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An overlooked original

Times Staff Writer

Had Charles Ives been German, he would be revered like Bach and Beethoven rolled into one. Had he been a Berliner, all of Germany -- and probably the entire musical world -- would regard this year, the 50th anniversary of his death, as a major occasion.

Ives represents the soul of American music. A quintessential Yankee and radical original, he wrote the first genuinely American art music. In him, you can find for the first time many of the techniques and stylistic developments that came to characterize American music in the 20th century and that continue to strike composers and listeners as fresh in the 21st.

Yet the anniversary is receiving surprisingly scant attention in the U.S., while to be in Berlin recently was to be in Ivesland. As part of the annual Berlin Festival, which has a March component devoted to current music, there was a weeklong series of concerts and a two-day symposium titled “Ives & Consequences.” It focused on what Ives means today, with most of the music -- from America and Europe -- new.

Given that Ives’ music and personality are so bound up with America -- its political thought as well as its art -- the “consequences” part of “Ives & Consequences” revealed a lot of what Germans currently think about America. Berlin is amid “american season 2004" (with the date upside down on the official logo), a citywide celebration of American art and culture. It is almost impossible to cross the street in this buzzing German arts capital without tripping over or being overwhelmed by American art and/or commerce.

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The city’s blockbuster exhibition is “Das MoMA in Berlin,” which contains more than 200 works from the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the lines to get into the New National Gallery are long. Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks are popping up everywhere. As a potent symbol of German-American economic union, the new postmodern headquarters of the merged Chrysler and Daimler-Benz auto giants proudly dominates the new Potsdamer Platz.

Berliners, however, are not necessarily smitten by all things American. When the Ives symposium inevitably turned to politics and economics -- Ives was an idealistic, outspoken Progressive and a prominent insurance executive -- the talk was anti-Bush. German and American participants alike agreed that Ives’ vision of American democracy is threatened by the current administration in Washington. Indeed, one of the apparent aims of “Ives & Consequences” was to save us from ourselves.

For the Germans, Ives is an irresistible exotic whose idealism and manifold contradictions made him larger than life. He was the ultimate all-American composer and the ultimate outsider, a Romantic and an ultramodern, a free thinker and a conservative churchgoer, a multimillionaire businessman and a populist who believed in income caps and spreading the wealth.

During the early years of the 20th century, Ives’ music presaged the future through his wild applications of dissonance and percussion, explorations into the spatial aspects of music, use of quotations and employment of tone clusters and microtones and simultaneous tempos. But temperamentally, Ives remained almost pathologically attached to a nostalgic memory of his youth in 19th century Danbury, Conn. -- with its town bands, picnics, baseball games, Fourth of July celebrations, church life and faith in the inherent goodness and wisdom of the masses.

No fan of technology

All his life, this innovator who drove music faster and further into the future than any composer before him despised technology. He refused to own a radio, claimed to have never watched a movie and used the telephone as little as he could. Ironically, he invented his shockingly ultramodern devices to help him evoke the small-town soundscapes of his childhood or to contemplate the philosophy of the Concord Transcendentalists. And in the end, after all the humor and feisty noisiness have faded in Ives’ most important scores, the listener is left with the Transcendentalism, with Ives’ willingness to let unanswerable questions remain unanswered in his spiritual contemplation of the cosmos.

The Berlin symposium began by looking at Ives’ relationship to composing today and concluded with an investigation of how his politics and aesthetics play out on the world stage now. The concerts pretty much followed this lead, with music commissioned to specifically relate to Ives, along with other new music that in some way used devices that Ives pioneered. Ives’ music was represented by his three most ambitious and empyrean scores: the Second String Quartet, the “Concord” Sonata and the Fourth Symphony.

Perhaps the biggest difference between the German and American approaches to Ives involves his relationship to the mainstream. In America, Ives is asked to fit into the establishment. At the Juilliard School in January, the students were invited to play Ives for a week. In May, the New York Philharmonic will hold an Ives festival in which his music will be joined by popular works by Ravel and other audience favorites.

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The Berlin Festival, on the other hand, adamantly avoided the American mainstream. There was no mention of America’s most prominent composer, John Adams (who wrote “My Father Knew Charles Ives” for the San Francisco Symphony last year and who will conduct one of the New York Philharmonic concerts); there was, however, mention in the symposium of John Luther Adams, an Alaskan who writes ruminative Ives-haunted music.

Indeed, all of the American composers asked to speak at the symposium and featured in the concerts came from what the mainstream considers the fringe avant-garde. One was the American violinist Malcolm Goldstein, who said during the symposium that he was not affected by Ives’ technical innovations so much as by his spiritual thought. The next day, Goldstein premiered “Soundings (in the spirit of Ives and Thoreau),” in which he ecstatically sawed on his violin as he walked up and down the deck of a riverboat on the Spree, to the delight of the passengers.

