We live in a musical climate where the Sufjan Stevenses, Rufus Wainwrights and Andrew Birds approach popular music with increasingly complex arrangements. It’s too easy, however, to get swept up in the grandeur of these current artists without knowing the origins of American classical. For some history on the matter, look no further than the music of Charles Ives. Ives Plays Ives, the recent collection of his complete solo piano recordings, is a good place to start.
Ives is now widely considered one of the most original and distinctly “American” classical composers. But during his lifetime, Ives’s experimental and often-dissonant music was practically shunned by the concert halls. So what do you do when an audience doesn’t “get” your music? You become an insurance salesman to pay the bills and compose in your free time or at least that’s what Ives did.
The majority of the pieces on Ives Plays Ives were recorded as a way for Ives simply to be a listener of his own music. While the recording quality can be somewhat substandard, the real magic is found in the rare glimpse at Ives’s emotionally intense and deeply personal solo performances.
Inspired by the spirit of transcendentalism, “Four Transcriptions from ‘Emerson,’ No. 1” is uniquely provocative. Although there are seven takes of “Emerson, No. 1,” not a single performance is identical. One rendition finds Ives’s adventurous sense of improvisation taking hold, as he spontaneously extends measures with dark flourishes of dissonance. In yet another version, Ives breathes out an audible moan in response to playing an unexpected tone cluster. Given the context, it’d be easy to mistake the inflection for a cry of pain rather than pleasure.
This type of ambiguity makes the collection a difficult listen. While Ives Plays Ives offers a unique look into the world of this important American artist, an unfamiliar listener might find the work difficult to understand. The problem originates from our musical presumptions. Perhaps if we all had practiced piano scales in one key while singing in a different tonality simultaneously, as Ives had, our concept of dissonance would be considerably different.
But the secret to understanding compositions like “Emerson No. 3” is found in the listener’s ability to “stretch their ears.” By accepting the dissonance of Ives’s music as intentional, there is a certain comfort in this dissonance. Eventually, the music becomes less and less unfamiliar.
Although this collection isn’t exactly the most polished of records (several takes are abandoned within the first 30 seconds), the final recording of “Sonata No. 2 for Piano: Concord, Mass mvt. 3 ‘The Alcotts’ ” is worth the wait. Employing his signature use of quotation, the opening figure from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Ives’s plays with startling sensitivity and the utmost grace. The track showcases an open-minded experimentalism (within the third movement, Ives employs a 14_ inch piece of wood to create a massive cluster chord) yet the sustained chord evokes feelings of longing instead of unsettlement.
Current artists like Sufjan, Wainwright and Bird may not yet be composing pieces using polytonal harmonies, but the Ives influence has clearly shaped their work. As American musicians continue to follow Ives’s open-minded attitude toward composing, listeners will undoubtedly be prompted to “stretch their ears” for years to come.
Rating: 3 1/2 out of 5 stars
Ives Plays Ives