Thursday, April 9, 2009

Charles Ives

Charles Ives, Concord Sonata!  Tonight I was able to witness a beautiful performance at UNC of guest artist Stephen Drury playing Charles Ives' Concord Sonata.  I still have a fond memory of listening to this in a friend's attic room with the score on a nice summer day, with a sun beam coming in, and hearing the Emerson movement.  It's a four movement work written for Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, and the Alcotts, each piece lining up to the character of the person(s) dedicated to.  The one problem tonight, was towards the end of the Alcotts movement, the air conditioning came on in the hall, and Stephen Drury stopped playing and waited for it to be shut off, before coming out and finishing out the piece.  The playing was incredible, and I knew as soon as he walked out onto the stage, holding a plank of wood, this would be an intriguing show!  I am also geared up for the John Zorn Cobra performance with Drury tomorrow, more details to follow after the fact!

So onto Charles Ives for a bit.  First music I heard by him was this concord sonata, and then some miscellaneous vocal and piano music in a music history course.  I knew I loved his ears and musical sense, especially for how early he was writing this seemingly far out music in the late 1800s and into the 20th century, but took me a bit to dig in further.  Eventually I checked out a group called "Sideshow" with Matt Moran and John Hollenbeck of the Claudia Quintet, performing Ives songs in a quartet, but took me longer to go to the source.  I was fortunate within the past year to get a recording of his "Universe Symphony" as well as winning a lot of 10+ LPs on ebay of all Ives music, and finding a book of his writings titled "Charles E. Ives Memos" all  around the same month or so.  Needless to say, this sent me into a wonderful polytonal phase of listening, and a world of sound that I had not fully entered before.  The music speaks to me especially growing up in a protestant church, and hearing those same church musics present in Ives' music, but through a filter of surreality and humor.  

Now to quote a few fun compositional facts I found in his writings in the book "Memos."  First off, Charles Ives was educated in music by his father, George Ives, who supposedly according to Abraham Lincoln, led the best military band in the Union in the civil war.  Charles Ives' father also was experimenting on his own with polytonality, quarter tones, and always searching for new sounds, a trait his son would pick up, and go farther with.  So quotes from the book now:

"I made a little practice piece called "Holding your own" as a joke and dedicated to Bach.  One man plays the chromatic scale and another a diatonic scale, but in a different time - We played it over and had a laugh.  But last time I found it , it seemed quite musical, and worth playing..."

"In practicing the drum parts on the piano (not on the drums, neighbor's request) I remember getting tired of using the tonic, dominant, and subdominant triads...  So I got to try out sets of notes to go with or take-off the drums -  for the snare drum, right hand notes usually close together - and for the bass drum wider chords.  They had little to do with the harmony of the piece, and were only used as sound combinations and such.  For the explosive notes or heavy accents in either drum, the first or flat of the hand was sometimes used, usually longer groups in the right hand than the left." 

"...and also, if you can play a tune in one key, why can't a feller, if he feels like it, play one in two keys?  For instance the melody could start in F, with the accompaniment in Eb, then in Gb, or throw off the last eighth note of a phrase, and repeat the tune over starting on the off beat, thus making it a main beat!"

So many great ideas, that came out of a having a music educator as a father, and creating these sounds while experimenting with ideas as a young pianist/composer, and never losing that sense of wonder in the world of sound.

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