Saturday, April 15, 2006

I Wish Charles Ives Could Be a California Guy

The title of this post should be sung to the similarly titled Beach Boys song.

Saturday the 14th was the final concert for Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the San Francisco Symphony before they traveled to Carnegie Hall for a series of concerts. Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, the mezzo-soprano diva of the last decade, was originally slated to sing Mahler songs as part of the program but she canceled with a "gall bladder obstruction."

The last minute replacement for the concert and the tour was Stravinsky's "Petrushka," which I'd heard in a fairly dull performance earlier in the year before the tour to China, so I showed up at intermission.

The second half was a rare performance of Charles Ives' "Holidays" Symphony, four discrete pieces of bizarre programmatic music dedicated to Washington's Birthday, Decoration [Memorial] Day, The Fourth of July, and Thanksgiving respectively. Seeing that this concert was being performed during a five-day period that included Passover, Good Friday and Easter, the programming struck me as unintentionally Secular Humanist Gone Berserk, in a nice way.

The great musical essayist Michael Steinberg had a wonderful piece in the program explaining the music, which he calls an "Ivesian Four Seasons," a perfect description. He continues:
"It is not only what the Danbury, Connecticut bands played -- and Ives's music is always full of references to hymns, marches, dance music, and other sounds from the vernacular -- but their blending and colliding that determined the sound of his compositions. He loved musical collage and gave new meaning to the notion of polyphony. In his scores it is not just the counterpoint of individual musical strands but the coming together of whole different musics. He shocked his listeners by blurring the hallowed line between the cultivated and the popular. He questioned the idea that tempo should be stable and probed the possibility of flexible, evolving speeds. He found his way to polytonality, atonality, polyrhythms, and other devices that, like Leonardo's bicycle and contact lenses and ball bearings, all had to be reinvented by others."

It's interesting that most of those reinventors of Ives' discoveries were West Coasters like Henry Cowell (who Ives treated disgracefully when Cowell was thrown into San Quentin for being a homosexual), Lou Harrison, John Cage and a multitude of other visionaries.

Most of Ives' major pieces weren't even performed until after he died in 1954, including the present edition of the "Holidays" Symphony, and the major reason for that was not their weirdness, astringent New Englandness, or sheer adventurous quality but because the composer himself stopped composing in 1924 and became a rich insurance asshole in New York City instead.

In my fantasy alternate universe, Ives didn't react to his wild small-town messianic bandleader daddy and become a shrewd monster on Wall Street, but instead went to California and protected, nurtured and learned from Henry Cowell, hung out with Charles Seeger (father of Pete) at UC Berkeley, and lived happily and beautifully into his 90's somewhere on the California coast, changing the entire course of musical history while he was at it.

In a sense, that alternate history is being played out through John Adams. The first movement of his recent commission from the San Francisco Symphony, "My Father Knew Charles Ives," is one of the greatest homages to another composer that I've ever heard. (Will somebody please record it, for Christ's sake?) He takes the whole four-bands-walking into the central New England gazebo square polyphony to its wonderful next step, and Adams' father was also a New England bandleader, so there's real connection there.

The difference is that Adams, unlike Ives, moved to California at the right moment in his life and has bridged that New England Transcendantal Inventor/California Hipster Holy Visionary divide quite perfectly. If you live in New York, make sure you go hear the San Francisco Symphony performance, by the way. This orchestra and its conductor know what they're doing with this music, and it really is special.


Anonymous said...

very nice..
what happened yesterday, got lost in the rain...hugo is very resentfull...

Anonymous said...

I am not going to score any points with you for saying this, SFMike, but I find your overly devoted reporting of the stodgy Opera/Symphony thing to be deadly boring. I am much more interested in getting your insights/pictures of what is going on at City Hall.

Civic Center said...

Dear Anonymous: How can you possibly score any points with me if I don't even know who you are? In any case, another friend was just telling me how much they liked my stodgy opera/symphony accounts, but found the local City Hall political descriptions impossibly provincial and boring. Different tastes, different people.

In truth, if I just confined myself to accounts of local politics, I would find myself bored to death pretty quickly, so I'm going to continue my more catholic pursuits. Just skip the parts you find dull and pick and choose amongst the rest.

Trevor Murphy said...

Well, as somebody reasonably local, I like both the impossibly boring and provincial City Hall coverage and the deadly boring, stodgy Opera/Symphony thing. I wish I could make it up to see more of these deadly boring, stodgy concerts myself instead of reading about them.

That being said: I loved seeing somebody finally come out and call Ives a 'rich insurance asshole'. All the biographers tiptoe around that detail and try their hardest to put a happy gloss on that and all the mean-spirited ranting about 'sissies' (not to mention the back-dating of his scores and sneaky addition of 'modern' stuff to his older works).

Anonymous said...

"In my fantasy alternate universe, Ives didn't react to his wild small-town messianic bandleader daddy and become a shrewd monster on Wall Street, but instead went to California and protected, nurtured and learned from Henry Cowell, hung out with Charles Seeger (father of Pete) at UC Berkeley, and lived happily and beautifully into his 90's somewhere on the California coast, changing the entire course of musical history while he was at it."

John Adams might fit that alternate universe, but I Henry Brant might fit it even better (90 years old, lives in Santa Barbara).

