Charles Ives can be regarded as a legendary figure in the history of western music. Apart from his many compositional outputs, his philosophical ideas toward art, life, and humanity are still enchanting, worthy of reading. Below is the article about his works and his compositional ideas.
Charles Ives (1874-1954), though was bought up in European musical tradition, is the first important western composer attempts to stand essentially outside the mainstream of European musical culture. Without influenced by the progressing scientific technologies, he is the first to use the unity of the human experience as a subject matter for composing. The result is that his music is in great diversities of style, which not only appears in different works written in different periods, but also appears in one single composition. Ives composes proto-serial and proto-aleatory music. He invents block forms and free forms and he uses tone clusters and structural densities. He also writes in collage texture and freely quoted others’ tunes whatever he likes to his work, regardless of the stylistic inconsistent issue. He, at the same time, employs polymeters, polytonals and polytempi in his work and he also composes spatial music or music that could be realized in a multiplicity of ways. Furthermore, Ives also anticipates recent improvisatory works-in-progress, assemblages, and pop music, just about every important development of the last sixty years and some of the most notable of post-World War II avant-gardism. As such, majority of Ives’s composition of various styles are written in the first two decades of the century, which anticipates the main stream of the Modern avant-grade music after the World War II. His stylistic diversity in music, therefore, is proved to be significant and influential in the western music history.
If not because of the book Essays Before a Sonata written by Ives in 1920 that provides the valuable information about his aesthetic thoughts and philosophical ideas, it is difficult for us to understand the factors that affecting Ives’s development of his musical style. In the following discussion, I am going to explore the aesthetic and philosophical ideas of Charles lves behind his compositions, as well as the external environmental factors that give incarnation of the musical diversities in his style.
The development of the personal musical style of Charles Ives can be traced back to his childhood. He is trained as both an organist and pianist. This standard keyboard knowledge is often reflected in his mature compositions. At the same time the vernacular music of the small Connecticut town in which Ives has grown up, including the hymns, the popular and patriotic songs, the marches and dance tunes. These various forms of music are equally important in the formation of Ives’s personal musical style. Furthermore, these precious musical experiences during childhood, albeit remaining only fragments after years, provide prodigious resources for quotations in his music. The melody of At the River, taken from a well-known hymn tune by other composer, is a typical example. Although here Ives borrows the entire melody, more commonly he quotes only fragments from the catholic hymn tunes, popular songs of the day, marches and ragtime music from the daily life of his day. Therefore, Ives’s musical training and environment in his childhood are the notable external factors that greatly influence his music, especially in developing his stylistic musical diversity.
Another factor that affects Ives’s musical style is his amateur identity as a composer. After Ives graduated from Yale University, he came to a decision not to take music as a profession. Instead, he began his life insurance business. This decision led him to a total isolation from the public and from other musicians from about 1895 to 1917, in which he worked intensively on composition. As a result, Ives’s music is virtually unperformed at this time, and thus has no immediate influence on other composers or vice versa. The isolation was itself proved essential for Ives to develop his own unconventional predilection. In addition, as a life insurance agent, Ives is guaranteed the financial independent that he is able to compose exactly as he wishes without worrying about pleasing the public or other musicians or other public critics, or even the performance of his works. Hence, Ives wrote strictly for himself, frequently not even bothering to put them into completely finished form. This is important for Ives’s conception of music as an ‘open’ art form. Ives could now freely encompass all types of music, including his fading memories of childhood’s sound, mingled them into a higher synthesis that eventually became his unique style of musical diversities.
As we have discussed before, the diversity of the music style of Charles Ives is not only shown in different works written in different period, but also reflected in one single composition. In order to understand why Ives seems to turn back from the main stream of European avant-gardism, which was centered on the exploration of the twelve-tone music or the neo-tonal music, the philosophical ideas of Ives toward music, art and even life should be considered.
The important foundation of Ives’s philosophical idea is stated in the Essays Before a Sonata and most of his other writings from 1910s and 1920s. These documents ingenuously reflect Ives’s personal and social idealisms, especially his idealism in music or idealism about music. Ives believes that the main path of all social progress has been spiritual rather than intellectual in character and he has mentioned that there is a ‘universal mind’ existed in the world. It is very important to the progression of the mankind. This common ‘universal mind’, albeit developing gradually, brings forth a unity within the diversities and eventually becomes a cure of the bifurcations of human existence. Such conception, undoubtedly, is at the root of all Ives’s idealisms, in the world of his insurance business, as well as in his art. The result of this conception nurtures Ives gradually to accept his intuition as the surest and the most reliable teacher than any other tradition, authority, guiding his spiritual seeking of daily life.
In order to illustrate the idealism of Ives in the conception of the intuition and the universal mind, let us take the Scherzo, Over the Pavements (1906-13), as an example. This work is a typical example of a single composition consisting diversities of style. The music is a combination and coordination of multiple layers of conflicting rhythmic activities. Ives asserts that this piece is a kind of take-off street dancing, and it evokes the audience about the sounds of people going to and fro, all different steps, and sometimes all the same – the horses, fast trot, canter, sometimes slowing up into a walk. He asserts that he is struck with many different and changing kinds of beats, time, rhythms, not chaotic, but natural or at least not unnatural. As such, the music of the Scherzo Over the Pavement contains complex cross-rhythms and metric subdivision. The drum announces each downbeat of the notated 5/8 meter. The clarinet and trumpet are moving in imitation, dividing the measure equally into two groups of 5/16, and thus contradicting the notated 8th note pulse. Simultaneously, the bassoon, piano and the trombones altogether play a drum-like cluster in a syncopated rhythmic figure that dividing the three measures as a whole into ten equal subunits. Therefore, this work is exemplar to reflect Ives’ universal mind that just he has mentioned: there is a unity within the diversities though it comes slow.
