Charles Ives: 3 Quarter-Tone Pieces - 5/22/09
(Two pianos tuned a quarter tone off from each other, two pianists each playing a separate score.)
(Originally posted by me on MySpace May 22, 2009)
Beginning to sense a shift away from Mahler, and considering the unique situation in which we are finding ourselves these days, my attention went to the American composer, Charles Ives, of Danbury, Connecticut to be exact, and of his many interesting works, though you really have to develop a taste for them and be willing to take him seriously and see it from his points of view, in order to get it.
Some will think upon first hearing his music that they are being hoodwinked; "he's got to be kidding," as certainly none of this "music" can really be taken seriously. Some of it just doesn't sound good, on purpose. Imagine this music was actually written by a rather normal, in fact rather strenuous and athletic kind of guy, who went to Yale, who was 16 at the turn of the 19th into the 20th century. He heard a lot of local music, marching bands, honky-tonk and hymn singing, and mixed it all up in a great mish-mash and added a dash of humorous tonal innovation, some of it makes you think you're dreaming, or maybe he just wants to intentionally put you to sleep. We're not kidding here, folks, this guy is definitely an acquired taste. Even people who might love Mahler probably can't see the point of this guy.
But we're thinking that on the contrary, a good dose of Ives is good for the soul, especially the American soul, because Ives after all was a product of our unique heritage here, itself a mish mash of all kinds of cultural influences. This is the true genius of America, always was and always will be. In fact we may soon need to decide whether we go on first and foremost as a culture or a civilization rather than as a nation state, as the one we have inherited has grown into something that may no longer be able to serve the public good.
With that and other dire things in mind, consider the piece linked here, the last part of a three part set of piano pieces by Ives, written deliberately to be played on a specially tuned piano, deliberately tuned out of tune, in order to create some remarkable warping of harmony effects. There is really nothing else I know of that is quite like this; listening to music like this may warp your sense of hearing, especially if you have perfect pitch, you probably wont be able to stand it for very long. But for the rest of you, just try it.
Oh well, I might as well add these links for more music by Charles Ives. You can see pictures of him as the bearded insurance executive that he also was during most of his life. He seems to have had a life beset by several slight heart attacks but nevertheless managed to live a fairly long life (1874-1954). He wrote the vast bulk of his music before 1929 but continued to work on some of it up to his death.
Here's the end of his fourth and last symphony
And here's one I also really like
here's more of the same
and this is Ives himself playing a part of his second piano sonata
What About Mahler - 12/30/08
(This article originally appeared on MySpace, Tues, 30 December, 2008 and has been mildly abridged.)
Re: The Mahler Problem by Sam Bergman and Sarah Hicks 3/8/08
(The link to this article may no longer work)
I have for a while now been waiting for the right time and place to post a piece on the music of Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) and just how I came to find out about it and what about it particularly attracts me, as I have now for the past few months really been bitten again by the Mahler bug. It has been a while. I have known his music, most of it anyway, since my teenage years.
The authors mention dorks. Just what the difference between a dork, nerd or geek was not readily clarified by my young friends, however dorks seemed the least intelligent of the three types. Either the use of the word in the original piece doesn't quite fit, or it's being used for a deliberate bit of tongue in cheek. (Or is it?) In any case, always clear to me from a very young age, some time after I managed to gain the first real rudiments of music and piano playing; about that moment when I began to recognize that not everyone was likely to share an interest as intense or ever manage to get up the time or talent required to take up the playing of a musical instrument, and by this I mean the slow painstaking process of taking the business of it all seriously enough to apply oneself to years of mostly thankless and profitless practice (toil) over often frustrating and difficult to play passages, etc. that perhaps what we were engaged in was after all, nothing short of a fool's dream; to create a paradise in sound beyond words into which we could intermittently resort, no matter what the rest of our lives was demanding of us.
