Proposal for a short book on Charles Ives And The American Imagination

Approximately 100,000 words in length, this would have three major sections and an appendix. The first third, devoted to his life, would be mostly familiar, differing from previous accounts in a more detailed explanation of what Ives did in the insurance business (mostly supervising salesmen, rather than approaching customers himself) and his unusual financial arrangements with younger composers who copyrighted his pieces in exchange for preparing definitive scores (and in the case of Lou Harrison receive Ives royalties to this day).

The second part would develop in detail the following paragraph, which I initially drafted in 1967 and revised for On Innovative Music(ian)s (1989):

[Charles] Ives was a thoroughly trained musician; but more than that, he was a great inventor--the equal, in his own field, of Thomas Alva Edison or Samuel F. B. Morse--with several major musical patents to his name. Ives was the first modern composer who consistently did not resolve his dissonances. Instead of returning a piece to its tonic home base, he would end it, metaphorically, out in the field or, sometimes, as in the decisive dissonance concluding the Second Symphony, well into the grandstand. While still in his teens, Ives developed his own system of polytonality--the technique of writing for two or more different keys simultaneously--and in a piece composed at the age of 20 (Song for Harvest Season) he assigned four different keys to four instruments. In the Concord Sonata (composed 1909-15), Ives invented the tone cluster--where the pianist uses either his forearm or a block of wood to sound simultaneously whole groups, if not octaves, of notes. Another Ives innovation was the esthetics of pop art; for Ives, like Claes Oldenburg and Robert Rauschenberg after him, drew quotations from mundane culture--hymn tunes, patriotic ditties, etc.--and stitched them fluently into his artistic fabric. Other composers had incorporated "found" sounds prior to Ives, but he was probably the first to allow a quotation to stand out dissonantly from the text--all but waiving a flag to draw attention to itself--as well as the first, like the pop artists after him, to distort a popular quotation into a comic semblance of the original. Other Ivesian musical innovations include polyrhythms--where various sections of the orchestra play in wholly different meters, often under the batons of separate conductors, all to create multiple crossing beats of great intricacy. As one of the first modern composers to develop distinctly eccentric musical notations, Ives anticipated contemporary practices of graphs, charts, and abstract patterns--manuscripts that resemble everything but traditional musical scores. He also wrote musical notes that he knew could not be played (an esthetic equivalent of conceptual visual art), such as a 1/1024 note in the Concord, followed by the advice, "Play as fast as you can."

By focusing upon esthetic invention, this chapter would be familiar to some but unfamiliar to others. While including musical examples, I would not make any explanation exclusively dependent upon them.

The last third of the book would focus upon the unusual quality of Ives’s artistic imagination, which I take to different from that of European composers of his time (and later), but which I think resembles that of other great American artists who did their major work before World War I, such as Gertrude Stein (who was also born in 1874), Herman Melville, Loie Fuller, Albert Pinkham Ryder, and Walt Whitman, among others. These last thoughts draw upon my outline for a doctoral thesis in American intellectual history (which I never did, unable to pass the prerequisite orals). Thinking about this theme of the American imagination for some three decades by now, I have drawn upon this cache often, most recently for the introduction to AnOther E. E. Cummings (Norton, 1998). It would be nice to present a definitive version here. I'm not aware of anyone before me approaching Ives in this way.

As an appendix, I would like to do elaborately detailed critique of the books and essays about Ives and a longer essay about Ives recordings, especially of the major pieces (some recordings being much better than others, even though they are not currently in print). Thinking critically about Ivesian performance for as long as I’ve owned his records (more than three decades), I have thus, for instance, accumulated over a dozen different renditions of the Concord Sonata. (See earlier examples of this sort of disco-bibliographic commentary in the back of my Master Minds [Macmillan, 1969].) This part too would be, as far as I can tell, unprecedented. In another appendix belongs a complete list of Ives's compositions. A new book on Ives must first of all be useful.

Asked to contribute to the Schirmer-Orion series, I was given Paul Griffiths’ Stravinsky as a model. His book is structured as a biography with asides to discuss individual pieces as they were composed during Stravinsky's life. That form won't work for Ives. Whereas Stravinsky was very much writing for market (which is one theme of Griffiths’ book), fulfilling commissions that would soon afterwards be performed, Ives was writing for himself. Exactly when certain works were written is an issue currently under debate; solving those questions is not something for this book. That's why I've proposed a structure that necessarily regards Ives's life chronologically but views the work as a whole, rather than a sequence.

