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Monday, 8 September 2003

First responce paper

(Remember, a B is a failing grade....)

Celeste Hutchins
Proseminar
10 September 2003
Postmodernist Ives

Because Ives is too new to be played on commercial radio in San Francisco and too old to have directly influenced my own music, I've previously only listened to a very few pieces of his. Henry Cowell says in his biography of Ives, that Ives' music is written about far more often than it is played. Sadly, I've done little reading about or listening to Ives before this week.

Kramer's article starts with a definition of postmodernism "as a recurrent movement within modernism." This definition surprised me. I had always understood postmodernism to be a refutation of the modernist idea that absolute truth exists and can be sought, something Lyotard calls "the nostalgia for the unattainable," however, my understanding was that postmodernism is a current movement. The "post" of "postmodernism" always seemed to indicate that it came after modernism. My dictionary places postmodernism in the late 20th century. If last week, someone had asked me if Ives was a postmodernist, I would have replied, "Of course not. His work predates postmodernism by several decades." Therefore, it comes as something as a relief that Kramer concludes that Ives is not a postmodernist.

Despite working with a definition that frees postmodernism from time constraints, it still supposes that a "pre-postmodernist" would embrace current cultural values and aesthetics. Presumably, Lyotard has some examples of very early postmodernists, but the vast majority of people with current values exist currently. Also, music tends to lag 50 years or more behind the other arts in following movements. Cowell identifies Ives as a follower of Emerson, 60 years after Emerson was widely read. Ives was certainly a maverick, but he was also completely a product of his time, both as Cowell describes him during his life and as Kramer more recently rediscovers.

Cowell's descriptions of Ives "manliness" also mesh with Kramer’s thesis. Cowell describes a fictional man called "Rollo," (a character impersonated in one of his string quartets) who was frequently mocked in the Ives household for being a sissy. Cowell's writing reveals no tinges of discomfort as he writes about this in an approving tone. Kramer describes Ives as homophobic, which Kramer argues on the basis of Ives' misogyny. Ives' disassociation with Cowell seems to confirm this, however I disagree with the thesis that misogyny leads directly to homophobia. Sometimes male homosexuality is presented as a hyper-manliness, for example in the drawings of Tom of Finland or among the Brown shirts of 1930's Germany.

Kramer also describes flute as phallic. Although this may seem absurd, given the flute's current association of femininity, the flute was recently considered a manly instrument. Flutist Polly Moller told me that one hundred years ago, the flute occupied the cultural position currently held by the electric guitar. Middle class white boys learned to play them and tried to master them, much like some of them now try to sound like commercials for Guitar Center. Therefore, if Ives use of the flute is designed to convey manliness, it is intended to convey the culture of the white male middle class.

After reading Kramer's article, I listened to Symphony No. 4. The first prelude has a Messiaen-like sound, where the strings create a texture much like the sound of the Ondes Martenot, over which the chorus sings a hymn, which the program notes identify as one of Ives' favorites. (http://www.americanmavericks.com/prog_notes/june_09.html) The second prelude starts similarly, but with a more sinister and intermittently chaotic sound. The orchestra plays many differing motifs, which seem to have come from other songs, layered upon each other. They seem to vie for dominance over a marching band, martial drum line, in a conflict that ebbs and flows. The music is tumultuous and exciting – wonderful to listen to. The social values that Kramer reads into Ives' work certainly seem to be present. At one point, a violin plays a romantic line, while another instrument plinks discordantly in the background, as if mocking it. This is followed by a tumult of patriotic music, blaring furiously away, finally coming to a climax. The audience laughs nervously at the break, in the recording I listened to. A short and lush movement follows, and then the final movement begins with a low quiet sound. The orchestra is again at odds with itself, and is reminiscent of the first movement and the preludes. There is a section with a detuned instrument. The rich texture breaks into a unified motif, which Kramer identifies as the hymn, "Bethany." The motif is strong and moving, but the piece falls back into dissonance. The motif is thoughtfully restated over an uncertain background. Finally, the chorus returns, restating and transforming the hymn motif, without words.

I also listened to Three Quarter-tone Pieces for Two Pianos, a short piece for two pianos tuned a quartertone apart. The sound is highly unusual and a bit disconcerting. The piece seems to agree with Kramer's thesis because of its inherently dissonant nature, which was considered manly at the time. (A review of Ruth Crawford Seeger's work said that she could sling dissonances like a man.)

While I am disappointed but not altogether surprised to learn that Ives didn't share my politics, I am quite pleased to have been introduced to his work.

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