//Ad libs: A wild drive with Charles Ives

Friday, November 21, 2008

A wild drive with Charles Ives

Back from New York, I unpacked more than winter clothes. I’ve got tons of story ideas to pursue and new musicians to hear, and the Kirov Chorus is still thundering in my ears.

I’ve also been listening to
Charles Ives compositions. On purpose.

Musical experimentation is something to salute, as is the fierce desire to write whatever you want, public be damned. But
I just can't get on the same wavelength with Mr. Ives. He reminds me of the French majors I knew in college: wordy for the sake of it. The NEA folks had sent us CDs in advance, and I was not happy about ripping open the envelope and finding Ives’ "Concord" Sonata for piano.

Ives dedicates the sonata's movements to American writers and thinkers, and I do connect with “The Alcotts,” the most lyrical segment. There’s dear Beth, rippling away on the keys in a parlor: nostalgia with the right hard edge of reality.

Problem is, there are other movements. I’ve tried to enjoy the tangle of “Emerson” and “Hawthorne” and “Thoreau.” For a moment something connects, and all the dissonance and whirling-dervishness falls into place. Wait! I am transcendental, too! I have a headache, but I like it! Then comes this ridiculous smash of chords and it all just sounds like somebody throwing a cat at a piano.

Ives toys with you. You think you’re sprinting along, until he ditches you in the woods with nothing to read but the phonebook. Is that genius, keeping listeners on edge? Maybe. Do half the people who claim to adore Ives say that because they know their friends won’t get him? Hm.

I was fine with writing off “Concord” until something happened that finally gave me a foothold in the work. We went to see pianist
Jeremy Denk play it at Carnegie Hall on Nov. 11. Denk walks in with a smile like your shy kid brother, but when he plays, his hands are all confidence. I heard the odd chords starting to blend. It still wasn’t Shakespeare, but the music now had a flow, sometimes pattering like poetry. Maybe I had to think of it more like e.e. cummings. Rapt attention filled Denk’s face, and at times he played with his eyes closed, his head back. It was easy to be pulled along.

Sometimes connecting with art is all about conviction. I’ve seen a weak play sparkle with a fine actor, simply because he believes everything he’s saying. It was like that with Denk, who plays with incredible skill but also what seems to be genuine rapture. This was the farthest thing from someone droning about the genius of Ives. It was about an artist taking a risk, like an actor really selling a flimsy show tune. He doesn’t care what he looks like because he’s brave enough to immerse himself.

We were a silent, impressed audience, but I imagine Denk would play the same way for death-metal musicians or surly 13-year-olds. In fact, at Carnegie Hall that night I saw a teenager in the second row who texted nearly the whole time.

I found myself in the new position of wanting someone to listen to Ives. Look up, kid. You might learn something.

Photo of Cathedral of St. John the Divine and its neighboring sculpture garden by Rebecca Wallace. Photo of Charles Ives is public domain.