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.


The Complexities of Simple Music

Philip Glass has been a major composer on the American music scene for quite a while now. He’s written in a number of different genres from symphonies to operas to film scores. The work I’d like to explore in this post is from his film score for Koyaanisqatsi, a 1982 collaboration with cinematographer Ron Fricke that juxtaposes slow motion and time-lapse videography of the natural world and civilization. The particular section in the work that I’d like to look at is entitled “The Grid,” and in the film, it plays over time-lapse footage of cities at night.
Glass’s music is perfect for discussing timbre because changes in timbre provide much of the the interest in his music. In fact, I find it easier to isolate particular sounds in minimalist music because my ear doesn’t have to worry about tracking the melody. This may also be why people find minimalist music repetitive and boring. It is repetitive, but the repetition in melodic and rhythmic material means we should be directing our attention elsewhere.

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Here’s my breakdown of the first couple minutes:
The first two seconds of this work are purely white-noise. The white noise continues through the rest of the piece, but this initial isolation forces us to focus on it. Because of the accompanying visual to this work, I find myself interpreting the white noise as traffic or the wind whistling in the city.
The next 43 seconds are dominated by horn-noises (I’m going to call them horns, though they could be electronically manipulated) playing F, then C, then D and G together. This use of perfect 4ths is very archetypal and evokes a somewhat primal feeling. At 0:45, we start to hear a horn faintly playing above other horn. This then becomes even stronger at 1:00, and at 1:28, the lower horn starts to repeat the interval of a major second, “embellishing” it’s “melody.”
At 1:57, trumpets come in with an iterative pattern that is quite jarring. Due to the traffic theme, I hear them as horns honking or car alarms sounding, and they bring an urgency to the work. The next minute continues with much the same sounds, and its specific combination of timbres and sonorities sounds rather jazzy.
At 2:56, the trumpets really step up their game and give us much more dissonance and brightness (we can see this on the spectrograph, which unfortunately only goes up to 3:24).
Throughout this entire section, the horns are still playing their two-note repeating ostinato. If you ever find yourself getting bored in this work (or others like it), I suggest tuning in to the number of instruments and varying sounds that you can hear. Were you still paying attention to the backdrop of white noise by the 30-second mark?
At 3:24, we start to get a bright, frantic triplet pattern. This corresponds perfectly to the visual of time-lapse traffic. In fact in many sections, the videography and music each amplify the other’s effect. For example, listen and watch from 4:03 to the end of the YouTube clip. Do the cars appear to be moving at different speeds based on the meter of the music? I have watched this section with and without sound and the difference is striking in what the music causes me to see!
In general, I hear this work as a commentary on modern existence. Glass captures the repetitiveness of daily life, particularly travel, and the futility of going and going and going but never really getting anywhere.
I tried not to look up very much information about this work prior to analyzing it because I wanted this post to be about what I was hearing, not what someone else thought I should be hearing. And there are a lot of aspects I didn’t touch on. So if you hear other things, awesome! Let me know what they are!
Also, if you’re enjoying this music, or you want to see really cool costuming and sets, Indiana University is putting on Glass’s opera, Akhnaten this weekend. It will be an incredible production and though I am not in it, a lot of my friends are. If you’re interested, you can live-stream the opera here Friday and Saturday (Feb 22, 23) at 8pm ET:

Barber and the Associative Property of Timbre

The power of association plays a large role in how music affects us. Seems pretty obvious, right? If we hear something in a work that we can connect with something familiar, the work will seem more personal. Additionally, using types of music with which the audience has prior associations grounds the audience and helps them understand what the composer wants them to hear. This allows for a bit more freedom in composition because the composer won’t have to work so hard to get his or her point across.

Samuel Barber uses this technique in his cycle “Hermit Songs,” composed in 1953. The texts for this cycle were taken from translations of writings by Irish monks, ranging from the 8th to the 13th century. Their topics range from penance to promiscuity to cats! The cycle is gorgeous and highly rewarding for both performer and listener. But what makes this work particularly fascinating is the way Barber sets the text. In his settings, he both maintains reverence for the time period in which the texts were written, and updates them to his style of composition. The works are not tonal (though not altogether atonal) and quite challenging for both pianist and vocalist, but they’re fairly easy to listen to. This has a lot to do with the connotations Barber draws upon in his music. Here are a few examples of the most obvious references Barber makes in these songs:

1. St. Patrick’s Pilgrimage: In this song, we can hear the heavy plodding of the journeying pilgrim. This “walking motive” is evocative of songs of previous composers (think Schubert’s Winterreise).

