Rediscovering Ives’s Legacy
As I got older and began to compose, I began to understand why all of my local music teachers talked so much about Charles Ives. It wasn’t what I suspected growing up, that he was a middling-famous composer who happened to have been born in our town. No, they kept talking about Ives because he really is that important.
Nearly every day while I was growing up, I passed by a small house on Mountainville Avenue in Danbury, Connecticut. I’d see it from the school bus or in the distant background from the Rogers Park baseball field. It was just part of the landscape, along with the middle school and the nature pond and the food truck that always parked near the ball field. At no point during those years did I find it important that the house was the birthplace of Charles Ives, an American musical icon.
As I got older and began to compose, I began to understand why all of my local music teachers talked so much about Ives. It wasn’t what I suspected growing up, that he was a middling-famous composer who happened to have been born in our town. No, they kept talking about Ives because he really is that important.
Unlike the American composers of the Eurocentric generation before his—such as Amy Beach, Arthur Foote, Ives’s teacher Horatio Parker, and the rest of the Boston Six—Ives drew his musical materials wholly from American sources. His father, George, was a bandleader, and as a child, Charles had extensive exposure to marching bands and to the folk tunes that later became a major component of his music. If you want to analyze how Ives uses folk materials in his music, you have a trove of works to choose from. His usage of folk materials is the beginning of a long tradition in American music of using found musical materials as the inspiration for a piece or a key section of a piece. This can be traced eclectically from Ives to Florence Price’s Negro Folksongs in Counterpoint to Aaron Copland’s use of “Simple Gifts” in Appalachian Spring to George Crumb’s American Songbook to Robert Beaser’s Mountain Songs. Of course, this phenomenon is not unique to America. Composers throughout history seem to have had a penchant for plucking musical materials from their original habitats and transporting them into new and interesting environments.
Other composers at the time were also writing music with titles that resembled Ives’s Concord Sonata or Three Places in New England. But those works were informed by the European romantic tradition that American composers were steeped in throughout the 19th century. Ives’s music fuses American folk materials with experimental techniques like polytonality, quotation, and quartertones. His polystylistic compositions can be filled with piano clusters one moment, then feature a rip-roaring folk tune he’d heard as a kid in the next, and then move into a combination of the two.
Ives’s polystylism has had a profound influence on the American music written today, which is incredibly polystylistic. As a composer, I might draw influence from Joseph Schwantner, a Coldplay song from 10 ten years ago, and a Jewish folk song all in an attempt to create on coherent musical narrative within a single piece. Recently, a composer I know did the same by combining Appalachian bluegrass music with serialism, another combined audio of Hillary Clinton’s concession speech with minimalist loops for clarinet and piano distorted by electronics, and another co-curated a project called Yeethoven, which melded Kanye West’s album Yeezus and Beethoven. It seemed normal that they did this, and the reason is that there’s a precedent for it in what Ives did in his music. Our efforts are just a modern-day extension of what he pioneered. You might think that the elements my colleagues and I are combining would sound much more disjointed to modern ears and tastes than Ives’s combination of tone clusters and American folk melodies, but in fact his works were probably even more jarring to audiences 100 years ago. They did not have the benefit of several generations of polystylistic music. Today, with much thanks to Ives, we do.
Polystylism isn’t only a popular compositional tool, it is integral to the identity of American music. It is uniquely suited to our extremely diverse country. This country is a big place with an enormous range of ethnicities, backgrounds, religions, and people with very different experiences. Our music, if it is to truly represent the country, has to reflect this diversity. Polystylism partakes of what makes America uniquely great. When composers take elements of diverse experiences and combine them in new and interesting ways, it is a musical rendering of what we recognize and celebrate as contemporary American culture.
