Blogging the Ives Vocal Marathon, day two:
1. Bill Brooks, whom I could follow around and write a fascinating blog titled “Blogging Bill Brooks,” gave a presentation on three of Ives’s war songs, “Tom Sails Away,” “He Is There,” and “In Flanders Fields.” However extraordinary Ives was in a lot of ways, Bill contextualized these three songs as a fairly normal attempt to be a good American in war time. Of the 36,000 songs written about World War I (geez, he actually counted – the most musical war America’s ever had, he claimed, and proved it), it was typical to use Tom as the ethnically neutral name for the soldier who went overseas. “In Flanders Fields” was a runaway smash hit poem, that got set to music more than 65 times, including a modernist setting by one Susan Wier Hubbard, socialite, that Bill claimed was as good and forward-looking as Ives’s. Most impressively, it turns out that mixing political tunes collage-style was a popular marching band ploy of the day, and Bill played some sound bites, notably “General Mixup” by the Arthur Pryor Band, to demonstrate that the juxtaposition of the Star-Spangled Banner, “Marching Through Georgia,” “Columbia the Gem of the Ocean,” and so on, in Ives’s “He Is There” wasn’t a startlingly unusual idea. It doesn’t take away anything from Ives’s genius, but does show that in 1917 he was more typically responsive to the music around him than one tends to assume. Then Judith Tick talked about how “They Are There,” the 1943 update of that song, was one of 16 commissions for political pieces given by the League of Composers. She ended with a YouTube video of the song played by a ’90s punk duo.
2. Ken Steen, electronic composer at Hartt School of Music, took scans of Ives’s sketches, and wrote out, as best he could using computer-altered visuals to make the dim notes clear, all the bits of songs that Ives worked on and never finished. Bill Brooks then sang the song fragments, with Neely Bruce at the piano. Some were fairly complete as to vocal line, with only sketchy piano parts; some proceeded fully for a few measures before trailing off; some were college songs, some late experimental sketches, and some just dissonant arpeggios with a vague vocal line. It was strange listening to sparse fragments of songs, but along with the 185 songs being performed on concert, we certainly feel like we’ve heard every song impulse Ives ever got so far as to commit to paper. As a composer, I recoil from the idea that anyone might ever perform publicly the sketches I abandoned, which were usually abandoned for good reason. As a voyeuristic Ives buff, though, I couldn’t help relishing these little song skeletons whose outlines I could only reconstruct in my imagination.
3. I’ve heard a half dozen or more Ives songs I’d never heard before, most of them early, but the largest and latest by far was the seldom-recorded “Aeschylus and Sophocles,” for singer and two pianos with optional string quartet (both versions performed tonight). Strange, amazing piece in Ives’s dissonantly introspective, classical-text vein (see also “August,” “September,” “December”), decrescendoing to spare octaves for the line “But where kings honour better men than they, / Let kings be honoured too.” Elizabeth Saunders sang, and all the singers – David Barron, Johana Arnold, Gary Harger – have greatly internalized these songs, and are doing a dynamite job. Tomorrow morning, if I can wake up in time, we have an Ivesian church service at the local Congregationalist church.