Trusting Your Material

One of the fascinating things about going through Ives’s manuscripts has been getting a feel for his composing method. I’m not likely to become an expert on it, because I’m only dealing with the piano sonatas, and I have more to do with the rest of my life than decipher Ives’s creaky handwriting, as others have heroically been doing. But I have found interesting patterns.

Early sketches for the First Sonata are more revealing than for the Concord, which is one reason I’m analyzing it too. There’s an early sketch for the First Sonata, dated Aug. 4, 1901, at Pine Mountain, where he and a friend had built a cabin. It’s an unpromising-looking, meandering melody in 6/8, ranging all over the keyboard without any motivic unity, vaguely neoclassic-looking (though there was no such style yet at the time). Looks like something a teenager might do, and he was 26! But what Ives eventually did was separate out the melody’s motives and use them all independently. A couple of motives from different measures became fused together contrapuntally to create the movement’s introduction in F# minor; then each motive gets developed by itself in one passage or another, and at two points in the finished movement, the opening measures of that sketch appear almost verbatim, by which time we’ve heard all the motives often enough to make the wide-ranging melody sound like they’re all being strung together. It’s an amazing process of transformation, to write this long, foolish-looking, aimless tune, and then build a whole structure around it to make it look like the apotheosis the music has been leading up to. That’s “trusting your material.” And in fact, virtually every note in this one-page sketch eventually got used somewhere (years later), whether the beginning, the middle, or the end, and the finished movement’s final chords use a progression the sketch had forecast in m. 4!

There’s a similar sketch for the Thoreau movement, too. It’s like he would just doodle these odd ideas all crammed against each other collage-like, and then flesh each one out from the middle and expand a ten-measure sketch into an 80-measure movement by inflating it from the inside. Whatever he wrote first he seemed to become so attached to that he would be determined to make it work, however much repetition and development it took of the individual motives. I’ve been trying to think whether I could do it. I’m pretty much a start-at-m.1-and-write-to-the-end kind of composer, though I’ll sometimes jump ahead and sketch a middle section, or more likely an ending. If I start and the music goes off the rails, I start over. Ives was tougher than I am, that’s for sure.

The examples will be in my book; sorry if it’s an excessive tease. I haven’t blogged any of my “A” material yet, only the “B” stuff, because I don’t want to scoop myself, but I’ve always believed in disseminating information. I’ve become more and more impressed with Ives’s mind, most especially from reading what he says in Essays Before a Sonata and correlating it to the way he composed. Sometimes to get the full gist you have to go read the writers he’s quoting. He was creatively very self-aware, and not naive at all.


  1. Joe Kubera says

    Fascinating. I’m in awe of composers anyway, because I’m not one, and I admire the magic they often create.

    KG replies: It’s mostly smoke and mirrors.