“Responses to Ives”
Today, at the beginning of the 21st Century, the resonance of the music of Charles Ives (1874-1954) is still present in contemporary music. Many composers of various aesthetic orientations consider Ives’s work as a major influence in their own musical language. In commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Ives’s death, the American pianist Heather O’Donnell commissioned seven composers to wrote a piece in “response” to Ives.
Together these composers display contemporary expressions of Ives's own characteristics: fierce individuality, progressiveness, idealism, improvisatory talent, sharp wit, use of the vernacular in concert music, political engagement, or activity as pianist-composers.
Frederic Rzewski was born in 1938 in Westfield, Massachusetts. After preliminary studies with Charles Mackey, he began his compositional studies with Walter Piston and Roger Session at Harvard University and with Milton Babbitt at Princeton. In 1960 he visited Italy where he studied with Luigi Dallapiccola and met the flutist Severino Gazzelloni, with whom he gave several concerts- thus beginning his double life as a pianist-composer. His early friendship with Christian Wolff and David Behrman, and (through Wolff) his acquaintance with John Cage and David Tudor, strongly influenced his development in both composition and performance. In Rome in the mid-1960s, together with Alvin Curran and Richard Teitelbaum, he founded the MEV (Musica Elettronica Viva) group, which quickly became known for its pioneering work in improvisation and live-electronics. Bringing together both classical and jazz avant-garde composers (including Anthony Braxton and Steve Lacy), MEV developed an aesthetic of music as a spontaneous collective process.
Rweski’s composition is a row of various views or interpretations of the American revolutionary war era folksong that drew from the Irish song “Schule Aroon”:
Sad I sit on Butternut Hill,
Who could blame me, cry my fill?
And ev’ry tear would turn a mill-
Johnny has gone for a soldier.
Rzewski writes “I simply allowed my thoughts on war, and the current one in particular, to spin themselves out, always following the structure of the song. The ending seems inconclusive, just like the ongoing war now.” Like many of Rzewski’s compositions, (i.e. Coming Together, Attica, The Price of Oil) there’s a concrete and accentuated occupation with politics. In the score of Johnny Has Gone For A Soldier, there are several points in which the interpreter is asked to insert a short improvisation- on the one hand a reference to Rzewski’s activity as a frequently-improvisatory interpreter of his own works, and on the other hand to Ives’s own tendency to always further revise his works and leave an element of openness. Ives wrote in regard to the “Concord Sonata”- “I may always have the pleasure of not finishing it, and hope that it never will be.”
Sidney Corbett, born in Chicago in 1960, studied composition and philosophy at the University of California, San Diego and at Yale University, where he earned his doctorate in 1989. From 1985 to 1987 he studied composition at the Hamburg Academy of Music with György Ligeti, under the auspices of a DAAD Fellowship.
Sidney Corbett's extensive output includes works for the stage, orchestral compositions, ensemble and solo pieces and a large amount of vocal music. His works have earned him numerous national and international awards and prizes (e.g. Irino Foundation in Tokyo, Radio France Musique and BMI New York).
Corbett’s music has been featured at a number of prominent international festivals for contemporary music, such as the Gaudeamus Music Week, Amsterdam, Styrian Autumn, Graz, the Zagreb Biennale, the Zürich Festival and in New York’s Lincoln Center. In 1998, portrait concerts dedicated to Corbett’s music were held at the Wien Modern Festival, Vienna and at the Festival for New American Music, in Sacramento.
The Celestial Potato Fields (in memoriam Charles Ives)
". . . . in every human soul there is a ray of celestial beauty"
Sidney Corbett writes:
“There is no greater presence in American music than Charles Ives and anyone, musician or not, who hasn't read the postface to the 114 songs should do so. Ives' concern with the transcendental, paired with his firm foundations in the commonplace rhythms of daily life were the primary impulses behind The Celestial Potato Fields. Potatoes, sorting them, sowing and harvesting them, were a generative image in Ives' essays, a metaphor for the earthy richness of everyday humanity.
In this piece, as well as all my music, there are intricate proportional relationships on the harmonic and temporal level, and the astute listener may pick up snippets of lines or structures drawn from some of the 114 songs, which have been woven into the texture. This private, sub-crutaneous kabbala is not of fundamental importance. The Celestial Potato Fields is my response to a musical figure who has had a profound and lasting influence on my own musical thought. Among those commonalties between myself and Charles Ives (besides our mutual love for baseball, which we both played actively, although I fear he was a lot better at it than I) is the conviction that music, and especially music composition, is, at least in significant part, a theosophical and spiritual enterprise and my focus in this piece has been particularly on this aspect of Ives' and my own creative stance.”
George Flynn was born in 1937 in Montana. He has composed a variety of works in all media, including nearly five hours of piano music as well as many chamber, choral and orchestral compositions. As a pianist Flynn has performed new music for many years in the US and Europe.
