Belligerent Echoes

I can’t help it. I try to be a nice guy, but every so often my inner Dr. House leaks out. That is perhaps why I love the show so much: it allows me to indulge my sarcastic tendencies in a safe setting where no one gets hurt. I got a little belligerent the other night after my all-Ives concert with Soovin Kim. We were out having a post-concert meal and–it was really my fault!–under the influence of a generous Cosmo and with some incorrigible suggestion from Soovin somehow the topic drifted towards the Barber-Ives Comparison. I believe I said “Ives is a far more intellectually rigorous composer than Barber.” Or was it structurally? It was some obnoxious thing that no one should really say, ideally, but it was too late.

One of the assembled company thought this was preposterous, that Ives really just wrote “intuitively” and with very little intellectual control. (What is intellectual control anyway?) And I said “EXCUSE ME?” and with the craggy passion of a riled Ivesian really let loose … I inadvisedly called Barber a “paint-by-numbers” composer, etc. etc. Egad. Before fists flew, luckily, the subject was changed.

I must admit: the essential, personal fact is that Barber’s music doesn’t float my boat, while Ives’ is one of the great passions of my life. I know in Philadelphia this is nearly a mortal sin (sorry everybody!), while in Danbury (?) it might be more acceptable. However: I once had a hilarious ride in a car with a Danbury presenter, and to liven the floating, idle chitchat I averred my Ives-love, expecting sympathy (he is after all Danbury’s claim to fame, not to mention the Connecticut State Composer!) … But they looked weary, embittered, as if they had been force-fed an Ives casserole all their lives…

There is something about the opening theme of the Barber Violin Concerto, for instance …

… something that reminds me of some super-sweet pastry from Starbucks, drowned in sugar-drizzle, and maybe with honey and cream on top: maybe one of those “special Frappuccinos” that come up every so often, the Caramel Mocha Cinnamon Pumpkin Extra-Drippy Frappuccino, for $7.99, which I get offered as a sample and decline with a bitter, purist shake of the head. It may be for the same reason that I cannot sit through a Father of the Bride movie; if it were the last movie on a deserted island I would throw myself to the sharks. Certain passages in Spiderman 2 were similarly unacceptable, despite the manifold virtues of Tobey Maguire. However, I am able to consume endless hours of Charmed and The O.C.; the paradoxes multiply. I suppose I discriminate between types of schlock; I am an inveterate, rampant “schlockist.”

Just the other day I was playing through Tzigane with Josh, in a rehearsal, and it was all a great deal of fun, and Josh sounded fabulous of course, and I was annoyed that I didn’t sound so fabulous in that annoying passage with the repeated notes … but I was thinking “it’s good, but it’s no Charles Ives.” Even the “dirty” gypsy notes in that piece sound clean, organized, shiny; everything is polished, glittering, sparkling, lush, perfectly voiced: sanitized? It smelt of PineSol, if PineSol were French. But not with Ives; he captures the Down & Dirty better than almost anyone. If he errs, he errs on the Dirty side; but his dirt is not vulgar, it is transcendental fertile earth with lots of terrific spiritual manure. Perhaps the hyper-cleanliness of Ravel is somewhat vulgar, in comparison with the honest, sprawling dirtiness of Ives? … at least that’s the way I feel. Bring on the hate mail!

Ives, like Dr. House, is a curmudgeon. He has an almost self-destructive desire not to be too easily understood; he distrusts clarity, adores the impossible juxtaposition, the impractical counterpoint, the unmanageable, the inaudible. He loves splats and the accumulations of terrific chaotic dissonances.

But, also: Ives is a softie. He has an unbelievable tenderness, a vulnerability to the raw, emotive power of the tunes, a vulnerability to their “reality.” (He tries to hide this vulnerability.) When the hymns emerge after his complexities, they are unbearably beautiful, always with a twang, a twinge of dissonance, a reminder of complexities past, now infused into the tune like an aura … What he adds to the tunes, to these hymns, is not supposed to be destructive or ironic; the added notes and layers are joyful extrapolations, irrepressible tendencies. The “wrong notes,” in Ives’ world, are often the only “right notes,” because they are really the notes to be savored, the outgrowth and taste of enthusiasm. If his ragtimes fall apart, if they court cacophony, that is because that is what they are “inclined to do,” because Ives wants to let them smile, let them go. (Really let them go.) For all his comedy, it is not caricature he is after; it is celebratory humor, free of mockery or cruelty … (This is where he departs seriously from Dr. House). Ives rarely despairs.

