Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Three Places in New England (that don't suck).

After last nights readings at Brickbat, the subjects turned to ex-boyfriends who own quarries, and Danbury Connecticut. I thought about Charles Ives, born Danburian, and once called the greatest composer of the twentieth century. I say once because in the silliness of the last 40 years we seem to have replaced him with Ligeti. As if at Heaven's Gate we might get in faster if, to Peter's entrance question, "What's your favorite food?", we piously answer, "Why coal of course! Chilly rocks made of shit, centuries and old debris."

Peter: "Just go in already..."

Ives' Three Places in New England, alternately incandescent and dim--and referential in a spastic, forward-thinking way, owes at least part of the sublime quietude of "The "Saint Gaudens" in Boston Common " to Mahler.

The cosmic spirituality of Mahler's Ninth Symphony must be one of the most sophisticated and, at the same time, obvious (to us douchebags) signifiers in western music. I say that with the comfort of knowing that huge swaths of Mozart, Bach and Beethoven have been neutralized by contemporary, and constantly (re: mercilessly) renewed efforts to borrow on their familiar metaphors of historical or religious grandness; emotional exuberance; and intellectual pageantry. In the initial, startling swell of strings and horns sits, plain as the nose on your face, a sense of frightening, still perfectly calm, travel. It's pure death.

Now I'll admit I am partial to morbid expression, and that when lacking I'll find it anyway. But with Ives as my Rorschach test, I feel less like I'm fudging the facts than I am impressed with a thematic sense of finality that is very much active--if subtly. The green solemnity might mark different land than Mahler's Grand Canyon-esque death vistas, but the effect is comparable. That idea of returning to the earth isn't merely a reconciliation with the body's decay, it is a spiritual metaphor for the places from which we draw our most mortifying sensations of life.

Charles Ives, like the lot of twentieth century composers, always struck me as a kind of a hassle. Like Frank Zappa, or Flipper. One more thing I gotta sit through, just to say I sat though, in case, over cheese or a goddamned Malbec, it comes up again. I was pleased to find great range of color in Ives' Three Places, that its challenges were almost purely aesthetic, and employing none of that geeky twentieth century ugliness I'd come to distrust--and immediately disliked. Immediate are the nuanced natural elements, cast with symphonic size and proximity. But in the distance phantasmal piping of war fifes provide a supernatural touch, as if this place where long-gone soldiers gathered had somehow managed to hold that music in space as part of its natural identity.

Those war themes turn to bombast in the second part, "Putnam's Camp, Reading, Connecticut". In it the embedded battle themes overwhelm the "natural music", severing that rustic attractiveness, that quietude. It's not until that final part, the roiling "The Housatonic at Stockbridge" that the wild, Whitmanesque elements return to the center of the affair. I might argue that ghosts, more so than death, are the significant theme, that these three Places represent infinite variations of past lives, and inhabitations. Of course it's possible that Ives simply captured the basics of his subject, haunted as they were, without making so petty a distinction.

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