Well . . . I minored in history. Not that I was going to be an historian, but I felt at the time a little understood desire to have some context for the things I hoped to look at and listen to in life. It’s made things more interesting and fulfilling for me, given experiences greater texture and pleasure, and helped me understand Charles Ives.
Not that anyone can truly understand Ives; his own context is self-made in an important way. He made his memories into a myth of his father, his boyhood and of America, and then made an American music out of those myths. His music is often bad and great simultaneously, full of things that don’t quite work and that don’t quite make sense musically. But the quality of his art, which is frequently full of exalted power, is almost secondary to the concepts, the attempts. Hearing Ives is hearing an artist who is trying to be like Zeus, and force his own Athena of American musical art out of his head and into the world.
He did this in part through, and later against, Yale, and Yale has abetted the honor through the work of Vivian Perlis and her Oral History of American Music project at the University. Forty years ago, Perlis interviewed Ives’ business partner Julian Myrick, and that began a career that has produced some of the most important histories of American composers, the stories they tell about themselves. By speaking with composers and those who knew them, Perlis has been able to produce biographical works about Ives and Aaron Copland, and the recent “Composers’ Voices from Ives to Ellington,” a collection from the OHAM archives and a beautiful document that includes two CDs worth of audio excerpts. The archives themselves have over 2,000 interviews collected from more than 900 subjects.
It’s a happy accident of history that Perlis came along in the 20th century, an era that saw the fast and deep maturity of American music and the growth of the technology that could record it. The music that composers make is in constant dialogue with history and Perlis’ work with living composers like Copland, Carter, Lou Harrison, Eubie Blake, Bernstein and Ellington made that conversation a piece of recorded history. A few weeks ago at Zankel Hall, the Yale in New York music series presented both those dialogues in honor of Perlis’ achievement.
The music on the program, curated by Artistic Director David Shifrin, all came from these subjects, American composers from Ives to Steve Reich. And for all but the first piece the performances were preceded by short video that both introduced the composers and showed portions of their interviews. Everything was well chosen. Historians of music may be familiar with Bernstein’s anecdote about how he would clear the room at parties by playing Copland’s Piano Variations, but to see the two men sitting with each other on a couch as Lenny tells the tale is enthralling. And while music lovers enjoy reading composers explaining their ideas and pieces, having them talk to someone about them, and to us, is fascinating and hones the anticipation for the performances.
The audience greeted Perlis with a standing ovation, and then the concert proper began with Ives’ From the Steeples and Mountains, capably played by a graduate student ensemble. Honed by the sense of occasion and history, the music sounded in this performance like a proto-version of Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten. Conductor William Purvis let the final tubular bells frequencies disappear completely into ravishing silence. After the film, the Piano Variations were next. The piece is a great example of the lesser-known, Modernist period of the composer and is a great work. The style is intellectually bracing, and Copland’s ideas and the way he works with his material is always completely transparent. Music like this, where the ear can follow exactly what’s happening, is fundamentally friendly, and Wei-Yi Yang gave a vibrant performance. The classical introduction was rounded out by Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s Lament for Cello and Piano, a simple, expressive and very beautiful piece, played with a gorgeous tone by Lachezar Kostov, accompanied by Viktor Valkov.
Willie Ruff then carried his bass onstage and explained that his scheduled partner, Dwike Mitchell, had been involved in a little accident with a pizza deliveryman on a bicycle, and although was not seriously hurt was unable to perform. Fortunately, Richard Stoltzman was already on hand, and the two played an easy, elegant rendition of Blake’s Memories of You; bluesy and swinging. The clarinetist led off the second half with the finest performance of Steve Reich’s New York Counterpoint I’ve heard. He played with great freedom of pulse against the audio track, added subtle variations in phrasing to music where no such variation would seem possible, and swung and wailed through the last section. Stoltzman brought out the jazz in Reich.
The modern vein continued in very different directions with Dance with Shadows, a brass quintet from Jacob Druckman, and John Cage’s Third Construction for four percussionists. The Druckman piece starts off slowly, but develops a dancing, expressive style and has a vocalized language, full of humor. When it ends you wish it had gone on longer. Cage’s piece is one of his good actual compositions, with nimble, dancing rhythms and an irresistible playfulness. The score produces a great deal of melody out of the instruments, and graduate student ensemble played the piece with great verve and pleasure, tremendously fun to hear and watch. At the end, Perlis, greeted with a fanfare was saluted once again, with Fanfare for the Common Man. A sentimental choice, certainly, but appropriate. At times the trumpets seemed a little exposed in the ensemble, but the full sound of the brass was as resonant and powerful as the music requires. Part concert, part celebration, this was a great program of music and memories.
It is Ives I need to return to again, because this all starts with him; Yale, Perlis, American music. Everything about the program depends on Ives. And if any music fundamentally is about personal histories, those of the composers and those of listeners, it is songs, and Ives wrote a large number of songs, many of them great, most of them important. He put together a collection of those he thought best, 114 of them, and the music and recordings are easy to find. But he wrote many more, and Naxos, as part of their indispensible American Classics series, has recorded every one of them, divided in chronological order into six CDs. The large cast of singers are young and unknown, most more than capable. This is not for the casual Ives fan, of course, but at their budget price the recordings are essential for fans. There is so much of the composer’s own foundation in Brahms in the songs, and while the earliest ones may be derivative, there are no clunkers.
There’s also a fascinating recent recording from the singer Theo Bleckmann, with the group Kneebody. They take a dozen songs from Ives and arrange them in a style that’s a mélange of pop, jazz and rock. This kind of thing has been done just a bit and needs to be done more; Ives’ music is begging for someone to play around with, and I think the composer would approve. Not of every part of the CD, though. Sometimes the musicians play the songs fairly straight, the arrangements taking an obvious course, like on “At The River” and “The Housatonic at Stockbridge,” and everything in Ives’ biography screams that he would have wanted someone to mess around a hell of a lot more with his work than that. There is a lot of messing around, though, and the results can be extraordinary. The opening “Songs My Mother Taught Me” begins with some enticing radio noise, runs through a deceptively plain rendition, then marches through a sustained, plangent vamp that is powerful and satisfying. The short, angular songs “The Cage” and “The See’r” are fantastic, revealed as pieces of proto prog-rock, and the piano introduction to “The New River” is twenty seconds of the best, most idiomatic Ives’ playing on record. A little inconsistent, but this recording is so full of great ideas and music and is one of the most interesting things released in years. It makes the case that Charles Ives belongs in the Great American Songbook.
Updated: Video embed was lost in first posting.
Update II: Corrected a name and some details.