Flynn grew up in Montana and Washington, and counts Ives’s Concord Sonata as one of his earliest musical influences. He studied with Vladimir Ussachevsky, Jack Beeson, Chou Wen-chung and Otto Leuning at Columbia University, where he also taught. While in New York Flynn participated in concerts and demonstrations protesting U.S. involvement in Vietnam, and several of his compositions react to that involvement, including Wound (piano solo 1968); Forgive Death (electronic, 1972); Songs of Destruction (voice and piano, 1973-4); American Icon (piano solo, 1988); Who Shall Inherit the Earth? (mixed quartet, 1989); and Salvage (piano solo, 1993). Other works seek indigenous images (American Festivals and Dreams, American Summer, American City), and some push performing challenges beyond their assumed limits, as Trinity and Derus Simples reveal.
From 1977 to 2001 Flynn chaired Music Composition at DePaul University’s School of Music, Chicago, where he directs that school’s contemporary performance series, New Music DePaul.
The majority of George Flynn’s compositions have political and social themes, often very critical, of his homeland. On the contrary, Remembering is a very personal work, a musical remembrance of a well-known work of Ives: “I was in my early teens when I found John Kirkpatrick’s recording of Ives’s Concord Sonata in the public library of my hometown. Hearing this work changed my life”, writes Flynn. “All of Remembering reflects Ives, of course, but it deliberately includes bits of his Sonata in obvious as well as “secret” ways, accurately presented as well as distorted (the normal way of remembering, I think, and quite typical of the way Ives himself used the past). Some quotations are clear, others are invisibly in the background. Several of Ives’s textures and gestures as well as poetic and formal considerations similarly appear. Ives is somehow everywhere in my piece, in a counterpoint of levels, and yet the work expresses my own musical obsessions, from details to global aspects.”
The five formal sections in each case grow out of a recurring fourth-chord arpeggio, a transformation of the opening arpeggio of the fourth movement (Thoreau) of the Concord Sonata.
Walter Zimmermann was born in 1949 in Schwabach in Franconia, Germany. He studied piano with Ernst Gröschel and began composing at an early age. From 1968-70 he was the pianist of the ars-nova-ensemble in Nürnberg, where he studied until 1973 with Werner Heider and Maurizio Kagel. Further studies followed at the Institut für Sonologie in Utrecht and in the Jaap-Kunst Ethnology Centre in Amsterdam. In 1974 he made his first extended visit to the U.S. in Hamilton, NY to study computer music. During a journey through the States he interviewed 23 American composers, these interviews was documented in the anthology “Desert Plants” (1976). In 1977 he founded the “Beginner-Studio” in Cologne. Between 1980-92 he was awarded several prizes and was on the faculty of the Darmstadt summer courses, in the Koninglijk Konservatorium in the Hague and in Karlsruhe. In 1985 he edited the publication “Morton Feldman Essays” and in 1992 he organized the festival Anarchic Harmony in Frankfurt in honor of the 80th birthday of John Cage. Since 1993 Zimmermann is Professor of Composition at Berlin’s Universität der Künst; he now lives in Berlin and Seidmar (Franconia).
the missing nail at the river
"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.
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,
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
James Tenney was born in 1934 in Silver City, New Mexico, and grew up in Arizona and Colorado, where he received his early training as a pianist and composer. He attended the University of Denver, the Juilliard School of Music, Bennington College (B.A. 1958), and the University of Illinois (M.A. 1961). His teachers and mentors have included Eduard Steuermann, Chou Wen-Chung, Carl Ruggles, Edgard Varèse, Harry Partch, and John Cage. A performer as well as a composer and theorist, he was co-founder and conductor of the Tone Roads Chamber Ensemble in New York City (1963-70). He was a pioneer in the field of electronic and computer music, working with Max Mathews and others at the Bell Telephone Laboratories in the early 1960s to develop programs for computer sound-generation and composition. He has written works for a variety of media, both instrumental and electronic, many of them using alternative tuning systems. He has recently been appointed to the faculty at the California Institute of the Arts.
Tenney stands in the tradition of American experimental music, originating with the aesthetic and
compositional output of Charles Ives, Carl Ruggels, Edgar Varèse and John Cage. Performances of his works can be heard in numerous international festivals.
Essay (after a sonata)
Essay (after a sonata”) is a “deconstruction/reconstruction” based on the melodic and harmonic material of a single page of Ives's Concord Sonata (page 8 in the "Emerson" movement)- itself a series of variations on one of the recurring thematic ideas of the Sonata. Tenney writes: “Each melodic phrase is built up gradually, one note at a time, until that phrase is complete, at which time the next phrase begins to be heard.”
