Saturday, 23 February 2013

Charles Ives and the Myth of Playing Outside

Last night I went to the Royal Festival Hall at Southbank to hear a concert of American music, as part of the South Bank's The Rest is Noise season, based on Alex Ross's book on the music of the 20th century. On the bill were pieces by Charles Ives, Aaron Copland, Scott Joplin, George Gershwin and, as a special encore, James P Johnson.

Generally, Copland featuring on the bill is enough to get me to buy a ticket (and that is, in fact, why I bought tickets for the performance), but it turned out to be a good evening all around. Ever since getting into classical music, I've come to appreciate the American composers in particular (I know they don't fall under that category, but bear with me).

As I said, Copland is my particular favorite, mostly for his ballet suites like Appalachian Spring or Rodeo, but I also love Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, which was on last night's bill. But it was good to hear the suite from Joplin's opera Treemonisha, and the closer from Johnson, Victory Stride, was an amazing fusion of jazz and classical that featured spinning cellos and a hilarious back-and-forth between the brass and string sections.

For my purposes here, though, what I want to talk about is Ives and Copland. Not because they were the best parts of the concert (according to a somewhat unscientific survey of my friend and the elderly couple sitting in front of us they were actually the weakest parts), but because they best exemplify what people mean when they refer to "American classical music".

The conductor, Marin Alsop, noted that Copland is particularly associated with a brand of music evoking wide-open skies and prairies, such that his music's been used in Beef Council commercials, presidential campaigns and politicians' hold music (I swear Wyoming Senator Mike Enzi's office plays Copland when they put you on hold, which goes very well with the photos on Enzi's home page). For me, a drive up to the Sierra Nevada or to Yosemite is never complete without listening to Appalachian Spring, and especially the "Simple Gifts" section at the end.

But if Copland evokes wide-open spaces, Ives evokes - at his most listenable - a more suburban sound. I say "listenable" because much of Ives's work skates near the edge of dissonance (I don't mean this in the same way that Schönberg's Second Viennese School would). The best explanation I ever heard of how Ives composed noted that he loved the interplay of two different pieces playing simultaneously. Frankly, at times it can be taxing to listen to.

In between those sections, however, I feel like you can really hear the sounds of summer in New England; which is funny, because I've never spent the summer in New England myself. Nevertheless, I do feel like it's an idiom that's ingrained itself in the American consciousness, so that anything on TV that's set there uses music that has to be heavily influenced by Ives.

It's a sound that I associate with childhood, to a certain extent, and what struck me last night was whether or not mine is the last generation that would make that association. I grew up with Charlie Brown and "Where's the Beef?" and the last gasp of the Western (or not even last gasp, since Clint Eastwood and Sergio Leone killed the genre long before I was born), but I don't know if my sisters, who were born around a decade after me, would have those same associations. Whenever I drive around my hometown and see it changing, I kind of regret the destruction of the older buildings; I sometimes feel as if growing up in the 80s was more similar to growing up in the 50s than to the 90s.

Now, I'm aware that the 50s weren't such an idyllic time as they often seem on TV, particularly if you weren't white or middle class or male, and I don't want to minimize the hardships suffered by people outside the "norm" as presented by the popular culture of the time. But I would say that, at the very least, childhood is different now than it was when I was growing up. My sisters experienced very different pressures, and moved through a very different social environment than I did, and I think the changes are just accelerating.

Or maybe I'm getting old. Still, I can't imagine that kids these days (not the first time I've used that phrase, or the last) really have it in their mental programming to go off and play outside without parental supervision, like I did. It could be different in other towns than my own, but then again, it might not.