I've not done a monograph before and have resisted invitations (most recently for E. E. Cummings), because I thought my predisposition to concise exposition would disintegrate in the course of writing at great length about a single figure. On the other hand, I've been thinking and writing about Ives for so long that I should have enough to say without resorting to padding. As everyone knows, I don't propose to do anything without seeing how to finish it; I don't agree to do anything professionally that anyone else can do better. Those are two reasons why I finish so much and always fulfill contracts.

I expect to draw upon previous biographical literature, including the Cowells' great early monograph; the thicker books by David Wooldridge and Frank Rossiter, which both appeared two decades ago; the recent Maynard Solomon expose of Ives's falsifying his history; and the psychoanalist Stuart Feder's brilliant study that persuasively connects certain Ives compositions to specific psychological experience. Fortunately, Joseph Darby, my associate on another current project, did his M.A. thesis on Ives and so is familiar with recent Ives scholarly literature.

Having thought seriously about Ives for so long, I view this as an opportunity to get my ideas out in definitive form. My book would differ from the others in its biographical and critical conciseness and its connecting his imagination to those of comparably first-rank Americans working in other arts. Written in my most luminous style, this book should hopefully supercede the Cowells's classic as the standard introduction. Were it contracted before the end of 2004, it could become my principal winter project that would be delivered by the following summer.


(Expect these preliminary thoughts to be integrated into a fuller commentary.)

The critic and composer Eric Salzman, for one, has written of Ives's innovative use of music ensembles smaller than a full orchestra and yet more populous than a string quartet. With personnel numbering between five instruments and twenty-five, these instrumental groupings resembled the theatre orchestras accompanying vaudeville performance and later silent films. It was not uncommon for such orchestras often to eschew instruments previously thought essential to any ensemble, such as a piano.

Having already given himself permission to explore alternative instrumentation, Ives around 1908 wrote The Unanswered Question, a short piece for a quartet of flutes (though an oboe and clarinet could be substituted for the third and fourth flutes), a solo trumpet, and a muted string quartet. A second, more radical departure came from placing the strings offstage. In the latter respect, this became a model for subsequent alternative spatial placement in works by Henry Brandt, Karlheinz Stockhausen, et al.

Originally subtitled "A Cosmic Landscape," The Unanswered Question is an essentially theatrical work, dramatizing universal spiritual quest. The quiet and lanquid strings represent humanity or the flow of life. They play (really hum) for a full thirty seconds before another instrument is heard. The trumpet becomes the individual who asks ultimate questions. The winds answer the questions so blithely and thus inconclusively that the trumpet feels compelled to repeat its implorings, in only slightly different forms. Within less than six minutes, the futility of this search for meaning is portrayed. Perhaps the most brilliant dramatic touch was Ives's allowing the work to end with the trumpet repeating its question(s), rather than concluding with the strings, whose continuing presence in thus assumed in the subsequent silence.

Thematically the work echoes that of Richard Wagner (d. 1881), whose life extends into Ives's (b. 1974); but whereas Wagner took hours to articulate such cosmic concerns, Ives accomplishes the strategy in only a few minutes. In that sense, The Unanswered Question becomes a precursor to other concise spiritual pieces in contemporary music, such as Anton Webern's miniature masterpieces and John Cage's 4'33" (which likewise exploits the implications of quietude).

Because Ives's strings are located offstage, out of sight of their conductor, the details of their relationship to the protagonist are left to chance; on second thought, exactly when they enter and leave the piece doesn't really matter. In this paradox of allowing chance whose effect is finally inconsequential, the work presages that of John Cage.

For all the mysteriousness of the piece, its meanings are no less clear to us now than they were to Ives himself, who wrote:

The strings play ppp throughout, with no change in tempo. They are to represent "The Silences of the Druids" who speak, see, and hear nothing. The trumpet intones "The Perennial Question of Existence" and states it in the same tone of voice each time. But the hunt for the "Invisible Answer" undertaken by the flutes and other human beings becomes gradually more active, faster and louder through an animando to a con fuoco. The "Fighting Answerers," as time goes on, and after a "secret conference," seem to realize a futility, and begin to mock "The Question"--the strife is over for the moment. After they disappear, "The Question" is asked again for the last time, and the "Silences" are heard beyond in undisturbed solitude.

That's exactly right, not only in its dramaturgy but in its acoustic portrayals. Writing like this gives credence to a sense of Ives as one of those composers who understood his work better than his commentators and didn't mind saying so.

It is hard to think of another similarly short work in the history of music that carries so much musical and thematic weight.