A Pseudo-Milestone, but Feels Real

I have just completed a first draft of Essays After a Sonata: Charles Ives’s Concord. It is currently something over 136,000 words, which is just about the length of my American Music book; plus, there are hundreds of musical examples. There are fourteen chapters, as follows:

The Story of the Concord Sonata, 1911-1947
The Programmatic Argument (and Henry Sturt)
The Human Faith Theme and the Whole-Tone Hypothesis
Emerson: The Essay
Emerson: The Music
The Emerson Concerto and its Offshoots
Hawthorne and The Celestial Railroad
Hawthorne: The Music
The Alcotts
Thoreau: The Essay
Thoreau: The Music
The Epilogue: Substance and Manner
The First Piano Sonata
Editions (1920 versus 1947) and Performance Questions

The book is due to Yale University Press in September. I wrote it in three years, and was turned down for four five major grants, any of which would have allowed me to take a semester off teaching to work on it. Now, after a little rest, I need to reread twenty or thirty books to make sure I didn’t miss anything; locate sources for and complete all the footnotes that I didn’t take time away to pin down while I was writing; and read the entire thing out loud to myself six times, removing infelicities as I go until every sentence rings like a crystal goblet, so that the reader’s inner ear is drawn irresistibly through the prose. This last step is deemed optional in the scholarly world, but the fact that I do it makes publishers love me. And yes, the book is backed up on multiple external hard drives.

Then I send in the book to Yale, and savor a tremendous but specious feeling of closure. Four months go by, and I get back the edited manuscript, on which I spend three weeks (while teaching) trying to fix a million little things. I send it in again. Two months go by, and I get the galleys, with a couple hundred little mistakes to rectify. Then they say it will be out in April, which will mean October for some reason. It’s my sixth time through this routine.

I am very, very good with deadlines. That’s why I’m so lax with my students’ papers. When I was in college I hardly ever turned in a paper on time. In nineteen years at the Village Voice, I only missed a deadline once, and that by a couple of hours. Real deadlines, on which one’s life and income and career depend, are very different from the paper deadlines of academia. I don’t buy (and maybe I shouldn’t base it on my own deplorable psychology) the argument that students need to be trained to be on time or they’ll never be punctual once they graduate. I once cheerfully graded a paper, the week before the student graduated, for a Beethoven course he had taken as a freshman. I’m just as good with musical deadlines, too. The very offer of a paid commission makes music sing in my ear. Once when the conductor of the Indianapolis Symphonic Chorus offered me a $10,000 commission, I heard the opening of the piece (Transcendental Sonnets) in my head before he could finish the sentence. Though I must admit, my promptness derives less from courtesy or professionalism than from an abject fear of screwing up.

UPDATE: There’s an astrological principle underlying the psychology of this post. I have Sagittarius rising, and Sagittarius is perceived as flaky and unstable. But most of those with Sagittarius rising have the extremely stable sign Taurus on the sixth house of work, and in work situations we are much more reliable than people imagine we will be. It’s also, I’m sure, why people think that because my Sagittarius writing style is “breezy, casual, and journalistic,” my Scorpionic scholarship and analysis can’t be solid and thorough, which in fact they are. After 58 years of it, I get awfully tired of being perceived as less heavyweight than I am. Perhaps some of my Sagittarius-rising readers will sympathize.


  1. says

    Do you think you will ever compose a full Zodiac cycle? As to the main subject, congratulations!

    KG replies: Thanks. For me, that’s what The Planets was. The planets are forces, and the signs are styles in which those forces operate, and a suite of ten styles doesn’t entice me as much. George Crumb did it a couple of times. Maybe I should look at those pieces more closely. I think Coltrane (like Holst) did mostly planets, not signs, except for Leo.

  2. says

    This seems to me to be a real live milestone, not pseudo in any respect. And I LOVE the listing of essays. I will read this book (yes, some of it will be over my head, but it wouldn’t be the first time and won’t be the last–how do we learn, after all, if we don’t stretch a bit). And this step is marvelous: “read the entire thing out loud to myself six times, removing infelicities as I go until every sentence rings like a crystal goblet, so that the reader’s inner ear is drawn irresistibly through the prose. This last step is deemed optional in the scholarly world . . .” More’s the pity, that latter. Prose, if well done, has its own music, doesn’t it? Not everyone can do it, but everyone who writes for publication should at least try.

    KG replies: Thanks, Susan. Five of the chapters have no musical examples, and those should be readable by anybody. I had hoped more of the book would be that way, but I kind of get excited about musical trivia. I do think the chapters on Essays Before a Sonata will be of general interest – and, I think, it’s the first time anyone’s ever gone through that book in detail and figured out the throughline of Ives’s argument. I’ll give you a teaser sentence: “Of all the ills that plague contemporary music, insincerity is one of the rarest.” I like to think that sentence already rings.

    • says

      Oh, yes, that sentence does ring out. I’ve already enjoyed bits of the “musical trivia” you’ve posted here, by the way, which puts so much American history context around the piece (for example, about the notation “angels join in the distance” and the Hawthorne reference, and the fact that the angels don’t appear on all of the recordings). The Concord is not, I suspect not only for me, a readily accessible piece aurally (respect it though I do), and your providing this rich contextual reference offers a lot of different ways in to listening.

      KG replies: If you ever want to do a blog post on the Concord, I’d be very curious to hear what a musically sensitive non-musician like you gets out of it. I’d recommend maybe starting with the later Hamelin (2004) recording and the Denk, which are very different in style and both more mainstream in interpretation than some of the peculiar ones I’ve found. Let me know if I can provide anything.

      • says

        It’s been on my mind to give that a try, actually, though probably not for a while. It could make a nice wintertime project. I’d like to have your book in hand, with all those delicious trails to follow, too. I appreciate having the CD recommendations. I’ve been listening to Hamelin off and on and have the Denk cued up to buy, on which I will follow through.

        KG replies: Actually, after writing you last night, I woke up this morning thinking of writing a listener’s guide to the Concord for my web site- nothing technical, just going through the piece and pointing out all the landmarks, with audio examples. Wouldn’t be hard to write, though I’d like to use an embedded mp3 player so that every audio example wouldn’t have to jump to a different window, and I don’t know how to do that. Maybe some reader will enlighten me.

        • says

          Fabulous idea, and I hope someone can help you realize it on the technical end. I’ve just been trying to pick out some of the Hawthorne allusions in the second movement and thinking how helpful audio samples would be.