The sparseness of the texture suggested the possibility of using an (optional) unorthodox playing technique, which is described in the performing instructions: “This piece may be played at the keyboard, in which case both the una corda and the damper pedal should be held down throughout, and a faster tempo may be used. However, a more interesting (and beautiful, and difficult) realization would be inside the piano, pizzicato for the treble melody and battuto for the bass notes using a medium-soft percussion mallet."
Michael Finnissy was born in 1946 in Tulse Hill, London. Finnissy was a Foundation Scholar at the Royal College of Music, London, where he studied composition with Bernard Stevens and Humphrey Searle, and piano with Edwin Benbow and Ian Lake. Later, he studied in Italy with Roman Vlad.
Finnissy has been featured composer at the Bath, Huddersfield, and Almeida festivals, his works are widely performed and broadcast worldwide. In February 1999 a festival at Harvard University was devoted to his music, and several world premières took place at the 1999 Music Factory Festival in Bergen, Norway. His recently completed epic piano cycle, The History of Photography in Sound, the product of several years' work and lasting over five hours, was given its first complete performance in January 2001.
1996, Finnissy's fiftieth birthday year, was celebrated with recitals of the complete piano music, recordings of orchestral and chamber works, and the publication of a detailed biography - Uncommon Ground - by Ian Pace, Christopher Fox and others.
Finnissy created the Music Department of the London School of Contemporary Dance, and has been associated as composer with many other dance companies including London Contemporary Dance Theatre, and Ballet Rambert. He has taught at Dartington Summer School, Winchester College, the Royal College of Music, Chelsea College of Art, and was recently appointed the Chair in Composition at the University of Southampton.
A rhapsodic outburst, similar to certain impulses of the first two movements of the Concord Sonata as well as the rhetoric gesture of American poet Walt Whitman’s monumental Song of Myself, stands in the foreground of Finnissy’s composition. With this, Finnissy participates in a frequently considered exploration of the parallelities in work and expression of the two American artists. The form of the piece devotes itself to the consequence of a turbulent opening gesture: everything develops progressively in rhythmically and dynamically contracting lines. Only the discarded and consumed harmony is constantly present in the linear form process. Towards the end, the piece disintegrates into small fragments that emerge in and out of silence at regular intervals. One finds in Finnissy’s musical syntax equivalents to Whitman’s manner of writing. Hyperbaton (inversion of the normal order of words, especially for emphasis) and anaphora (repetition of a phrase at the beginning of several successive sentences). Finnissy cites these methods of expression and the syntax of Whitman in the musical content of his Ives memorial. The title reflects a characteristic conception of Finnissy’s, namely achieving a particular self-creativity through a musical discussion and commentary on the music of composers who have affected him. (i.e. Verdi transcriptions, Gershwin Arrangements, Erik Satie)
Oliver Schneller was born in 1966 in Cologne. He studied history, musicology and political science at the University of Bonn from 1989-93, followed by composition studies in the USA, initially with Lee Hyla at the New England Conservatory and with Tristan Murail at Columbia University from 1996-2002 where he earned his DMA. In the end of the 90’s, he directed the Electronic Music Studio at the City University of New York. As Tristan Murail’s teaching assistant at Columbia, he taught composition, computer music and psychoacoustics.
His music has been heard at numerous festivals in Europe and the USA, as played by such ensembles as Court-circuit, Ensemble Intercontemporain, Ensemble Modern, the Gotenburg Sinfonietta, Musikfabrik, the St. Luke's Chamber Ensemble, Speculum Musicae, and the Whitman String Quartet. As a saxophonist, he has worked with many musicians, including Lukas Foss, John Harbison, Tan Dun, and John Zorn, as well as with the George Russell Bigband.
In 2001, he served as visiting composer at the Festival of Contemporary Music at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music and in 2002, was a featured composer at the Festival Résonances at IRCAM. He is currently in residence at the artist’s colony Villa Concordia in Bamberg.
the light as a thought forgotten comes again, again,
and with it ever the hope of the New Day.
- Charles Ives, “Sunrise”
Ives’s unlimited musical inventiveness contained explorations into an often neglected area in standard western music history: the early compositional experiments with microtones. Ives composed his Three Quarter-Tone Pieces for Two Pianos in the early 1920’s, approximately the same time Julián Carrilo, Alois Hába, and Ivan Wyschnegradsky were also exploring microtonal composition. He published his theoretical essay, Some Quarter-Tone Impressions in 1925. And tomorrow… takes up several of the theoretic thoughts from Ives’s essay, develops them further, and channels them into Schneller’s own microtonal soundscape. The Three Quarter-Tone Pieces were originally conceived for a quarter-tone piano with two keyboards. In And tomorrow… electronics assume the role of the quarter-tone piano. In his Essays before a Sonata, Ives writes: “In some century to come, when the school children will whistle popular tunes in quarter-tones- perhaps then these borderland experiences may be both easily expressed and readily recognized.”
Notes- Oliver Schneller
Translations- Heather O’Donnell