I remember enjoying the first movement of My Father Knew Charles Ives and being terribly bored by the middle and last movements. I second the call for a recording, though!

MTT does have a strong connection to Ives - he recorded the Holidays Symphony superlatively with the Chicago SO 10 or 15 years ago. There's a kind of Bali-meets-Danbury element to some of his own music, too.

-a different anonymous

PWS said...

Do you modern San Franciscans celebrate the 100th anniversary of the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 like the rest of America does? It's been all over the Tee-Vee.

Mike are you aware of a small hotel near North Beach called the Vagabond Inn? I think it might be a chain of motels-but I'm guessing there is only one in the city.
I had to stay there one night as I had no money and didn't mind a hotel with fecal matter floating in the pool, when I was there and there was a giant circular red stain on the door where it is obvious a drug deal went horribly wrong and a head was blown off.

Wondering if you are familiar...I'll stay away from it next time I'm there.

As for Ives and Ruggles, they weren't very pleasant folks were they? Not big fans of Jews and Gays and Women.

Oh wellsies.

Lulu Maude said...

Henry Cowell was gay?!?!?! I used to live in Santa Cruz... the nicest spot for a low-key stroll was Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park.

Poor Henry.

Justin Kreutzmann said...

very cool, a local blog!

Anonymous said...

I think it's great that you cover cultural events and to hell with politics---- speaking of artists being rejected, Vivaldi was shunned in his latter years, died a pauper and buried in an unmarked grave and these new pups are whining that royalties run out after 50 years. Can you imagine the millions people have made off Vivaldi and he didn't see a penny of it....

Daniel Wolf said...

Ives didn't stop "composing in 1924 and became a rich insurance asshole". He did business and composed in parallel until his health gave out and he had to give up both.

When he came out of college, around the turn of the century, he did try, for a time, to make a career as a professional musician (mostly as a church organist) and composer (his experiments with theatre orchestra players took place at this time). Going into business, and especially into a career that allowed him free evenings and weekends and time back home in Connecticut, removed him from the pressures of a direct connection between music and income and likely enabled him to compose his most ambitious works -- which were written on a canvas much larger than the earlier experimental works, but which incorporated many of their insights.

Daniel Wolf said...

The Henry Cowell of the Cowell Redwoods was not the same as the composer.

Anonymous said...

Hi Michael,
We can always pick and choose, thank goodness. Both politics and classical music struck me as deadly serious and requiring one to acquire special clothes and attitudes. Thanks for showing you can come as you are, wear jeans to the symphony (gasp) and think what you will of the experience.

anonymously yrs,

Civic Center said...

Dear Daniel: Thanks for the correction on the Cowell redwoods, and I'll bow before your superior knowledge of Ives. The "stopped composing" I got from Michael Steinberg's notes in the San Francisco Symphony program, and the "rich insurance asshole" popped out because I just finished doing a job for an American health insurance company which only confirmed for me that the insurance industry is essentially just another branch of organized crime. I love your composer's blog, by the way.

Dear Different Anonymous: I actually heard Henry Brant premiering his "Ice Fields" at the San Francisco Symphony back in 2001 or 2002. It was commissioned by the great Other Minds Music group and went on to win a Pulitzer, and was really fun to hear live because Brant's "spacial" music was designed to be played from all over Davies Hall, with the 80-year-old-plus Henry Brant himself improvising away at the pipe organ.

Dear Trevor and Heidi: Thanks for being amused by my boringness. I love it.

Anonymous said...

Kudos for your never boring or stodgy reporting of activities in the concert hall. Your right about Ives, but we have to be very careful and not apply what we know today with what was life of the middle class in Danbury Conn 100 years ago. Ives reacted against the really stodgy and boring state of American concert music at the time, which was German tutored and Germanic in sound. Ives wanted something specifically American. The fact that he gave up composing in order to make a living only indicates the degree of his isolation. He lived long enough to start to see some of his music performed. In mind his only fault was that he was born perhaps 50 years too early. But, had he been born in the 1950's, he probably wouldn't have become a composer.

Anonymous said...

The John Adams piece is being performed at the BBC Proms this year (11 August), and will be available online for a week afterwards. I'm assured that these web broadcasts are available in the US. Ives' 2nd Symphony is on 30 August, played by the Pittsburgh SO

Anonymous said...

You think if Ives had moved to California in 1898 he still would've been Charles Ives? Next time you run into John Adams, let him him know you think Ives was an insurance executive asshole & see if he laughs. Might as well put Wallace Stevens in that category, too. Of course we know Ives played with his composition dates; he had decades to do it, & it's nearly impossible to believe he could have lived all those years in Manhattan before & after the War War I & remained ignorant of the European avant garde. But it's not as if the 2nd Piano Sonata & Songs magically appeared out of nowhere in 1938. Seems to me all those experimental gay composers who loved Ives so much & helped him were more forgiving of his quirks & foibles than you are.

That said, I think Ives' great mistake was not going to Europe in the 1920s & really pressing his case for being the first, great innovative American composer. Psychologically, Ives was afraid of success & acceptance. He bet his entire creative soul on it not happening. But by letting others fight his cultural wars, he inadvertantly ceded American art music to Aaron Copland's powerful circle of Francophiles. The dirty story is how Copland stole it away from guys like Cowell & Varese.