Sitting at a Piano
I came across this wonderful stuff in Vivian Perlis's Charles Ives Remembered, an oral history of Brother Charles Ives as told by friends, acquaintances, musicians, relatives, business partners, and the famous others. Of course it's open-book knowledge that I think Ives is the greatest classical composer this country's ever produced. It's hard to beat Ives at music; it's impossible to outwrite Ives; he wrote music like no one had written music before or has since; as one writer said, Ives could write notes impossible to play on the instruments to which he assigned them; yet, he expected those instruments's players to be proficient enough to find a way to make these impossible notes possible. All his music due to a question that sailed through his mind, it actually sails through all our minds, a question Ives called "unanswered." The Unanswered Question.
One of these Ives oral historians was the truly great pianist, John Kirkpatrick. I mean, Kirkpatrick not only let Ives's music grab hold his "heart and soul" he went on and delved deeply into the source of the music, becoming intimately acquainted with the maestro himself, learning at his feet, watching as Ives showed him how to play his music, and Ives showed him how to read his music, and then Ives showed him how to "remember" his music. Kirkpatrick would go on to not only play Ives's music in concert but to also do an absolutely awesome job of editing and compiling all of Ives's dictations taken by his secretary in the 1930s, dictations that Ives called "memos," and Kirkpatrick turned these hundreds of pages of material into a tome of masterpiece proportions, Memos, all in the words of the man himself with extensive explanatory footnotes by Kirkpatrick. This book has become us Ivesian Worshippers's Holy Book; I mean everything you always wanted to know about Ives and his music is in there in Ives's own eccentric words and Kirkpatrick's extensive and greatly cross-referenced notes. But like a happy wolf, I howl off into a mountainous continuance and must drift back down to street level and get on with what I intended here.
What I am driving toward is John Kirkpatrick's explaining how he learned to play Ives's Concord Sonata, his Piano Sonata No. 2, composed in 1911 and 1912. Kirkpatrick went on to perform on the first recording ever made of Concord.
"In order to learn Concord, I copied out the whole thing and made a kind of metrical interpretation of it, just as an aid to memory. I don't have the kind of musical intelligence that could swim around in this kind of prose rhythm with no bar lines at all. I had to explain to myself very clearly just where all the main first beats were.... Ives was very nonplussed one time when I told him about my working copy of Concord, and having to make a metrical analysis of the whole thing in order to memorize it. I told him that, in regard to that aspect of the work, I was really Rollo. He didn't say anything--he looked puzzled.
"Concord takes a limber piano. You can't do Hawthorne on a piano that has much resistance. It should sort of fly through the air with no effort whatever. When I started out playing Concord, it used to take something like forty-seven minutes, and then several years later it was down to about thirty-eight. I think it's now about thirty-six.
"You play it with all kinds of memories, all working together--the aural memory of the way you know it sounds; the tactile memory or the tactile sense of interval with the fingers sort of doing their dance into the keyboard in a kind of massage of each slur; the dramatic memory of the way it unfolds; the synthetic memory of the way it coheres or the way it makes sense; and (if you're lucky) a kind of spiritual memory of just the right approach to life in general. But that's nothing you can aim at very consciously--that's a kind of reward. But all those memories, they work together." [From Charles Ives Remembered, Vivian Perlis, De Capo, 1994, pp 215-218.]
Jesus I love that. It is how you have to approach Ives's music. Kirkpatrick goes on to say that Ives in his respect for Emerson wanted his music to be good for players's souls. To me that means a music that will make you excited in your solar plexus, which is what all art should do, especially a music that tries to continuously answer a continuously unanswered question, the question, the why?
for The Daily Growler