3. St. Ita’s Vision: Following the declamatory recitative-like intro, this song settles into a delicate lullaby duet between piano and voice. By suggesting a lullaby, Barber gives this song an incredibly personal touch and paints the picture of mother with child. His use of the piano in this song is very telling as well—he avoids the noisier lower notes in favor of the middle to high range, and his articulations call for smooth and gentle lines.

6. Sea Snatch: The rollicking chords of this song hint at a sea shanty, or a storm-tossed boat, but the uneven meters keep it from descending to banality. Barber also uses the lower, noisier, rumbling notes in the piano, conjuring rough seas.

8. The Monk and his Cat: This song includes jazz references that speak to the monk’s easy relationship with his cat. Additionally, Barber uses different articulations to represent the two “characters.” The monk is symbolized in flowing, arpeggiated lines while the cat often appears in the chopped, impulsive, blocked chords. The cat can also be heard “padding” chromatically upward through the piano in the brief interludes.

The cycle was originally written with soprano Leontyne Price in mind. She premiered them, with the composer at the piano, at the Library of Congress in 1953. If you have access to a music library or a resource like Spotify, listen to the Price/Barber recordings; they are amazing and you can be sure that these are the closest to what the composer himself intended. Unfortunately, most of the Price recordings on YouTube are of poor audio quality.  The only complete recording I can find is Gerald Finely’s. While it is an excellent recording, the fact that he is a baritone changes some aspects. Obviously, the vocal timbre of a baritone is very different from that of a soprano. Merely by virtue of this, he can’t sing these songs as a soprano would. Yet no two sopranos will sound the same either.  That is why the comparison of vocal works can be so interesting from a timbral perspective; with each new performer comes a new instrument.

If you can, listen to the recordings of Leontyne Price or Barbara Bonney

If not, here are some YouTube links:

An example of Price singing the 3rd song of the cycle:

Barbara Bonney singing the 5th song:

The entire Gerald Finley recording can be found here:



Edgard_VareseThe notion of timbre is frequently elusive. This is particularly the case for pieces in which melody or pitched material plays a large part. When listening to music, our ear naturally follows the melody, and we’re less inclined to focus on what is producing that melody.  But in an all-percussion work, there is no melody. There is hardly any pitch. This forces the listener to concentrate on the subtle differences in sound between the various percussion instruments in order to ascertain how the work was organized.

Ionisaion, composed by Varese around 1930, uses thirteen percussionists and three dozen different percussion instruments. These range from bass drums to castanets to sirens, and Varese organizes them based on what they are made of (primarily metal, skin, and wood). If you don’t know what to listen for in this piece, and you’re not a percussionist, it can be hard to decipher exactly what’s going on. After all, even if you can identify a certain percussion instrument, what is it about the sound that you’re noticing that makes it different from another?

An Abbreviated Guide to Telling One Percussion Sound From Another: Instructions for Something We Usually Do Without Even Thinking About It

  1. Range: most percussion instruments can’t play the pitches on an even-tempered scale, but they do have a specific range of sounds they can achieve. Ex. Castanets are higher than bongos, which are higher than bass drums
  2. Envelope: how a sound changes over its duration, usually measured in frequency over time. Some sounds will start out loudly, then fade away very quickly, while others, like a gong, will increase from the initial attack before slowly decaying.
  3. Attack: the very initial sound that occurs. In percussion instruments, this is usually the primary part of the sound, as opposed to an instrument like a violin where the attack is just the slight crunch of bow hair on string before the tone is produced.  This can be manipulated in percussion instruments by switching the type of mallet used.

So now you know why you’re hearing what you’re hearing, but how does that help in understanding this work?  Ionisation can be broken down into three parts, and while the divisions I make may differ slightly from what some scholars have written (if you’re curious, see the Jean-Charles Francois article on Ionisation), I do share some of their ideas on how the work is structured. In this brief analysis I draw from Francois’s article in particular.

Part One: 0:00-2:40

Aspects that define this section include a clean rhythmic line and alternation between instruments made of metal and those of skin, while sustained sounds play in the background.  I hear this as almost a conversation between the various instruments—they each take what the first has “said” and build upon or answer it.

