CD Liner Notes- Responses to Ives, Mode Records

Release date- June 2009


Responses to Ives

by Heather OÕDonnell



The project "Responses to Ives"was conceived in 2003 as a way to acknowledge the 50th anniversary of Charles IvesÕs death (May 19, 2004).


The project had humble origins. I approached a handful of composers known to have strong affinities for Ives and asked them to write a "musical reflection" on the presence of Charles Ives in their lives and work. Impressed by the enthusiastic responses from these composers and encouraged by the powerful sense of identification they felt with Ives (musically and personally), I invited more composers to participate- the project grew to proportions more worthy of the composer of grand projects like the  Universe Symphony or The Celestial Country,  and finally premiered at the  MaerzMusik Festival in Berlin in 2004 in the midst of a twelve hour extravaganza of Ives and Ives-inspired music.  In the months following  repeat performances took place in South Africa, China, the Czech Republic, Germany,  and the US.


The issuing of the CD in the spring of 2009 presents an opportunity to speculate on the lingering presence of Charles Ives in contemporary life and culture.  Ives would certainly have experienced fascination and dismay, hope and concern by our times. Perhaps the son of an old Yankee abolitionist family would have been deeply moved by the election of our first African-American president. He would have certainly had much to say about contemporary issues such as the endangering of our natural environment, globalism, the erosion of basic constitutional principles, a non-regulated free market, military ostentatiousness and preemptive doctrines, as well as irresponsibility and rampant greed in business culture. He may have been fascinated by the Information Age with its democratizing implications and educational potentials, and would have certainly had at least one remedy for his involuntary artistic isolation in having a MySpace page. 


The task of  trying to sum up a soul as magnificently and maddeningly varied, conflicted, and all-encompassing as Charles Ives can be daunting and often leads to painfully shallow and incomplete caricatures of the man and his outward eccentricities.  Enough attention has been allocated to the image of a Yankee crank with a spiteful tongue and explosive temperament, this writer prefers to focus more on the mystical pragmatist in Ives, the enormously successful insurance executive who cared to spend his free hours in the deepest searchings and strivings for a universal musical language that could serve as an awakening agent for humanity on the cusp of realizing its transcendental potential.


Charles Ives, a man who embodied the Emersonian call to self-reliance, found his voice in personal and artistic seclusion, maintained his enthusiasm for music by never subjecting it to earning his keep.  Instead of scraping together a meagre subsistence as a music teacher, free-lance composer, or full-time church organist, Ives made a comfortable living in life insurance.  This allowed him to devote himself to composition on weekends or holidays, free to pursue his musical imagination without needing to worry about existential issues or public taste.  A deeply spiritual person capable of discerning divine elements in humble forms, Ives was divided between a spirit of generosity in supporting and encouraging fellow composers and a penchant for acidic and irascible denunciations of composers who he felt threatened by. He was a beautifully and brazenly flawed man who had little concern for reaching the sterile perfection of classical form, but instead strove with great zeal and untiring investment towards the dizzyingly ambitious aim of reflecting through music a totality of human experience, divine and profane.  Ives lived  Transcendentalist ideals of spiritual awareness , intellectual independence and idealism. His political orientations were progressive, optimistic about human nature and the innate goodness of the majority, he was an active and exemplary citizen, sacrificing his time and health for aiding the war effort in 1918.  At the same time, he maintained a watchful and critical eye on the Wilson administration.  His music was also progressive, ever-expanding the tonal system within an aesthetic universe in which dissonance was an indication of strength and honesty, reflecting the motley multifariousness of lifeÕs experiences. He effortlessly combined wildly divergent musical expressions into a unified whole, eradicating hierarchical notions of "high" as opposed to "common" music.  He elevated the local to the universal, and brought universal themes back to his Yankee homestead. He began an experimentalist tradition which continues on to today by playfully challenging musical dogma in the areas of tonality, rhythm and form. He adhered to a strong and reliable inner compass of decency and virtue, and lived and worked uncompromisingly towards his ideals.


This disc is intended to be a celebration of Charles Ives, through his own works as well as reflected in the work of contemporary composers who admire and love him. 





Charles Ives- Study No. 21: Some Southpaw Pitching !


