The Composer as Cripple

July 22, 2014

By Kyle Gann

...alias, Musicology as Schadenfreude.

Poor Charles Ives. He never got over his father's death, and kept trying to fill in the gap. He was driven to keep using certain tunes and instruments in his music because they reminded him of George. He kept pretending that he'd learned more from his father than from his college teacher Horatio Parker. Unlike most composers, Ives couldn't make up his own tunes anyway, so he'd find one and rearrange it until no one could recognize it. He never knew what he really wanted. He claimed that he didn't need any public recognition for his music, but he mailed it out into the world anyway. He was clearly really conflicted. He was laden with a lot of gender issues that made him express himself inappropriately, and he tried to write about Transcendentalism, though he didn't really understand it. He wrote crackpot letters to the president about crazy schemes involving political referendums, and he really didn't understand the issues involved. He took all those dissonances out of his music for fear people wouldn't take his music seriously, and then when he made friends with other composers who wrote dissonant music, he piled dissonances back in, with the competitiveness of a former athlete, so he could seem to be more modern than they were.

Sounds pathetic, doesn't it?

But wait a minute: As a teenager Ives was the youngest professional organist in Connecticut, and a precocious virtuoso playing music well beyond his years. He was lucky to have a father who could give him a thorough music education. He was an impressive baseball player as well as an incredible musician, and he went to Yale where he made dozens of friends and impressed some of his teachers enough to stay in touch with them for life. He got really lucky in the insurance business, and made about eight million dollars over the course of his career, which would be over a hundred million today; he was way up in the one percent. And yet, instead of becoming a stingy, conservative CEO, he modestly said that he hadn't really provided enough social value to be worth all that, and he gave money away freely, especially to fellow composers who didn't have any. His employees spoke glowingly of him for his kindness, generosity, and sense of justice; called him "a great man." Other insurance men considered him so important that they thought you'd be fortunate to get a half-hour of his time. And unbelievably, over the already full course of this same life, he wrote an incredible, visionary, prolific body of music, being able to hear these complex symphonic structures in his head without getting any aural feedback from actual performance, which is a lot more than I could have done. Meanwhile, he kept sending his orchestra scores to conductors and getting rebuffed, but, being rich, finally took matters into his own hands and mailed out the Concord Sonata himself. And it worked! And to help, he even wrote his own book about his view of musical creativity, eruditely quoting dozens of authors and basing his ideas on those of some important 19th-century philosophers.

Gee! All this is true too. So why, if you read twelve books in a row about Charles Ives, as I've basically done recently, is the picture at the top the one you get? Why do my Ives research writings make me depressed for the poor old sap?

Psychobiography, gender studies, deconstructionism, intellectual history, social history - these all have important roles to play in musicology. Music history became greatly enlivened when it burst in all these separate directions in the 1980s. It had been pretty dull when it was just the hagiography of dead white composers. But all of these tendencies coincidentally reduce the agency of the subject you're writing about. The individual is seen as driven by unconscious forces, hemmed in by his social background, unable to transcend the limitations of his upbringing. The artist's intentions can never be taken at face value. His every perception is, of course, subjective. His actions can be endlessly mined for evidence of unacknowledged desires. Contradictions in his behavior (which we all have) are fertile ground for psychological speculation.

And the great thing is, it's all true. We're all basket cases. Except for the musicologist. Because what strikes me as a little unseemly is the implicit power differential between the musicologist and poor dead Ives who can't defend himself. Unlike Ives, the musicologist is completely objective. His methods are scientific and rule out subjectivity. He's not trying to get a teaching job, or tenure. He doesn't have to worry whether his conference paper is perceived by the older professors as being in line with current research. He is already enlightened (it comes with the Ph.D.), and has ordered his own life much more rationally than Ives did. That he is financially secure goes without saying. And at, I dunno, 25, 40, 55, he gets the heady pleasure of magisterially looking down his scientific nose at this poor multi-millionaire, this visionary composer and captain of industry, and diagnosing which of Ives's actions were secretly responses to his father fixation, which came from his adolescent athletic competitiveness, and which from his Victorian sexual repression.