He takes a very few precious things, tunes, motives, and handles them with tremendous care and love. (Like Proust: caressing his memories, his experiences). For instance, why should I care about this theme?

Most of the time I don’t, or wouldn’t. It’s an anachronism… hopelessly dated. But Ives recreates his world, his point of view; precisely he recreates in me, freshly, now, his affection for these hymns, his sense of their profuse possibilities and associations… I found myself in airport lounges humming hymns obsessively, loving the themes (I imagined) in the same way he did, and this precisely because he wrote these massive tributes to them, these tremendous surrounding texts, expressing: this is what this means to me, this is the experience of this hymn, the religious, experiential essence of it … For instance, the last movement of the 1st Violin Sonata is one of the great visions of the march (the hymn above: Work for the night is coming!)… the jangling, clanging, ongoing march, the sense of elation, stride, and what the heck? Even sitting by the pool in Florida, lazily slathered in sunblock, drinking a virgin daiquiri, not at all regretting the fact that the fitness center was closed for renovations, I found myself singing “work for the night is coming”: I was a sun-drenched oxymoron.

Barber’s theme is beautiful, tuneful, arched, paced… in other words, musical. It proceeds as music “should.” (It is compositional, not improvisational.) But Ives’ themes don’t live like that; they look for a wider justification, a “reason for being.” Which is why, in Ives’ music, there is a constant dialogue between layers, a recurring sequence: the thing, then the echo; the EVENT, or incident, the musical entity! (wonderful enough) and then the “other” … Ives is the great master of writing these echoes, these after-phrases, which in their genius suggest a ramification, an inner or deeper meaning, if you like: the hymn as perceived by the soul. There is always the audience without, hearing, perceiving; always another layer, another possible perspective, the curtain drawing out to reveal yet another stage … the insight which comes like an accident after the fact, the accident which turns out to be the main, most beautiful, point…

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  1. Domina
    Posted January 28, 2007 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

    It’s a lonely job, defending Ives from foolish detractors, isn’t it? You’ll get no dissent here, and since I’ve not had a cosmo I’ll leave the Ravel/Ives glove alone.
    I’ve lately used the cello theme from the 3rd mov’t of his piano trio as irrefutable evidence of what you described as the ‘unbearably beautiful’ in his music, during just such a verbal skirmish. They changed the subject, HA!

  2. Anonymous
    Posted January 28, 2007 at 6:30 pm | Permalink

    One thing to learn is not to argue w/ your fellow musician ” under the influence ” esp. after a successful recital together. Barber/Ives or Ravel comparison as the cause of a fist fight!

    Did you ask Josh on his take about the first note of Barber since he got an award for the vioin concerto but then I don’t want you to end up arguing also.

    Try discussing the Schumann sonata for both of you love his work not under the influence of a cosmo but through a fajita and not some tequila.

    See you Jerjer.

  3. M.A.Peel
    Posted January 28, 2007 at 9:25 pm | Permalink

    Ah, but did Ives have an enigmatic friendship with the likes of Wilson? (You call our medical misanthrope Dr. House twice–endearingly formal.)

  4. Anonymous
    Posted January 28, 2007 at 11:05 pm | Permalink

    actually, it was after your second cosmo…

  5. hari
    Posted January 28, 2007 at 11:24 pm | Permalink

    you sound so passionate about ives that i can’t wait to hear a recording of his. any suggestions for starters?

  6. Hucbald
    Posted January 29, 2007 at 2:32 am | Permalink

    Sheesh. Those weren’t even sparks, much less a fire. Try debating “pure” sixteenth century counterpoint versus “polluted” seventeenth century counterpoint after a few tequila shots. Now THAT was fun (I was the liberal proponent of seventeenth century counterpoint, so I had the unenviable task of trashing… Palestrina). LOL!

