Freshly returned from a week in Europe, performing at the Elbphilharmonie with the graceful singer Theo Bleckmann, and teaching composition at Engelsholm folk school in Denmark. Theo and I played a whole program of Charles Ives songs. I’ve been playing some of the “hits” (like Tom Sails Away) with Gabe Kahane for years so this was a welcome chance to delve further into the wild variety of the 114 Songs.
Like Gabe, Theo sings Ives amplified, which I think does a tremendous service to the more harmonically adventurous songs. You often hear remarks to the effect that Ives was an outsider avant-gardist who cared little for compositional technique, or that he simply wrote music to be as loud and dissonant as possible (occasionally true). Some performances of his music in fact sound this way, steamrolling his incredible harmonic control. His dissonances have a sound all their own; listening to the opening of a song like The New River, one couldn’t possibly mistake it for Schönberg or Stravinsky. And even in relatively consonant moments, like Songs My Mother Taught Me or The Housatonic at Stockbridge, the basic harmony is always flavored by unexpected pitches and shifting voice leadings, rendering it somehow more than a mere “tonic”. Sung amplified, with little vibrato and Theo’s inhumanly accurate pitch, these fine gradations of harmony come through much more clearly.
I’m also grateful to Theo for pushing me towards brief sojourns outside my notational comfort zone; some of our Ives interpretations go on sudden improvisatory tangents, or get interrupted by brief atmospheric cadenzas. In one, I play back a recording of Ives’s original song into the piano using a tiny speaker, and we improvise our own version on top. I like to thing he’d approve of this layered approach.
In other non-notated music news, I’ve been enjoying a brief residency at Brookfield Place this week, playing music by Brian Eno and Klaus Schulze with a wonderful band assembled by guitarist Grey McMurray. I’m a little surprised that the Winter Garden, with its vast problematic acoustic and mall-ish atmosphere, persists as a space for live music. But the events are free and crowded, traffic flows easily, and it feels ever so slightly transgressive to play weird music with my fellow weirdos in front of a deserted Bottega Veneta. “Down the river comes a noise!”…