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…