    Music and drink were made for each other. I’m living proof of that.

  7. mark
    Posted January 29, 2007 at 9:12 am | Permalink

    How could I not have seen this analogy coming?

  8. Anonymous
    Posted January 29, 2007 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

    get a room.

  9. Hypatia
    Posted January 31, 2007 at 10:30 am | Permalink

    O/T. I have a question about Edgar Meyer. Specifically, when will you and Joshua Bell record that ripper of a piece that levitated me out of my seat in the Eckerd Hall in Clearwater? I wanted a complete encore and a CD, right away, immediately. A friend who also attended the performance (and, I’d wager, 90% of the audience) joins me in jonesing for a recording. Soon. Please.
    Oh yes, will you please record that Beethoven (migawd, the 2nd movement–talk about “unbearably beautiful”) and the wondrous Schumann, too.
    That was as glorious an evening of music-making as I’ve ever heard, which includes Britten & Pears doing Winterreise. Thank you, both.

  10. gabrielviolin
    Posted January 31, 2007 at 11:50 am | Permalink

    As a violinist living in Connecticut, my fists don’t know which way to throw their allegiance in this blog entry! Anyway, I shared your blog with a friend and great Ives advocate.

    I LOVED LOVED your recital with JB (not the dead one)at UConn-Storrs last night. Learned of this blog in the program, and, well, WOW, and thank you! Great reading…

    Your fellow Oberlin chemist (Allen) turned kitchen-concoctioner and musician (Gabriel) Kastelle 🙂

  11. Bill
    Posted January 31, 2007 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    On the chance that I will be called “a simple minded person”… I never “got” Ives at all. He never did anything for me WHAT SO EVER. I suppose some of that has to do with my mother telling me at a very early age, “…there are three types of people in the world you never trust; politicians, people with two first names (such as “John Ryan”), and insurance salesmen!”

    I never forgot that. Barber’s music, for the most part, speaks to me (not all of it). But then again, I’m simple. And yes, having played the Barber Violin Concerto (the second movement always makes me cry), I suppose that I’m a bit fond of it.

    By the way Jeremy, I loved your concert at UCONN last night. You and Joshua rocked. I was going to stick around and say “hello”, but I won’t stand in line waiting to meet anyone (no offense), and there was a long line. I really loved the Beethoven, which I performed years ago. It brought back fond memories. Josh doesn’t know me, but we have one thing in common; Joseph Gingold. But my point of bringing up the UCONN performance was simply this (I’m simple, remember?), you… sparkled. I can’t find another word for it. You were so much “there” and I truly felt your intensity. Oh, and Josh played well also, but for some reason, I didn’t get that from him so much. There’s a few technical issues that bother me about his technique that comes up once in awhile (I’m really not trying to be unkind), but overall, he plays beautifully.

    I’m always changing… I’m off the cosmo now and enjoy full outright martinis. I’m not sure what that means. Back to basics?

  12. Anonymous
    Posted February 1, 2007 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

    I’ve also used the term ‘mud’ when talking about Ives to try to explain his (happy) effect. Of all composers, he is the one who never truly averts his eyes to inner/outer facts, feelings, experience. And there’s never a slumming quality to his ‘researches’. It’s probably Whitman as much as Emerson working there.

    But you don’t mention how truely strange he can be- not the dirt part, but the kind of formal misdirection that his music often seems to celebrate, especially the chugging humor in juxtoposition with a sometimes cold cold otherness.

  13. Bill
    Posted February 2, 2007 at 7:28 am | Permalink


    Yes, that’s a good term to describe how I feel about Ives. More precisely, what his music does (or, does not do) to me. I listen, and I try to get some effect from it, but nothing comes back, and I’m left standing there wondering, “What am I supposed to do with this?”

    That’s a puzzling thing for a musician. With Verdi, Puccini, Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, you name it, they give me a lot to work with and I come away feeling something, good or bad. With Ives, I can’t see through it, so I suppose the “mud” analogy is accurate.