Another quirkily independent latter-day Transcendentalist, LaMonte Young, a founder of Minimalism in the ‘60s, also was asked for a piece. His submission (“Just Charles & Cello in the Romantic Chord” in a setting of “Abstract #1" from “Quadrilateral Phase Angle Traversals” with “Dream Light”) featured the cellist Charles Curtis in a nearly three-hour meditative reverie playing against a variable electronic drone while a large audience sat entranced on the uncomfortable lobby floor of the festival’s headquarters, specially illuminated in mood-enhancing magenta light.

Given the far-out nature of much of the music heard, including some of Ives’ works, as well as the seriousness of German Ives scholarship, there was a danger of condescension. Were weird Americans invited as laboratory specimens? This was an additional worry given that all the new “Ivesian” European music was by composers with establishment modernist credentials, such as the hot young Austrian Olga Neuwirth and the Boulez-approved French “spectralist” Tristan Murail.

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As it turned out, the German scholarship proved more refreshing than the European music. Academic interest in Ives runs deep in Germany, and the Ives literature in German is impressive. The latest issue of the important journal Musik-Konzepte is devoted to Ives.

Even aging members of the intelligentsia once associated with Theodor Adorno, the influential philosopher and social theorist, showed up for the symposium. One, Hans G. Helms, speaking for an hour without prepared text, gave a classic Marxist historical overview of Ives as a populist and of the idea of music as freedom.

The young German composer Oliver Schneller warned that it’s necessary to get beyond Ives’ eccentricities. The German Ives authority Wolfgang Rathert determinedly defended the music against charges of naivete.

The Americans were in less agreement, taking from Ives what they found useful. The composer and Village Voice critic Kyle Gann described the discomfiting aspects of Ives’ influence. Ives wrote most of his music from the turn of the century to 1918, when he suffered a debilitating heart attack -- all while in complete isolation from the musical community. He spent the last 36 years of his life in poor health, revising his music, self-publishing it and promoting it. But he didn’t catch on until a decade after his death, when the likes of Leonard Bernstein, Leopold Stokowski, Michael Tilson Thomas and Zubin Mehta began championing him in the ‘60s.

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Gann concluded that although echoes of Ives’ music can be heard in many contemporary voices -- avant-garde and more traditional -- and although Ives pioneered many techniques that are today common, “the 20th century could have happened without him.”

For Tom Johnson, a Minimalist composer and former Voice music critic, Ives’ self-reliance was a great model. Christian Wolff, a politically leftist composer and former Harvard and Dartmouth classics professor, declared that the combination of Ives’ experimental character and utopian visions can still elicit optimism. But another leftist composer (and extraordinary pianist), Frederic Rzewski, whose piano pieces are sometimes compared with Ives’, was dismissive of Ives as a revolutionary. Without elaborating, he said that now, Shostakovich means more to him.

A Sunday spent with Ives

To the audience, though, the “consequences” of Ives were an opportunity for simple adventure. Berliners crowded into a nine-hour Ivesian marathon (with no breaks!) held on a Sunday afternoon and evening in a striking, acoustically vibrant Stalinist-era radio soundstage (no longer used) on the crumbling outskirts of the former East Berlin, where neither subway nor train goes. Here was a parade of works for percussion, string quartet, piano and, extraordinarily, three orchestras placed on three sides of the audience.

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The highlights included Phil Niblock’s three-orchestra drone and Wolff’s more active interplay among the three ensembles (all members of the youthful, exciting Janacek Philharmonie Ostrava, led by three conductors). Unfortunately, a dreadful string quartet from Montreal, Quatuor Bozzini, barely brought out the brilliance of Gloria Coates’ Fifth String Quartet, a mesmerizing riot of glissandos and microtones by an exceptional if little-known American composer living in Munich. A mediocre Austrian percussion group from Graz determinedly banged its way through West Coast works by John Cage, Henry Cowell and Lou Harrison.

A recital by the young New York pianist Heather O’Donnell was devoted to new works written as a response to Ives. James Tenney’s “Essay (after a sonata),” played inside the piano, and Walter Zimmermann’s “the missing nail at the river,” for piano and toy piano, were startling and beautiful. Rzewski’s flamboyant “Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier” feistily ignored Ives, but O’Donnell quoted him in the improvisatory sections. Pieces by Sidney Corbett, Michael Finnissy and George Flynn were dreamy but dull glosses on Ives.

As for Ives himself, he didn’t fare particularly well. The Bozzini’s performance of the Second String Quartet, in which the players seem to be discussing, arguing and then rising above it all to contemplate the firmament, was incompetent. Sylvain Cambreling roared through a sincere but transcendental-less account of the Fourth Symphony with his SWR Symphony Orchestra Baden-Baden and Freiburg in the Philharmonie, Berlin’s famed vineyard-style concert hall. O’Donnell’s self-possessed and technically secure and lyrical performance of the “Concord” Sonata was far more satisfying, even if it lacked the extremes of maniacal banging or haunting otherworldliness. The chamber group Studio Percussion graz made a lot of ungracious noise trying to bring to life the “Live Pulse Prelude” from the “Universe” Symphony.

Still, I think Ives might have felt at home in Berlin last month, amid American outsiders and European academics who not only respect him but love him.

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For the moment, anyway, it appears that Ives ist Berliner.


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