Call Me a Crazy Uncle

Speaking of criticisms of Ives, I was a little startled to read this in Martin Bresnick’s op-ed in The New York Times yesterday, speaking about the composer Eric Stokes:

Eric was the first “Ivesian” composer I ever met. There were very few of them in those days and there are not many now. I always felt vaguely embarrassed by Charles Ives. I found his music too candid, too forthright. It stuck out like a crazy, opinionated uncle at a polite social event — too unsophisticated for a sophisticated new music audience.

He afterward says “I am ashamed now to recall unspoken, unexamined feelings of condescension I felt toward Ives….” But I imagine that this sums up the way a lot of composers feel about my music as well. Candid and forthright I can only think of as virtues, whereas sophistication, if it is one at all, is one of the minor, almost negligible virtues, way down the list after imagination, vigor, honesty, sincerity, inventiveness, emotiveness, simplicity, integrity, and fifty other qualities.

Oh, I love the Bruckner Eighth Symphony, it’s so sophisticated! – No.

I was just overwhelmed by The Rite of Spring, it’s so sophisticated! – No.

I can’t stop listening to Rothko Chapel, it’s so sophisticated! – No.

The idea that what audiences want from your music is sophistication is a composer’s disease, a neurosis, a lie your grad-school teachers infected you with. To “sophisticate,” says the dictionary, is to cause to become less simple and straightforward through education or experience. And I’m continually trying to shed my education and experience to become more simple and straightforward. Call me a crazy uncle – and don’t invite me to any polite social events!



  1. says

    All of my scores in the past many years are, well, “unsophisticated.” I’m fine with them being so. We don’t need any more Webern clones, much as I love his music.

    • says

      You know, of course, I used that language to frame the mind of a young composer trying to find his way. In the European scene of 1969 it was hard to sustain any other position. But Eric Stokes helped me, more by example than anything else, to find another road. Still, on the subject of sophistication, there is, for me, great charm in the suave Ravel, and the smooth, unruffled young Richard Strauss. May I gently point out you’ve loaded the dice in your examples?

      KG replies: And I greatly appreciate your outlining it, because while you’ve transcended it, a lot of other composers haven’t, and I’m always trying to figure out what it looks like from the inside. As the vice-president of the Charles Ives Society, I did feel someone from the organization should come to Ives’s defense here. You put a sentence like “I’d always been embarrassed by Charles Ives” in the New York Times, no matter how qualified, a little blowback is inevitable.

      An aficionado, listening to Le Sacre, could afterward say, “You know, the orchestration is actually very sophisticated” – and it is. Bruckner’s harmony was sophisticated for his time, but Reger was considerably more sophisticated, without being, for that reason, better; in fact, despite his lovely virtues Reger tended to trip over his sophistication. A background sophistication can help a piece be more effective, I’ll admit – but I don’t think I could take to my heart a piece that had no more robust virtues than sophistication. In fact, I confess I think (as Ives did too) of some of Ravel’s and most of Strauss’s music as being not much more than “merely sophisticated.”

  2. says

    Interesting… Sophistication has both positive and negative connotations: my dictionary here defines it both as “the process of making impure and weak” and “the process of becoming more complex, developed, and subtle.”

    Could we say that valuing sophistication in music is not a very sophisticated aesthetic?

    As for Ives, he’s too rough and spontaneous to call sophisticated; but I wouldn’t call him unsophisticated, either!

    KG replies: True; playing through the Concord Sonata, though, I often see how I could rewrite passages to be “smoother” and more intelligible, maybe thus more sophisticated – but I’m always aware how much granitic power the piece would lose, too!

    • joel taylor says

      Kyle, regarding your observation that playing through the Concord one can often see how one could rewrite for more “intelligibility,” it’s interesting to think about Ives showing off to the first pianist to finally play the Concord by improvising wildly on Concord’s ideas, as if to say, “see there’s plenty more where that came from…,” instead of being interested in the interpretation of the score he had written (some years before)…
      I personally, think of Ives as being amazingly sophisticated and erudite while simultaneously being connected to the most primordial impulses in music, and all of that channeled through an improvising talent of gigantic proportions. In this he seems so American to me, connected to modern jazz somehow before jazz had really quite come to pass.

  3. says

    I totally agree that “to sophisticate” in the definition of “to make impure” or “to cause to become less natural” is definitely undesirable in the compositional process. I would say that the definition of “sophistication” with the connotation of “uplifting enlightenment” or “finesse” is slightly more desirable. Either way, you can be my Crazy Uncle any day of the week!

  4. says

    Spot on. A few months ago I was thinking about two virtues not endemic to new music, sincerity and generosity. Sincerity is a good word for Ives. Generosity, an even rarer beast, is for me the primary lesson of John Cage’s music. Composers are made to feel that they must use every opportunity in every piece to demonstrate how smart (sophisticated) they are. Following this dictum, even unconsciously, is a good way to always be ungenerous.

    KG replies: I have post on “composing generously,” too:

  5. mclaren says

    People who worship at the altar of sophistication need to listen to a couple of hours of Zen-style shakuhachi flute. That’ll cure ’em.

    Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.

  6. Dan says

    I want art to be sophisticated! I’m fed up with dumbing down, our entire culture is always getting dumbed down.

    In my mind sophistication means recognizing a certain awareness in the listener, and I’m fine with that. Kyle’s music is sophisticated if you’re coming at it from a naive perspective.

    I also don’t think the primitivism of Ives or Stravinsky is unsophisticated…. it’s sophisticated primitivism. It acknowledges it’s position, it’s artistic statement.

    Don’t apologize, don’t compromise. Assume your audience is astute.

  7. says

    I wanted to mention that per FB this particular blog post has been getting much attention. I was not only asked to check it out, but to post a comment as well. Though, looking around, as usual I agree. So my comment here isn’t really worth posting. But I’ll add that you were right to quit FB. I just wish I could (too much independent marketing at play for non-profit).

    KG replies: Geez, I hoped if I quietly started up again after a long absence I might not attract much attention anymore.

  8. Paul A. Epstein says

    As I recall, there was a scandal in Italy in the ’60s when grated cheese was being adulterated by such things as ground up umbrella handles. The word for the corrupted cheese was “sofisticato.”

  9. says

    Ah, Mr. Crazy Uncle, of course you won’t sandpaper Ives: you’re not one of those unsophisticated charlies who would reharmonize Bach’s chorales, or fix up Dickinson’s slant rhymes.

    It’s hard to think of a good composer who exemplifies all meanings of sophistication: Billy Strayhorn, maybe.

    As for generosity, brevity — and lack of repetition — can also be exciting for an audience. There’s a body of music called the “trowie tunes”: fiddle tunes from the Shetland Islands attributed to the fairy folk. The tradition is to play each tune only once, so as not to offend the trowies — which, of course, sacralizes the tunes. I arranged them for string quartet — and it’s a brief piece, since I can’t repeat anything!