So, dorks or no, we serious musicians know who we are. Therefore, first of all, my comments must be directed at the dork contingent of the audience of likely readers, but must and will have something hopefully meaningful enough to say to the non-dorks out there, who just want an evening of music and don't really want to have to know everything that goes into making it.
To most people, the first time any of them are ever likely to hear any Mahler, their reaction is going to be something like, "so which horror movie is this the soundtrack to?' or possibly "which sappy tear jerking melodrama does this go with?" along with some other comments to the effect that nobody with half a brain should bother listening to such music, as it was clearly only fit to become the backdrop of some by now very dated motion picture. Of course that same reaction could very likely suffice just as well for all the Brahms, Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, etc. too, as few these days, who can even tell the difference and after all, Beethoven is only the name of a fictional dog in a movie series, don't you know?
Within two generations, just as it had been predicted to me by a certain young, musically illiterate, folksinger I went to college with, the written musical literature and the culture that went with it have virtually vanished in many places around the country (and indeed the rest of the world too) and has been apparently, and as if necessary, confined to only those lucky enough or dumb enough to have fallen for the Sirens' call of "classical music," with its mixed promises of its hours of serious work and poorly remunerated pleasures.
(Those who get caught up in it to the extent that one starts buying CD's on a regular basis, has already succumbed to one of its worst vices, almost worse than any drug, and yes I will recommend certain performances to the serious listener.)
Whereas there used to be many who could read some music, now hardly anyone does unless they are "professionals."
Classical music is also increasingly portrayed as difficult, tedious and excruciatingly boring for most people to bear, so that it is most strange that once upon a time there were these weird beings called composers who were more variously honored by their followers than most poets, whose personal cults rival any saint from any religion, in fact there has always been something religious about what these people and their followers did. These people actually wrote music down in a transportable language, whether they imagined their music would last forever, as indeed many of them hoped, or because they happened once again to have been caught by the musical bug and were so effective at it that the rest of their peers stuck them with their life's work, however it came about, they did indeed create so much music that, by the crest of the classical music cultural wave, which could have been about the mid 20th century or arguably before that, by this time there is literally an ocean of music out there, which for want of any better label, has been stuck with the word "classical," such a vast quantity of it recorded that were one foolish enough to find access to it, one could drown a thousand times over in a lifetime in listening, as a few dorks actually have.
One evening long ago, when I was maybe 16, while I was up late listening to my local classical FM station (there are very few of these left, so I am showing my age), there was a program on the newly completed performing version of Mahler's 10th symphony, completed by Deryck Cooke. This was the first time I'd ever heard of Mahler and ironically the first music by him I had ever heard. There was something about the music I found unforgettable, compelling, many things actually; the sense of stretching harmonies, the elongated themes, the writing for strings, placing demands on just about every instrument, the whole otherworldliness of the music, literally much of it skirting the naked edges of tonality itself, all with a brilliant and uncanny mastery unlike anything I'd heard before. Just who was this composer and what of the other of his symphonies?
(One of my close friends, at one time acknowledged that he owned a copy - only one of two - of the original manuscript for this symphony -unfinished at the composer's death, but quite a lot of it there anyway- and at that moment, since he hadn't any idea of my long time interest in this particular symphony, I knew that all the rest of his rather outrageous claims must be true)
All the real classical music dorks out there will understand my curiosity in a moment. Over the next few months as there was a bit of a Mahler Renaissance precipitated by the notice the 10th had received, the next pieces I came to know well were the 2nd symphony, Resurrection, and the 6th and 9th symphonies. I was then far too much under the spell of Leonard Bernstein to know that there were other Mahler interpreters just as good as him, or better. But it was through his versions that I gradually got to know all of them, the symphonies, and most of the song cycles. Mahler is one of the few composers whose music it is possible to know completely because although each piece is huge, there aren't that many of them.
