On Ives – 1

April 17, 2009 at 6:00 am 1 comment

Recently, I was asked by Joe Thompson, a student at Birmingham University, to answer some questions he had about Ives (he is writing a thesis on Uncle Charlie). Knowing that I was delinquent in my amusicology posts, I proposed answering his questions in three successive blog posts. So here is the first one.

The Ives scholar is constantly exposed to Ives’s very subjective view of the relationship between written score and performance. Would you call the works that we know as “finished works” in the conventional sense? In your view, To what extent do Ives’s invitations for performers to “throw around the composer” affect the completeness of the works?

I’ve thought about this question (or versions of it) while working on my dissertation, and think that it reveals a lot of the issues bound up in Ives scholarship (a possibly the postmodern condition of musicology as a whole) today. The emphasis that has been placed on the ontological predicament of  Ives’s unfinished or fluid works — for example the Fourth Symphony and the Concord Sonata — has caused his normative (if we can use that word unproblematically for a moment) compositional practice to be eclipsed by these singular works. Let me say that again without using big words: I think Ives’s “radical” aspects sometimes crowd out his connection with tradition.

Scholarship by Geoffrey Block, Peter Burkholder, and others, has emphasized Ives’s allegiance with various traditions, particularly the European concert music tradition. I think that in certain important cases (I’m most familiar with the Concord), Ives’s invitation to be “thrown around” in the hands of the performer is essential for a comprehensive view of the piece. I’m not sure, however, that this flexibility necessarily undermines the completeness of the work, since the 1947 edition of Concord is perfectly servicable as a free standing text for performance (well, mostly – there are some spots where it is basically impossible to play or unclear how to). Contradiction? Probably. But here we are.

But I would qualify this all by saying that most of Ives’s works are complete, and it is somewhat misleading to portray Ives’s fluid view of certain texts that he created as somehow characteristic of his output as a whole (having enjoyed six concerts of his songs in one weekend during the Ives Vocal Marathon, I was thoroughly persuaded of Ives’s allegiance with certain traditions), or granting unlimited license for the pieces that they do seem to apply to (John Kirkpatrick stuck overwhelmingly with Ives’s own variants (i.e., not composing new patches) during his lifetime of  “playing at” the Concord Sonata). 

More rumination on the other two questions to follow …

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Harvard Theatre Collection – Ballets Russes Symposium – Day 2 More on Ives – Day 2

1 Comment

  • 1. Joe Thompson  |  April 18, 2009 at 7:54 am

    I’d agree with your points on the concord for sure, but if you look at the 129 songs – which is basically an Ives Society collection of critical editions of his songs, you’ll see an amazing number of variations, both small and large. In the printed variants, if you look at the left hand of the piano for ‘Nov. 20 – An Election’ for example, often the shape of the phrase remains similar, though the notes differ. As Kirkpatrick said: Ives lived in the present, and he jotted things down when he thought of them; though in the above example, the essential aspects of the piece remain the same, the texture is slightly altered. These revisions are representative of Ives attitude to his own music, that he threw around his own work.

    Maybe we could use his own revisionist variants as models for our own interpretations or improvisations whilst performing his music (even the songs)…


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