Appreciating Ives


I love Ives. I think his music is really cool and interesting to examine from a theoretical standpoint. But honestly, it can be extremely jarring upon first listen, especially if you don’t know what to listen for. I want everyone to be able to appreciate Ives’s music for its genius and originality, not just music scholars. So what can we tune in to that will help us make sense of his music, or *heaven forbid* allow us to enjoy it?

Brief Case Study: Central Park in the Dark (1906)

First of all, when I’m looking at a new piece of music, I find that background information helps me greatly to contextualize and understand it:

Charles Edward Ives lived from 1874-1954. He grew up in Connecticut and one of his biggest early influences in music was his father, a band director, who encouraged his musical and theoretical exploration and experimentation. This is highly apparent in his works, which are innovative and often difficult to understand tonally. Ives attended Yale University, an institution housing many of the prominent musicians and music educators of that time, where he studied composition. His work was not widely performed during his lifetime, particularly his early/mid-life, and his greatest fame and recognition was achieved (as it unfortunately was for many composers) posthumously. Ives is known for using manifold techniques including polytonality, atonality, layering, polyrhythm, and quotation.

Out of all the musical elements for which Ives is renown, I think that musical quotation is perhaps the most important for understanding and appreciating his works. It is, at least, the easiest to grasp, because Ives intended for his quotations to be recognized. If you hear something familiar when listening to a piece by Ives, Stop! Establish what it is that you’re hearing, and then hypothesize why or how he’s using it! This is one way that listening with timbre in mind can assist greatly with Ives, because he uses sound to comment on the associations we may have with preexisting material.

The next thing I look for is anything the composer may have written about the piece. If the music is programmatic, but you never read the program, it will be that much more difficult to understand and appreciate what the composer has done. Here is what Ives has to say about Central Park in the Dark:

The strings represent the night sounds and silent darkness- interrupted by sounds from the Casino over the pond- of street singers coming up from the Circle singing, in spots, the tunes of those days- of some ‘night owls’ from Healy’s whistling the latest of the Freshman March- the “occasional elevated,” a street parade, or a “break-down” in the distance- of newsboys crying “uxtries”- of pianolas having a ragtime war in the apartment house “over the garden wall,” a street car and a street band join in the chorus- a fire engine, a cab horse runs away, lands “over the fence and out,” the wayfarers shout- again the darkness is heard- an echo over the pond- and we walk home.

Something else to keep in mind when listening is how the composer (Ives) was intending for you to perceive the sounds. Upon first listen, this work can be extremely confusing and our ears may struggle to make sense of what we’re hearing. But realizing that Ives is trying to imitate an outdoor scene, where layers of unrelated sound occur over one another, can help us to adjust to his style.  Most of us don’t find it distressing to walk down the street and hear layer upon layer of disconnected sounds because our brain filters through the unimportant (like the bustle of city traffic), leaving us to focus on the interesting, critical, or unusual (like a sudden crash or the ice cream truck). In my opinion, Ives can be difficult to listen to because we are used to assigning equal importance to all sounds we hear in a concert setting. If we treat Ives’s music like that of a Romantic composer, we are expecting the different layers to complement each other rhythmically, melodically, and harmonically. Ives does not do that. To enjoy to a piece like Central Park in the Dark, we should allow our brains to function like we are simply taking a walk in the park. We can be conscious of many layers at once, but we don’t have to worry about how they all fit together. We should let our attention go where Ives takes us.