoying her companion was for talking mold right before the piece was about to start?

Later that evening, at the Redeye Grill, over a Sierra Nevada, having managed to survive the whole backstage deal, I let my true feelings fly to my friend. He felt the arrogance of the tone of the speaker was the chief irritant, but I had other fish to fry. For example (Rant #1): so K. 271 needs to be fulfilled?!??!? Like that perfect, joyous masterpiece of Mozart was just sitting around, waiting for Beethoven to fulfill it, to make it bigger, badder, better? And Rant #2 had more to do with a general aversion to talk of structures, esp. “in the moment.” Like whipping out an anatomy diagram before sex, for instance. Rant #3 was more sober, and analytical (ironically): I debated whether the 4th and 5th Concertos were actually less classical than #3… Though there are good arguments on either side, the Third has plenty of derring-do, plenty of foreshadowing, plenty of nineteenth-century passion; and the way Richard played the cadenza was totally electrifying, with harmonic outbursts, cries of the heart, staggering virtuosity, impetus–i.e., Romantics need look no further. The third has always been my sentimental favorite, and this performance fulfilled something in me that was not a mold at all, and my friend and I looked at each other after the first movement with wonderful smiles–elated, wowed smiles. I was breathless, and forgot I was a pianist in my pleasure. Which is hard to do. The Beethoven was so dark, angry, searching… and yet we found ourselves happy… there is always some mixture of elation in hearing a great performance, even of the saddest work.

I’ve been thinking about this lately, and as much as I love talk of molds and patterns and structures (and I gotta admit they matter), I’m really a moment man. That’s what got me into this whole business, some beautiful short phrases, melodies, whatever, and I guess I would say that its the ability to fuse, weld, a whole bunch of amazing moments into a giant supersized moment… that is what keeps me coming back to the compositional buffet. And indeed the performance had that quality — or, more accurately, I had that quality while the performance was ongoing — of hanging in a moment, like in a drop of some fantastic fluid, and I was still hanging there at the Redeye, and only maybe later, after the cab dropped me off at 91st and Broadway, and after a quiet 10-second elevator ride, and some minutes staring out of my window and at the dishes in the sink (some of which were quite moldy), did the drop finally fall and splash.

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  1. Nils
    Posted October 21, 2005 at 9:49 am | Permalink

    People use the words “Charles Ives” as a bar-room punchline. Warum punchline? To them the sum of Ives is polytonal parlor tricks, so he can’t possibly be taken seriously.

    Sneers ought to be reserved for “music”-as-bare-philosophical-statement.

    Aleatoric music, n. A technique that employs chance in the selection of pitches and rhythms. Characteristic of some professional opera choruses.

  2. Anonymous
    Posted October 21, 2005 at 10:18 am | Permalink

    Hey Jeremy
    been reading the blog in my domestic moments. played a few Rufus fragments. been enjoying references to oatmeal. you’re giving me a bit of musical involvementary inspiration.
    thank you.
    ciao ciao
    Mark B
    “everything follows, baby…”

  3. R J Keefe
    Posted October 21, 2005 at 10:41 am | Permalink

    For a moment, I thought you were talking about me. I said to my wife, “This concerto is a reckoning with the one we heard the other day” – referring to K 491.

    – Structure man.

  4. Erin
    Posted October 22, 2005 at 6:25 pm | Permalink

    I think those kinds of comments are uncalled-for unless your companion is 1) under 13 or 2) has specifically asked you to explain something. Otherwise you’re just being like Comic Book Guy from the Simpsons.

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