What makes this so artistically appealing? There’s no objective answer, but I have a hunch. When Ives incorporates both musical and non-musical elements of the American experience into concert music, he transports people to familiar yet iconic experiences. Ives’s music is a surrealist reflection of his world. That can be artistically thrilling, but there’s also a deeply emotional core to his musical rendering. His music is emotionally appealing because it’s really about our ancestors and what they felt making a new life in a vibrant, chaotic, unruly new country. It is truly an incredible experience for me to drive through Danbury listening to Ives, knowing how profoundly the landscapes I’m looking at influenced the music I’m listening to. Today’s polystylism, like Ives’s, is about us as a society. It draws its enormous energy from its depiction of how it feels to live in our world. Polystylism gives composers the ability to take concrete elements of our culture and incorporate them directly into our concert music in order to make people experience those cultural elements, and maybe think about them differently. That power is at the heart of the tradition Ives has handed down to us.
The narrative power of this phenomenon profoundly moved me when I first began to reflect on it, as a result of a piece I wrote a few years ago, titled Dawn. While northern Fairfield County is known for Charles Ives, we’re also associated with a recent tragedy: the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012. For the families of those who lost loved ones, it is an unspeakable pain to which my words could not possibly do justice. One of the people who lost her life that day was Dawn Hochsprung, whom I knew as an assistant principal at Rogers Park Middle School when I was a student there from 2000 to 2003. The event was shocking and upsetting on a deeply communal level. It became routine to see two people talking in the supermarket suddenly begin sobbing. At our local Starbucks, where one of the student teachers had worked part-time as a barista, her co-workers put up a small shrine in her memory. We all struggled to come to terms with the horror of what had happened in a place we had considered safe.
That fall, I had been studying Ives’s legacy and growing more fascinated by his compositional techniques. I had begun working on a piece called Echo in Rogers Park, a violin sonata I would complete the following spring, which quotes Ives’s Songs My Mother Taught Me. At home in Connecticut in the days after the shooting, I began to think about how Ives would have responded in this situation. How might he have translated all that he was thinking, feeling, and simply enduring into music? At that moment, he became more than just a famous composer with whom I happened to share a hometown. He became a role model for me, not just musically but philosophically. My feeling—and I say this knowing that accomplished Ives scholars might disagree—is that he would have responded by writing one of his enigmatic “questioning the universe” pieces, like The Unanswered Question. And whatever he wrote, it would have been inherently about some aspect of this experience.
My own answer was to write Dawn, which is dedicated to Dawn Hochsprung. The piece honors her for her heroic actions that day, which were consistent with a stellar educational career in which her students always came first. There have been many memorable and emotional moments throughout this piece’s life. The moment that is germane to Ives’s philosophy happened shortly after I finished the piece. When I was a student at Rogers Park, I was part of the National Junior Honor Society, and Dawn Lafferty, as she was known then, ran the program with her soon-to-be husband, George Hochsprung. In June 2013, Rogers Park decided to honor Dawn Hochsprung as part of its annual National Junior Honor Society ceremony. They asked if Dawn could be performed, and with the help of The Juilliard School, I arranged for a group of conservatory students to perform it. After the concert, parents came up to all of us to thank the performers and myself. One parent, a middle-aged man wearing baggy jeans and a grey t-shirt who had clearly just come from work, made an impression I’ll never forget. Through tears he told me he wasn’t a classical music guy and had never expected to like a classical piece, but that he was moved and thanked me for writing the piece for “all of us.” At that moment I realized that composers have a role to play in making people think and feel more profoundly about the world around them. Dawn isn’t a polystylistic piece in a musical sense, but it is in tune with a philosophy to which polystylism belongs. What resonates with me personally about Ives’s music isn’t just his polystylism, but that polystylism is a beautiful means to an end: to make his fellow community members think about the world around them. I hope that when people hear Dawn, they think about the good that Dawn Hochsprung did, and that she gave her life—not just those awful last moments, but days and weeks and years—to what she thought was the most important thing in the world: teaching and nurturing children, and giving them a safe place to grow.