Ives effortlessly straddles musical expressions that evoke issues of existential importance and the most mundane details of local life in New England.  This piece tends towards the latter, coyly intended as an exercise to strengthen the left hand (the subtitle is : "and to toughen up the [paw]", presumably for preparing the player to be a better "Southpaw" Pitcher, that is to say, a baseball pitcher who throws with his left hand.  Ives borrows a haunting theme from the Stephen Foster song about slavery, "MassaÕs in de Cold Ground", tied to a fragment from "Joy to the World"  This seemingly innocent and light-hearted hand-strengthening exercise may also address a more sombre and profound theme, namely the joyous emancipation from enslavement in a particularly Ivesian amalgamation of seemingly disparate elements


Walter Zimmermann- the missing nail at the river for piano + toy piano


"Shall we gather at the river

Where bright angel feet have trod,

With its crystal tide forever

Flowing by the throne of God?


When I visited the birthhouse

of Charles Ives in Danbury

some years ago

it was under construction

to be renovated.

I just walked in

and found myself in his childhood bedroom

in the midst of the renovator's working tools.


When I left the house,

there was an old nail

with a flat head laying around

on the front porch.

It was of no use anymore,

having been replaced by new ones,

I assumed...

So I took it.


Yes we'll gather at the river,

the beautiful, the beautiful river,

Yes we'll gather at the river

that flows by the throne of God. "


            -Walter Zimmermann


 Charles Ives- Set of Five Take-Offs

            i. The Seen and Unseen ?

            ii. Rough and Ready et al.

            iii. Song without (Good) Words

            iv. Scene Episode

            v. Bad Resolutions and God WAN!


Written on a holiday trip over the New Year 1906-07 to Old Point Comfort, Virginia, Ives was largely occupied with trying to recover from mounting health concerns, but found sufficient time and energy to compose.  The Five Take-Offs have the character of musical journal entries, starting points for exploring a particular idea or problem that Ives was fascinated with at the moment. The pieces may have provided a welcome diversion from the health difficulties he was experiencing. The Seen and Unseen ? combines a yearning nostalgia for bygone musical expressions spiced up with new and dissonant unseen additives to the chords. Rough and Ready et al. (also called The Jumping Frog), is a wild and unruly study in displaced accents. Song without (Good) Words throws a seemingly ironic but gentle glance at MendelssohnÕs Lieder ohne Worte coming across as a loving tribute to Mendelssohnian melodic grace. Scene Episode quotes the spiritual O Happy Day in a pensive and dreamlike fabric of harmonic suspensions. Bad Resolutions and Good WAN! shows how Ives was taught as a music student to write "correct" Chorales- bloodless, staid, and boring, and hints at a not very well-observed New YearÕs resolution to Ôfollow the rulesÕ, throwing in an ending which appeals more to his own sensibilities.


Michael Finnissy- Song of Myself


Michael Finnissy takes the inspiration for his Ives reflection from another Emersonian artist, the poet Walt Whitman whose magnum opus Song of Myself set the tone for a generation of American artists in challenging dogma  by impulsively and passionately soaking up a wealth of experience directly from the earth under oneÕs own feet, thereby  forming an individual, unique and honest world view.  WhitmanÕs poem is as explosive and revelatory as it is ponderous and visceral. Michael Finnissy brings these qualities out in the heraldic and rhapsodic opening of his piece, which soon melts into a more local and personal expression of a simple theme (a quote from BeethovenÕs Scottish Songs) which slowly begins to disintegrate, vacillating between silence and fragmentary musical remembrances from the earlier parts of the piece, like a cosmic radio transmission intermittently picking up and broadcasting signals of a collective memory.


Charles Ives- from Four Transcriptions from "Emerson"

ii. Moderato


Elements from IvesÕs Emerson movement of the Concord Sonata (or the unfinished Emerson concerto) weave their way into a remarkable number of IvesÕs pieces.  Ives had a resistance to fully completing any given piece, but instead kept possibilities open for revisiting and improving the material. He says in his Memos : "It is a peculiar experience, and, I must admit, a stimulating and agreeable one that IÕve had with this Emerson music. It may have something to do with the feeling I have about Emerson, for every time I read him I seem to get a new angle of thought and feeling and experience from him ." Emerson himself writes in his essay Self-Reliance : "Speak what you think now in hard words and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. "



James Tenney- Essay (after a sonata) for inside-piano


James TenneyÕs piece echoes a theme from IvesÕs Emerson movement of the Concord Sonata.  In IvesÕs work this theme is breathlessly uttered in an exhilaratingly impulsive way. Tenney filters this expression through his own artistic sensibilities, the theme is painstakingly and lovingly reconstructed, note for note, played only in the inside of the piano by plucking the strings like a harp.  A sense of the spirit of IvesÕs theme (and in turn IvesÕs own presence) slowly emerges through the quiet and  meditative process of reconstituting and reincarnating a theme.