Another humorous example is found in the cadenza section of Over the Pavement. On the score there is a statement: ‘to play or not to play? If played, to be played as not a nice one – but EVENLY, precise and unmusical as possible!’ What amusing Ives’s indication! Undeniably, this indication is originated from his conception of intuition. The intuition dominates all authorities, even the practicality of music. Therefore, in the realm of music, Ives claims for the composer the right to search for new modes of expression according to his/her intuition, rather than perpetually following the rules and thus, inevitably, the diversities of Ives’s musical style is then achieved.
The aesthetic idea of Charles Ives toward art, toward the music, is also an essential factor that gives incarnation to his diversities of musical style. Ives views art and life is an inseparable entity. Art and life has to do with the value of a poetic idea realized as a human action or activity. Despites all his presumed impracticality, Ives think of his music as a kind of non-passive, performance activity, primarily something to do, to be actively involved with and only secondarily to be listened to. He wants his music returning to reflect some underlying realities about human activities, about human experiences, no matter these experiences are complex, contradictive and incoherent. This is a speaking kind of music, a music that could be ‘jotted down to convey fresh impressions and thoughts, that could flow with the naturalness of plain speech; a music that could somehow get across the impenetrable barrier between art and life, not to ‘express’ nature but to flow along as part of it.’ His aesthetic idea about music, thus, is the representation of human experiences and activities or perhaps in a more accurate sense, his own experiences and activities.
The product arouse from this aesthetic idea is a little contradictive. On the one hand, Ives write music that is difficult, which every part is a separate and individual activity; on the other, he write things that are easy, banal and popular. This is a diversity of musical style of Ives in general. However, Ives’s aim is to break down the distinction between man and nature, between art and life, and to integrate them into some all-embracing experience. As such, Ives’s aim assists to give birth to the formation of the diversities of musical style in even one single work. For example, Ives’s last unfinished piece, the Universe symphony, is an example. According to Ives’s idea, the work is to be a ‘Universe’ Symphony (its name is Universe) that should be played and sung in the field and mountains by thousands – indeed, by all of humanity.
In another work, Ives seeks to capture American life – the human life in his view - especially American experiences – the human experiences in his view - with music, in a more directly programmatic way. The Housatonic at Stockbridge is this extraordinary work that evokes a walk by the river Ives and his wife shares soon after their marriage. The main melody is given to second violas, horn and English horn, and it is harmonized with simple tonal triads by lower strings and brass suggesting a hymn wafting from the church across the river. At the same time, there are some repeating figures set in distant tonal and rhythmic regions (upper strings) and are subtly changing over time. The sound seems to convey a sense of the mists and rippling water. How romantic the experience of Ives is! How fantastic the experience of human life is!
Similar to the sonic setting of this work, most of Ives’s works about human life experiences, or his experiences, are composed in the form of various textural layers, distinguished by timbre, register, rhythm, pitch content and dynamic level. These sonic layers functions to create a sense of three-dimensional space and multiple planes of activity. For example, the Central park in the Dark, it is a work that depicts the noises and music of the city against the background sounds of nature, which are rendered as a soft series of atonal chords in parallel motion. In addition, the songs, such as The Last Reader and The Things Our Fathers Loved, suggest a similar source of memory through a patchwork of fragment from songs of the past. The music, eventually, becomes a complex collage of sounds. Collage, therefore, becomes a favorite technique of Ives, which helps Ives to develop his unique style.
In conclusion, the musical style of Ives is unique, innovative and diversified. Although Ives’s music enjoyed only a few public performances in Ives’s life time, this special situation turned to become an advantage for Ives to develop his avant-garde music style. Ives is proved to be one of the earliest artists to use the human experience as a subject matter for art and thus assisting the development of his musical diversities. His ‘amateurism’ ensures him in a unique position of his composing career that he could create whatever he likes without necessarily care about the authority. In addition, Ives’s musical background in the childhood provided him unlimited musical experiences, the resources that he could quote in his music. In fact, the most important factor contributing to his musical diversities is his idealism about the music, about the social world. Ives accepts the conception that a unity within diversities would eventually come, no matter in the social or the artistic sphere. And Ives’s strong belief of intuition, as well as his aesthetic of music as a kind of human experience or activity, leads him to enjoy writing diversities of musical style even for a single piece. Therefore, Ives’s music styles can range from the simple hymn tunes, ragtime to the most complex, atonal polyphonies, bringing him to become one of the most important 20th century composers in the western music history. Furthermore, Ives’s idea of the totality of human experience within a personal utterance is proved to be an evocation of some Golden Age in which art and life are – or will be – naturally and inextricably woven together.
David Leung (theorydavid)