General William Booth, and Many Others, Enter into Heaven

It’s been a long day, and I’ve been drinking scotch with John Luther Adams, but here are the highlights of the first full day of the Ives Vocal Marathon at Wesleyan University:

1. In a comment from the audience, the ever-incisive Bill Brooks situated Ives’s creative life between the Civil War and the Warren G. Harding election. The Civil War, Bill said, put to rest an ongoing ambiguity in American life: whether we were going to be ruled by the Articles of Confederation or by the Constitution. In other words, whether states were allowed to secede in order to diverge from the federally mandated lifestyle, or whether we were going to be all forced to live with each other. Once secession was ruled an impossibility, it became clear that the vast diversity of viewpoints in America were going to have to learn to coexist, and this confusion flowed into the vast stylistic differences that became encapsulated within Ives’s output, the coexistence of Romanticism and Modernism, tonality and atonality, artistic completion and fragmentation, formalism and intuition. And Bill counted Nov. 2, 1920 (“the only date Ives ever commemorated in a song title”), the [temporary] death of the progressive movement, as an even greater discouragement to Ives’s continued composing than either the nervous breakdown/heart attacks of 1918 or 1921. Neither statement is strictly provable, but both are extremely thought-provoking.
2. I can’t begin to effectively replicate Anthony Braxton’s circuitous homage to Ives on the composers’ panel, but he talked a lot about transidiomatic composition, the juxtaposition of different styles within one piece – and trans-gender, trans-temporal, and trans-everything-else. It was clear the extent to which the great, Stockhausenesque, multidimensional structure of Braxton’s thought, as obliquely outlined in his Tri-Axiom writings, was originally illuminated by Ives’s music. Also, he drew a strong connection between Ives and my favorite stride pianist James P. Johnson, which I don’t immediately register but am happy to start thinking about. Braxton’s stunningly discursive monologues were unparaphraseable, but immensely stimulating.
3. Composer Martin Bresnick, on the same panel, talked about an endemic problem in new music, especially virulent in Germany and France, by which composers understand the progress of music as a train moving in one direction, everyone elbowing each other out of the way to be in the front car of the train, while no one wants to be in the caboose. Ives’s music, he said, makes it clear that the expansion of music is not unidirectional, but tends in all directions at once in at least three dimensions. I started on the omnidirectional thrust of Ives’s music in my opening address, and it’s become the theme of the conference.
4. In response to a semi-complaint about Ives’s macho way of expressing his idea of a real “man’s music,” musicologist Carol Baron recounted an interview she had done with Lou Harrison. Lou told her, “I always acted like a total queen with him, and he never batted an eye.” Let’s bury the persistent rumors of Ives’s homophobia about 12 feet deep, where they belong.
And then there were the performances – about 60 songs so far today – with the incredible Energizer Bunny Neely Bruce constantly at the piano. They’ve been stunning. It’s a festival at which I love every piece on the program, and so does everyone else. We have microscopic arguments about who loves which song better than some other, but ultimately, who cares?