    Now, I don’t know if this problem I have with Ives is my inability to understand him (music is communication after all), or, if it’s just Ives.

  14. Jeremy Denk
    Posted February 2, 2007 at 8:33 am | Permalink


    it’s your problem. if i can help you in any way, please let me know.


  15. Jeremy Denk
    Posted February 2, 2007 at 9:36 am | Permalink

    Let me qualify that a little bit. Sometimes (perhaps often) performers fail to delve deep enough into Ives’ musical puzzles and the result can be muddy or incomprehensible. Proper voicing and layering is (to my mind) so incredibly essential for Ives… so let’s spread the blame around a bit. Orchestral performances of Ives, unless rigorously rehearsed, can be total nonsense.

  16. Anonymous
    Posted February 3, 2007 at 10:37 am | Permalink

    I second to that! Not only to Ives but it also applies to other composers as well. Performance delivery is essential to be able to convey the audience or listeners what the music meant.

    Performers might have different interpretations, styles and technique in their delivery but if it doesn’t move you, then 50% of the blame share goes to the transporter. Does it mean the person has to find another one that can move him from one dimension to the other? I would until I’ll be able to say, Alas! I finally understand and feel this music, thanks to this artist.

    I’m reminded that the Barber doesn’t float your boat, no matter what. Well, same goes w/ Bill to Ives. Maybe perhaps, you two need to revisit, throw away the prejudice and listen to different artists until you find what you’re looking for. Just my two cents. Cheers!

  17. Bill
    Posted February 3, 2007 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

    I think you are both right…

    Jeremy, I think you are correct about the depth to which I’ve taken Ives. I also feel that perhaps some of that has to do with what I’m presented with at the concert hall. I used to absolutely love the Dvo?ák Cello Concerto (as an example). I thought it was so beautiful and rich and (insert other trite adjectives here…). But, at the end of her career (and life), I heard Jacqueline du Pré perform the work. All those beautiful phrases were turned upside down and what I was dealt was the turbulent anger that was layers below the surface. A lot of that anger was her and what she was going through, I’m sure. But, the Dvo?ák was never the same for me after that. When I heard her play it, I was actually in a state of shock. It really broke my heart and I was literally in tears. It left me deeply depressed and anguished. This is not a bad thing. If you are unwilling to open yourself up to every single possible emotion, you can’t be an artist of any kind, in my opinion.

    But this proves that it is extremely essential for the artist to immerse himself/herself into the work to every extent physically and mentally possible. I remember the preparation for a performance of the Brahms violin sonatas. It’s a difficult thing to listen to me analyze and practice I suppose. I can go days and days playing a single sixteen bar phrase, playing nothing else — phrasing, emphasis, etc., but more importantly, how do I (the physical part of the art) fit into all of this.

    It takes this kind of analysis and sacrifice to understand a work. And, when you are presented with a performance that is lacking, instead of walking away with an attitude like, “it just doesn’t float my boat”, well, that’s a little too easy. I admit that I haven’t done my homework with Ives, so I agree with Jeremy, it is my problem.

    And, if I really want to be anal about interpretation, I prefer to work with manuscripts, and not the sanitized music from a publisher, who has already put his filter on the music. This became apparent to me when I worked on the Bach Unaccompanied Sonatas and Partitas for violin, from manuscript. I actually picked a lot up from the emphasis of the pen strokes and the importance of certain small things in the music, from Bach’s hand. It helped a great deal.

    Also, I never “perform”. If I don’t feel the music with every fiber of my being, why do it? And while I’m doing that, I really have no comprehension of my audience being there with me (is that a bad thing?). It’s me, and the music, and that’s all. I actually, at times, lose sense of my physical body, as though I’m vapor, and I hear music. And when it’s over, hopefully, the audience enjoyed the art of it. The deliverance and transporting of the end product, to me, happens in the preparation. When performing, if I had to worry about phrasing and placement, it would be over for me. At the point I perform any work, I’m simply there to enjoy, along with the audience, and to see what happens. If there’s no spontaneity, forget it.

    A very interesting point on prejudice in music. I suppose we all have our prejudices with all things. It makes sense that would carry over into music.

