April 21, 2009

Thought about Charles Ives

A train of thought as succinctly as I can record it, hopefully.

Just looked at a score by a contemporary composer, as made available on his website. It included quotations from several works of classical music — works that are reasonably famous to a subset of the classical-music-aficionado community, but not to the general public. The piece as a whole was an homage, of a sort, to Charles Ives, and the use of quotations was part of this larger stylistic “quotation” of Ives.

This depressed me, because this composer is a moderately well-read voice in the “classical music is dead! long live classical music!” crowd, who believe they are carrying classical over the cultural divide and into a new era of diverse, enlightened, youthful, hip, 2.0, blog, internet, not-your-father’s, ipod, cool, yes, radical, dude.

I am skeptical of this crowd despite my sympathy for their aims because I don’t think they have any clue how deeply your-father’s they are. They are only thinking outside the innermost of many tightly nested boxes.

Seeing this score fed into my skeptical displeasure because it had been reflexively composed on the assumption that its audience would be versed in the canonical hall-of-famery of classical music; that they hang out within its halls and that references to hundred-year-old works would be ready references. The inherent incestuousness and provincialism of writing music that daydreams about the classical playlist obviously hadn’t been on the composer’s mind; he was being genuinely and artlessly incestuous and provincial when he wrote it. His province being the museum; the archives of greatness.

These people essentially live in a museum. The non-museum-dwelling public says “We’d really rather not have anything to do with people who don’t see why it’s crazy to live in an old museum,” and the museum-dwellers retort, “But it has new acquisitions all the time! Come hang out with us in the contemporary wing! It’s hip!”

At least, I thought, Charles Ives himself quoted music that he had come by legitimately, as part of his living culture and community. His music quotes the tunes he heard at church or from the town band or being sung by his friends.

But then I thought (this is the thought!), “no — Charles Ives was being cramped and meta, too.” Why didn’t he just write the kind of tunes he grew up with and loved? The biographical information seems to be clear that he did it because he didn’t want to think of himself as a wuss, and pretty tunes are for pansies. All his innovations are an effort to distinguish his work — which deals with life, philosophy, experience — from “music,” the stuff which one hears people playing out in the world, the stuff which he lovingly disdained by snipping it up and quoting it in his compositions.

Mr. contemporary composer – do you like that piece that you just quoted? Is it satisfying and meaningful to you as music? Then why don’t you try to write something like that and share something like that experience with others? Ah, because what you’re moved by is not the music itself but the fact and fame and history and connotation of that music. “Music,” the thing with a name, the academic field, the subject heading, the area of the bookstore, the repertoire, the society. Everything but the thing that existed before the name, music itself. What you aspire to write, then, is not quite music per se, but “a contribution to the world of classical music.” And this is what Ives was doing too. He was a musician who thought musicians were pansies, so he did everything in his power to make what he was doing be some other kind of contribution to the world of music, but still be made out of notes and sound and the impressions they leave.

This is what I usually feel I am encountering when I hear new music or go to a contemporary art museum – not music or art itself but submissions to the world of art. “This is part of ‘art’!” the artists seem to be saying, loud and clear – they’re always very sure about that. But many of them seem rather embarrassed about the business of being a wussy painter or whatever, and so are finding other ways in.

Ives now appears ahead of his time, compositionally, because he happened to have the personal hangups that, after the Wars, high culture would develop as a whole.

It all just seems so adolescent.

I wrote this a month ago and thought I’d fix it up later. Here it is later, I just read it again for the first time and it seems fine to me. Post.

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