Charles Ives- from Four Transcriptions from "Emerson"

iii. Largo

Ives had  great admiration for Ralph Waldo Emerson, depicting him musically as well as in his writings as a near divinity. From IvesÕs Essays Before a Sonata : "Emerson isÉ AmericaÕs deepest explorer of the spiritual immensities- a seer painting his discoveries in masses and with any color that may lie at hand- cosmic, religious human, even sensuousÉ We see him- a mountain guide so intensely on the lookout for the trail of his star that he has no time to stop and retrace his footprints. " Working on Emerson material seemed to be an exercise for Ives in strengthening and solidifying his understanding for the author.





Charles Ives- Study No. 9: The Anti-Abolitionist Riots in the 1830's and 1840's


This piece has little to do with studies that are intended to improve pianistic abilities. Here Ives  contemplates a dark episode in American history, namely the riots throughout New England (most notably in New York in Boston) against the Abolitionist (Anti-Slavery) movement. Abolitionist conferences during these times where nearly always met with angry mobs who violently attacked Blacks as well as the Abolitionist leaders. In Boston in 1834 a leader of the Abolitionist movement, William Lloyd Garrison, was dragged through the streets by a rope,  only to be rescued by the mayor promptly placing him in jail for his own safekeeping. The Transcendentalists were strong advocates of Abolition, and Emerson (though criticized for his delay in responding to the issue) wrote : "I think we must get rid of slavery or we must get rid of freedom.... If you put a chain around the neck of a slave, the other end fastens itself around your own." Ives further develops his Emerson ömaterial in this piece.


Sidney Corbett- The Celestial Potato Fields (in memoriam Charles Ives)


The humblest forms carry traces of the divine:


Why thou art there, thou rival of the rose,

I never thought to ask, I never knew,

But in my simple ignorance suppose,

The self -same Power that brought me here, brought you.



 This transcendental and pantheistic idea is prominent in Sidney CorbettÕs work, as well as a kabbalist acknowledgment of GodÕs omnipresence . Corbett, for whom a significant part of the act of composition is "a theosophical and spiritual enterprise", begins his work with crystalline chords in pure celestial skies, untouched by humanity.  The music dives down to earth and builds in intensity, encompassing fragments out of IvesÕs own 114 Songs in a trajectory that eventually leads the listener back into heavenly realms.



Charles Ives- London Bridge Is Fallen Down!

(Burlesque Harmonization of "London Bridge")


A bitonal, rhythmically-displaced and vaudevillian version of the popular song, reconstructed by Kenneth Singleton from sketches of a 17-year-old Charles Ives.


Oliver Schneller- ÒAnd tomorrowÉÓ  for piano and electronics


And tomorrow, tomorrow

the light as a thought forgotten comes again, again,

and with it ever the hope of the New Day.         

            Charles Ives, ÒSunriseÓ


Ives, a  lifelong progressive, became fascinated in the 1920s by new explorations in the world of microtonal composition and prophesied "some century to come, when the school children will whistle popular tunes in quarter-tones".  IvesÕs piece Three Quarter-Tone Pieces for Two Pianos is a point of departure for Oliver SchnellerÕs composition for piano and electronics.  Here, the electronics (derived purely  from  piano sounds) enable an impression of a quarter-tone-tuned super-piano.  The piece captures the enthusiasm of ever-expanding musical potentials,  an inspiring agent that seems to have carried Ives through several decades of public neglect.  The piece remembers the ragtime atmosphere of the early 20th century and ends somewhere and sometime in the future in a realm of infinite possibilities.




This project would certainly not have been possible without support from various institutions and individuals: Deutschlandfunk, Frank KŠmpfer, Brian Brandt, the Aaron Copland Fund/Music Recording Program, MaerzMusik/Berliner Festspiele, Canada Arts Council, the Puffin Foundation, Kenneth Derus, Dr. Donald Casey, and the Banff Centre for the Arts, Canada.


 I owe a special thank you : 


to all the composers who so generously and positively gave their energy and ideas to this project, especially George Flynn and Frederic Rzewski whose beautiful pieces could not be included on the CD due to time constrictions.


to Matthias Osterwold whose support got the project going in the first place.


to my mother who always participates in my work with enthusiasm and encouragement no matter how far out the musical interests get.


to Oliver for his inspiration and for a shared love of Ives that goes back between us for as long as there was an "us".