Part Two: 2:40-5:00

This section is decidedly more chaotic and rhythmically complex as it has many more lines and ideas occurring at once.  Additionally, it includes a lot of references to city life, and in parts I hear sirens wailing, horses clomping down the street and the general bustle of modern life.

Part Three: 5:00-end

Here, the majority of the pitched percussion instruments are introduced for the first time. Snippets of ideas that were heard earlier return, but I hear a great sense of finality in this section. I attribute that to the “bell tolling” sounds and the use of the gong.

I’m not a percussionist and I know little about these instruments, but the more I listened to this work, the more I appreciated and enjoyed it. I hope you will, too!

O King: A Memoriam

Luciano_BerioThe first piece I’d like to look at is one I spent a great deal of time on last semester: the second movement in Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia.  Titled, O King, Berio wrote this work in 1968 as a memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  He composed it originally as a piece in its own right, re-orchestrating it later that same year to fit within his Sinfonia. Give it a listen: initially it may not seem super interesting, but at least it’s not prohibitively atonal.

 (not my favorite but the best version I could find on YouTube)

Quick Look

Listen for:

  • progressive build-up of noise and volume from beginning to end
  • voices (on vowels) and instruments sounding as one collective instrument
  • his instrument choices for different moments and effects
  • sustained sounds moving to iterative (disregarding the bell-like sounds)
  • increasing use of consonant sounds in voices

Musical Meaning:

  • eerily quiet combination of voices and instruments sounds like a collective “wail” of mourning voices
  • impulsive sounds are bells tolling for the death of a great man
  • increasing noise component as well as the gradual build of volume represents the increasing intensity of mourning and the progression of the grieving process
  • the last great tolling of the bell (climax) can be seen as the moment of acceptance
  • confusion and cacophony following the climax mimic the confusion and loss felt by the Civil Rights movement: they must find a new leader and rebuild

I could sit here all day and talk about all the cool and “intelligent” aspects of this piece, like how Berio used tone rows, rhythmic rows, and even vowel rows to compose O King.  But as interesting as all those things are, they don’t really offer a compelling reason to listen to this as a piece of music.  Mathematical constructions of tones may be beautiful and brilliant, but they rarely move us to tears. And even though the work is strictly arranged by rows, it is also organized in a musical manner by timbre.  Timbre can have all sorts of definitions when applied to music, but here it will describe the total sound. It is through timbre that one can best understand the musical meaning of the work.

I believe the best way to define Berio’s organization of this work is by noise. Noise, in this context, refers to the non-tonal part of a sound. If you clap your hands or bang on a drum, that’s noise. If you play a note on a flute, the noise components are the initial “attack” sound of blowing air, the click of the key, and any rasp or breathiness in the tone. O King devolves gradually; it begins with sustained sounds in unison, then moves to layering increasingly dissonant instruments and pitches, then finally, following the climax, tonal components hardly matter at all: the sounds we hear are mostly non-pitched.  One can see this in the spectrograph analysis of O King. The spectrograph charts the sound that it picks up through time. The horizontal axis is time, the vertical axis is frequency (Hz), and the colors represent intensity (volume) of the sound being charted.  Screen shot 2013-01-09 at 5.56.01 PMThe farther along in the work one looks, the fewer horizontal bands there are (vertically stacked horizontal bands mark pitches and their upper partials) and the more noise appears (noise being all the material not organized into horizontal lines). Here are some snapshots of various places in the work:

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It is very easy to tell where one is in the work by examining the noise component of a particular moment on the spectrograph.

Another really interesting way Berio organizes this work by noise is in his use of vowels and consonants. The vocal material in this work is derived entirely from the sounds in the name “Martin Luther King.” Berio begins by using only the vowel sounds. Then he adds more and more consonant sounds, beginning with the ones that are the least noisy (the nasal consonants like “n” “m” and “ng”) and progressing until the climax of the work on the very noisy “k” sound of “King.” Following the climax (when the piece descends into a cacophony of noise) the voices begin to layer consonant sounds on top of each other. The very end of the work marks the noisiest vocal moment as, for the first time, all voices simultaneously sing a different syllable of the name.

It is impossible to touch on all the amazing aspects of this work here, but I would highly encourage you to listen for yourselves and see what you can pick out! Though this work has not been organized in a traditional form, nor can it be considered melodic or even tonal, it nonetheless offers a moving musical message. You just have to know where to look.