I’ve been inspired since that moment with that parent not only to make music that is connected to American culture, but to re-connect with the musical community from which I came. Dawn resonated with this community because we all have this one thing in common, being from this place. I wish the shooting had never happened and that Dawn didn’t exist. The world would be much better off with those 26 people still here, but I do think horrific events like the Sandy Hook shooting ended up strengthening our communal bonds. It made me want to strengthen the Ives tradition in the place where it was formed. So in 2014, I went back to the Danbury Music Centre, a place where I had spent a lot of time growing up as a percussionist. The DMC, which has a pleasant communal feel to it that I can only describe as similar to that which pervades the third movement of Ives’ “Violin Sonata No. 4, is a community music organization like no other I’ve encountered anywhere in America. It has remarkably endured for over 80 years. The staff has held on to letters from Ives’s wife, Harmony Twitchell and Marian Anderson, another Danbury native, was on their board for several years. Perhaps most remarkably, the DMC has stayed to true to its founders’ intent: to offer frequent free concerts and events to the community, which today include performances featuring the organization’s three orchestras, two choirs, an annual Nutcracker Ballet, and—in addition to a host of other annual programs—an entire summer festival.
This summer festival will now feature a new annual event that I am launching called the Charles Ives Concert Series. I’m proud to serve as its artistic director and even prouder to be doing it at the Danbury Music Centre. The DMC’s commitment to serving Danbury reminds me of the way Ives incorporates his experience of the town into his music. Both the composer and the organization share a civic-minded, democratic ideal about the role of music in our lives, that our community has its own musical identity to be cherished and carried on. When the idea of the Charles Ives Concert Series occurred to me, I quickly realized I was not solely thinking of a name, but rather a measure of philosophical guidance. The philosophical underpinnings of the series go beyond Ives and his music in an attempt to capture his vision for American concert music. What I find most inspiring about the DMC is its unwavering dedication to the values inherent in Ives’s vision for American music: carrying on this old tradition not just of classical music, but of Danbury’s classical music, which of course is completely intertwined with Ives. In return for its dedication, Danbury has cherished and carried the DMC for more than 80 years. I’ve come to think that expanding concert music in America has to involve lifting up all of the little organizations all over America that do the grassroots work, like providing kids their first orchestral opportunities, as the DMC did for me, or helping to bring communities together through the arts in the wake of tragedies like Sandy Hook.
Accordingly, the DMC feels like the perfect place to launch a series with Ives as the philosophical underpinning. In addition to Ives’s own music, The Charles Ives Concert Series will present music that relates to the Ives philosophy, such as music from all periods that transcends the traditional boundaries of classical music of its time by borrowing other cultural elements. We’ll honor what is perhaps Ives’s greatest legacy by unabashedly championing of the works of today’s American composers. We will set our polystylistic music within a polystylistic series.
In the two years leading up to this official launch, I’ve directed a program at the Danbury Music Centre called the Danbury Chamber Music Intensive (CMI) which brings emerging musicians to Danbury for a week as artist faculty; they work with local aspiring musicians through chamber music coaching, rehearsals, and performances. These artists have also performed a series of concerts throughout that week, formerly known as the CMI Artist Concert Series and now officially the Charles Ives Concert Series. In the last two years, we’ve programmed more than 25 American composers, almost all of them living, and the program has created a hunger across the Danbury community for new American music. Grounding our concerts in the Ives philosophy has led us to tap into a long-held community tradition, which is generating an excitement I believe can power a concert series. Through his music, Ives communicates to us his belief that composers have a role to play in shaping how we think and feel about our culture. Danbury’s community, still carrying the Ives tradition all these years later, is yearning for American composers to play that role.
Paul Frucht is the artistic director of the Charles Ives Concert Seres. A 2015 recipient of a Charles Ives Scholarship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, his music has been performed by the American Composers Orchestra, American Modern Ensemble, Juilliard Orchestra, Milwaukee Symphony, and San Diego Symphony among others. He holds a Master of Music Degree from the Juilliard School, where he is also a Doctoral of Musical Arts Candidate.