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Wednesday, 10 September 2003

Taking him on!

Celeste Hutchins


10 September 2003

Postmodernist Ives


Kramer is correct in concluding that Ives is not a "pre-postmodernist." Although Ives aesthetic is clearly very forward thinking, his intentions are not and he borders on being a romantic. Kramer's article starts with a definition of postmodernism "as a recurrent movement within modernism." Despite working with a definition that frees postmodernism from time constraints, it still supposes that a "pre-postmodernist" would embrace current cultural values. This situation would be exception, especially since music tends to lag 50 years or more behind the other arts in following movements. Ives, as a transcendentalist, is no exception. Cowell, in his biography of Ives, (really a hagiography) Charles Ives and His Music, identifies Ives as a follower of Emerson. Cowell writes, "By that time Emerson's thinking had been shaping American minds for more than sixty years . . .." (p. 8) Ives is thus not at the forefront of philosophical thought, but identifies with the values of a previous generation.

His song, The Things Our Fathers Loved similarly esteems a bygone era. In this case, it idealizes community bands like the one Ives' father conducted. It praises small town life, which, as Kramer points out, was already disappearing. Thus it represents "nostalgia for the unattainable," and promotes nostalgic values. He has similar romantic yearnings in other works. Cowell describes a short piece for vocalist and piano. Ives notes that four measures of the piece would sound better played on a string quartet than a piano and a quartet should be used for those measures if possible. "Four string players are not usually on hand at a song recital to play just the four measures that sound better with strings than they do with a piano, but of course from the composer's point of view they should be. Ives exclaims: 'Why can't a musical thought be presented as it is born?'" (Cowell p. 10) This idea of spontaneity could have come directly from one of the romantic poets.

Kramer's claims as to Ives' misogyny are also amply documented. In the song An Election, the vocalist sings, "some old women: male and female." That line certainly "conforms to what classical psychoanalysis calls the masculine protest." (Kramer p. 183) Cowell approvingly records Ives' (masculine) protest against Haydn, "Easy Music for the sissies, for the lilypad ears of Rollo!" (p. 10) Rollo is explained in a footnote on the same page, "An imaginary gentleman named Rollo is a familiar of the Ives household - one of those white-livered weaklings who cannot stand up and receive the full force of dissonance like a man." Thus Ives' dissonance stems not from a "[search] for new presentations . . . in order to impart a stronger sense of the unpresentable," (Lyotard) but from "a dread of being feminized." (Kramer p. 183) This is especially clear when Ives complains about the New York Symphony Orchestra's response to Washington's Birthday. They asked him to cut out some of the dissonance. He wrote, "They made an awful fuss about playing it, and before I got through, this had to be cut out, and that had to be cut out, and in the end, the score was practically emasculated." [emphasis mine] (Cowell p. 68) Dissonance is thus very clearly linked in Ives' mind to manliness and virility.

Kramer also describes flute as phallic. (p. 197) 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.

            Kramer goes on to describe Ives as homophobic, based on his misogyny and fear of emasculation. 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. In any case, Cowell's writing reveals no tinges of discomfort as he joins Ives in condemning Rollo and the sissies. However, if "Ives' obsessive degradation of the feminine" is any sort of a "response to the social conditions surrounding concert music in the late nineteenth century," (Kramer p. 183) then Cowell's approval could similarly stem from social conditions surrounding male homosexuality. Perhaps both of them were avoiding the sissy label - applied to male musicians and gay men alike.

            Ives' desire to avoid "pretty little sugar plum sounds," (Cowell p. 10) is clearly evident in his masterwork Symphony No. 4. 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. Immediately after the climax is a break where the audience laughs nervously in the recording that I listened to. It is a spectacular and occasionally overwhelming work. Ives wanted "to strengthen and give more muscle to the ear, brain, heart, limbs and feat!" [Ives' emphasis] (Cowell p. 10) His work is strong and can and should be enjoyed despite his troubling politics.

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