June 1st 2019

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Scomo routs Labor, the Green, GetUp and the left-wing media by Patrick J. Byrne and Peter Westmore

CANBERRA OBSERVED Surprise! Polls aren't what they used to be

GENDER POLITICS The true cost of childhood gender reassignment

OBITUARY Bob Hawke, R.I.P.: astute politician, flawed policies

POETRY AND SOCIETY T.S. Eliot and the modern condition

WATER POLICY The time is ripe to revisit the Bradfield scheme

ASIAN AFFAIRS Taiwan upgrades U.S. links, asserts sovereignty

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Recapping the trial as Cardinal Pell's appeal approaches

THE FAMILY AND SOCIETY Working to bring down the Sexual Revolution

HISTORY OF SCIENCE Faith and reason and Father Stanley Jaki Part 2: Science and ancient cultures

HUMOUR A tidy planet is a happy planet

MUSIC Charles Ives: Modern elements aimed at sounding good

CINEMA John Wick 1: The lighting of the fuse

BOOK REVIEW Novelised true crime a true thriller

BOOK REVIEW The experiences of Phoebe Raye



FEDERAL ELECTION Queensland voted for jobs, life and country

NATIONAL AFFAIRS The trial of Cardinal Pell ... an injustice

EUTHANASIA D Day - June 19, 2019 - Voluntary Assisted Dying Act 2017 begins operation

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Charles Ives: Modern elements aimed at sounding good

by David James

News Weekly, June 1, 2019

One of the most intriguing of the contemporary composers is the American, Charles Ives.

As ever with America, which routinely fails to identify its homegrown musical talents, Ives’ music was given scant attention during his lifetime. His works were rarely performed and it took a long time before his originality was recognised – and then mainly by non-Americans.

It is a familiar pattern. Many of the jazz greats, especially pianist Thelonious Monk, were dismissed as low-level Negro entertainers in America. It was not until the Europeans, especially the French, picked up on the artistic depth and uniqueness of what they were doing that the Americans started to think differently (and even then they were probably mostly impressed by the fact that some money was being made).

Ives, unlike most jazz musicians, was not at the bottom of the social scale. Quite the opposite. He came from a background of privilege, becoming a church organist at 14 and eventually attending Yale University. He had multiple talents: he was an accomplished sportsman, especially in baseball, and became an important figure in the American insurance industry, developing new approaches to life insurance and estate planning.

He was well tutored in harmony and was a strong melodist and contrapuntalist. But what is most interesting about Ives’ work is the way he integrated the sounds that were immediately around him. He incorporated hymn tunes, traditional songs, town bands and marching bands, ballads and patriotic songs.


As many commentators have observed, Ives deployed all the elements of modernism: polytonality (two keys at once), polyrhythms (two time signatures at once), tone clusters (notes squashed together without any reference to a key), and compositions based on random chance (aleatoricism).

But he did so not with an eye to the European traditions, with their implied need to do something, anything, that was different from the great achievements of the past. Instead, he pursued that direction because it was an exciting way to make sense of the sounds around him, and because – perish the thought – it sounded good (unlike the rubbish produced by many of the composers of atonal music or serialism). It made him a fresh voice.

One characteristic of his writing is that he can combine elegiac consonance with jarring dissonance to produce the effect that two compositions are happening at once. It is an extremely distinctive, if not unique, approach.

For example, in the beautiful piece, The Unanswered Question, the poised string lines are interrupted by jarring polytonal lines from the brass section, as if another, extraneous ensemble is imposing itself. Yet both elements have defined melodic shape and the underlying effect is of a mix of elegance and jarring uncertainty – an unusual and powerful musical dialectic.

One of his best-known works, Three Places in New England, also has this sense of more than one work happening simultaneously. Both polytonality and atonality are evident but they are counterpointed by hints of diatonic lyricism. Where most atonal music derives its tension from the contrast with the background of musical history – the foreground of the music attempting to be different to what has come before – with Ives there are contrasting foregrounds, as if Mozart and Schoenberg were playing pieces together.

Another feature of the music is the slow, episodic unfolding of the music, which makes it unusually pictorial, a sonic equivalent of the eye gazing across a landscape. This is achieved because there is a great deal of what is effectively quotation from other music.

Where with other composers the waiting for what comes next involves anticipating how the melody might evolve, or how the musical texture might change, or in what direction the rhythmic accents might develop, with Ives it is more about how different genres or styles might enter and clash with each other.

In Three Places in New England, the quotations from different genres sometimes come in with great speed, creating a feeling of being over exposed to different events, as if a profusion of sensations were crowding in.

Ives had the ability to create a kind of commedia del arte of sound. But underlying the drama is a glorious sense of repose; of viewing life from a distance with great affection. His is ultimately music suffused with delight.

David James is a Melbourne musician and writer.

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