What one also realizes as one gains familiarity with Mahler's music is that the music is all about the same subjects and can therefore become tied together in interesting ways. For instance, one can trace the appearance of two kinds of forms in Mahler, the slow adagio movements and the faster scherzos. Each of these has emotional resonance and there are also many references to water, wonder, love and death and what lies beyond death.
So first of all, to any of us dorks, none of this music is either occasional or like anything after it; any possible suggestions to the contrary are merely the acknowledgements that Hollywood composers have pilfered Mahler as they have borrowed and stolen form others more notable from before Mahler. But this music is and was the first of its kind, even with its references back to Wagner and music before that. Each of the movements has natural affinities with other movements throughout the symphonies. For the slow movements, I'd begin with the slow third movement of the 1st, the 2nd of the 3rd, the famous Adagietto from the 5th, the slow middle movement from the 6th (either the 2nd or 3rd depending on the version), the 4th out of the 7th, and the Finales out of the 9th and 10th.
Over the years, and it really was from the beginning, there was a realization I had of Mahler's prophetic attributes; he was predicting in his music not only his own end (he was a strenuous fellow not born with the physical capabilities to live such a life, a congenitally weak heart, etc.), but foretelling the end of Western civilization itself, as it had been known and the future he saw was largely shrouded in darkness, barbarism, crassness and militarism. Some of his casual and ironic musical flourishes seem uncannily predictive of Nazi troop goose-stepping, etc.
The best performances of Mahler are those with the least amount of excess schmaltz; what you want to hear is an accomplished ensemble grind out the work of the great Grinder (what Mahler means in German) with precision and almost an insouciant disregard for the peril of getting the phrase wrong. The conductors who do the best Mahler keep the best tempos and don't allow the massiveness of the music to get away from them. Frankly, a listener wants to be properly jolted and stunned by Mahler as much as disturbed into tears. If the music doesn't get to you on some level after giving it your full attention then the players and conductor haven't given you either the worst emotional roller coaster of your life ... "I'm sorry, but I don't really enjoy having my emotions played with like that," or "that was probably the best music ever written!" as you wipe tears from your eyes. Mahler should not be and isn't for the faint of heart. He pulls no punches, writing as he does at the turn of the last century, he easily sees the strains and tensions that will lead to war, civil and social unrest, political upheavals of various kinds and even the eventual dissolution of traditional musical diatonic harmonies and recognizable forms, as the relentless and unknowable new crushes the powerless old.
Of course Mahler's work is also very personal, about himself. At the heart of Mahler's work lies the 5th Symphony with its recurring theme which we hear for the first time in the rambunctious 2nd movement. This recurring theme is the second and contrasting theme in this scherzo, the theme of impossible love. How very much this is some music for a heroic and romantic tale of star crossed but by chance acquaintance; perhaps only all of a summer's night meeting between the impossible lovers as depicted in the Adagietto, then in the masked ball in the movement which follows and ending with the breathless alacrity of the Finale with the same theme of impossible love emblazoned on the orchestration. I just love Mahler, how romantic and refreshing to express it the way he does, without shame or blush. Much may have passed him by in his troubled life, but certainly he knew true love, or at least for a time what he supposed it to be.
Of current conductors, I really like what Claudio Abbado has been able to accomplish, also Christoph von Eschenbach, but Simon Rattle's 10th is probably without peer. I have been greatly encouraged by the superb playing of the world's professional orchestra musicians who are seemingly getting to know this music and liking the ordeal of playing it more than was likely even forty years ago. I'm especially delighted that the 10th has not been neglected as it is, in my opinion, one of those works of such pivotal importance for the music that followed it and one which still speaks more profoundly to me about many of the ironic, both serious and frivolous aspects of life, as to be practically my favorite symphony. I would be delighted to hear from anyone else who felt a similar affinity for this work.
Thank-you again for playing and programming more of the music of Gustav Mahler. Should some of his more impassioned foreboding predicuions of coming doom for civilization prove wrong, indeed should civilization continue, may we always have this wonderful music to remind us of what we may have already lost or have come close to losing.