  18. Anonymous
    Posted February 4, 2007 at 6:28 am | Permalink

    I’m speaking as an audience, as a listener when I said that. I am not a performer like you two. I don’t know if I can consider my performance in front of family and friends in the living room but I am not a professional. I think it’s the same thing, you have to love first in order to play otherwise why do it if you yourself doesn’t believe and understand the music. Pre conceive feelings on a particular music does’t help either or limiting only to what is in the manuscript.

    Isn’t it we’re supposed to immerse ourself and analyze the layers and depth of a particular music so we’ll be able to let the listener come to us and join the journey or perhaps be able to make the listener make her/his own journey by your delivery? Performers are the medium or the means of the delivery for the communication to happen. We have to understand the music first and be move ourselves before we can move others. If that happens, if the aroma of the music you deliver lingers through their hearts and mind or if they come out humming it, then it’s a success.

    How do we understand it? our methods, analysis, feelings and etc. goes way from school. Maybe, Prof. Denk can provide us more insight on this.

  19. Bill
    Posted February 4, 2007 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

    I think you are right. We are really only a medium by which music is presented to the listener. The manuscripts that I mentioned are only one level of understanding for me. This is just the way I am, but I have to live with a work for awhile to understand it. My mind just doesn’t grasp it all by the mere fact that I have all the notes under my fingers and that I’m phrasing well, etc. I’m trying to get to know the work on so many levels. It’s really like trying to get to know a person. It really takes years to know someone really well.

    One of the things that I’m constantly worrying about are my preconceived feelings/attitudes (baggage) that I might bring to a work. I try to start with a clear slate. And I hope that the end product will be pure. It will undoubtedly contain my personality and method of performing. That’s unavoidable. But, I’d like to think that I got out of the way of the music itself, to let it express itself to every extent possible.

    Any time you perform a work in front of 5 people, or 5,000 people, that’s a performance. One of the great moments in my musical life happened when I was in a practice room. I was out of school, but using their facility for a place to work. It was a warm day, and I had the window open. I had worked for months on a sonata. I had never really played it through, but decided that I would like to see what I had at that point. So, I played a movement from it. During this time, unknown to me, music students who were going to class stopped to listen, since my window was open. At the end of the sonata, there was applause from them. That one moment meant more to me that everything else. Why? Because they were my peers… my fellow musicians.

    “Performing” is a state of mind. It doesn’t matter how many or how few you play for. And the “standard” for that performance is simply, you. Don’t do what I did for so long — go through the motions of performing because it was what I was taught to do, and then one day realize, “…I never really enjoyed playing.” That’s when I stopped playing, for a long time. When I heard Nadja talking about her playing and saying, “There has to more to life than this…”, I said, “YES!! There has to be!”

    Today, I’m trying to rediscover that enjoyment that comes from the music itself. It is a difficult journey.

  20. Anonymous
    Posted February 5, 2007 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

    Wow, we’ve come to a good analysis and even w/out Jeremy’s second input, I think we’ll be in the right track.

    Good luck, Bill!

  21. Phillip
    Posted February 5, 2007 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

    Re your and Bill’s exchange about “mud,” I had a very similar conversation with John Adams a few years ago about Ives. He was of the opinion that Ives’ music (especially the orchestral) “suffered” because of his lack of opportunity to hear it played live and thus to revise, refine his orchestrational chops, etc. In other words, the mud bothered Adams too. My answer was that while Ives may have turned out to be a much different composer and/or orchestrator had he had more access to real-time realizations of his music, we all would be the poorer for it. I, for one, am glad that Ives’ genius comes to us relatively unfiltered through the mediating element of “training,” “craft,” “intellectual rigor” and all that other stuff. We have plenty of those kind of composers around, but few visionaries.

  22. Anonymous
    Posted February 7, 2007 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

    I’ve gotten Ives from the git-go. On the other hand, I think I’ve gotten Barber, too.
    To my mind he’s an elegant, very good minor composer, while Ives is the elemental great American composer. But unless Sam walks into the room and puts down Charlie, why should one use Ives as a stick to beat on Barber?

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