You know, it was fun when the late Stuart Feder wrote a psychobiography of Ives, because he was an actual, trained psychologist, and everyone appreciated him weighing in from that standpoint. But I think I can safely say, to almost the entire musicological profession with possibly a couple of exceptions, you are not qualified to psychoanalyze Ives. Yet every dissertation candidate, whether he or she has dealt with his or her own father fixation or not, now gets to look for where George Ives is in an Ives score like a psycho-musicological game of "Where's Waldo?" It's the totally speculative character of it that makes it boring, because you can say whatever you want about Ives's unconscious impulses without fear of contradiction - or confirmation. We don't need to regiment ourselves to 100% facts, because I love a good narrative, but less than 85% starts to wear. I am eternally grateful to the musicologists who correlated every sketch on Ives's manuscripts to the piece it came from - their relentless hard work has astonished me. But I'm getting programmed such that if I read the words "Ives's father," a little voice in my head says, "Somebody's about to jerk off."

I'm not arguing: the heroifying great composer biographies of old were one-sided if not marginally mendacious, hardly readable today, and it was time to take a different tack, apply some different methods. But let me throw out a warning sign that the pendulum has swung far enough in the other direction. We need to find an in-between position. In particular, we need to restore a sense of the artists's agency, and treat his or her conscious actions and deliberate statements, that are there for all to see, as at least as important as the unconscious ones we're so condescendingly attributing. Because - why would I want to read about the composer described in my first paragraph above? He sounds dismal. This is not good PR for the music or the profession. This will not inspire anyone to buy Three Places in New England. It's a partial truth, and misleading. And you, Mr. or Ms. musicologist - how would one regard Ives's life compared to yours? Would we all be better off if you had written the music? Too bad you weren't his therapist, you obviously had all the answers needed to straighten him out. Now, how about a little humility, and, with it, a little infectious enthusiasm for the music you're writing about, and maybe some admiration for the composer? Or is that just too, too pre-Derrida?

Personally, I think Charles Ives was one of the most phenomenal human beings who ever walked the planet, and I kneel in awe at his achievements. But if I were a young musicologist trying to make a career in the current academic environment, worried about how my paper would be taken at conferences, I would be leery about saying so. Luckily, I'm not.


Dave Seidel says: That kind of psychologizing always bothered me when I was reading it as a student, but I always suppressed my discomfort because I assumed the author knew what he (and is was almost always "he") was talking about. Now I realize that no one knows what they're talking about when they try to look into the mind of a dead person, especially one from a bygone era. There's a term that programmers use that seems relevant here: WAG (Wild-Assed Guess). Not that an academic would ever stoop to guesswork. That would be insufficiently authoritative.

Richard Leigh says: I think that trying to look into the mind of a long-dead person is something which a biographer is bound to do, but it needs a large dose of humility. The technique of trying to reduce Ives' career as an artist to a set of variations on "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" is ludicrous.

Paul A. Epstein says: Shortly after his Beethoven book came out, Maynard Solomon gave a guest lecture at Temple University. At a reception following the talk, Solomon got into a conversation with the husband of one of the faculty musicologists, who was a practicing psychiatrist, and finally asked him how he would diagnose Beethoven. The reply, after some thought: "He was kookaboo, of course."

Brighton says: Nice piece. I'm a huge fan of Ives. Musicologists are so useful, but it is dangerous to judge someone without walking a mile in their shoes. It's most useful when they give us insights to the actual scores based on their own extensive study of history and culture.

mclaren says: Psychobiography, gender studies, deconstructionism, intellectual history, social history - these all have important roles to play in musicology. Music history became greatly enlivened when it burst in all these separate directions in the 1980s. It had been pretty dull when it was just the hagiography of dead white composers. But all of these tendencies coincidentally reduce the agency of the subject you're writing about.
Worth asking why psychobiography, gender studies, deconstructionism, intellectual history and social history have erupted to the foreground in recent musicology over the past 50 years, while the older style musicology (looking at the music and using evidence and logic to try to draw deductions about what the composer did, and how, and why) has receded.
Seems pretty clear to me. Somewhere around 1970, musicology was rolling around smoothly like a bullet train at about 350 kilometres per hour and everything was looking great out the windows until the bullet train derailed. The passengers got thrown out the windows, the cars of the train burst open and went slamming across the fields, the tracks got torn up, emergency vehicles poured to the scene and first responders started giving medical treatment to everyone.
Because around the early to mid 1970s, suddenly contemporary music stopped behaving the way all the theorists and musicologists and music historians had claimed it would behave. You look at books from the 1920s or 1940s or 1950s and you see all these glowing descriptions about the "progress of music" and "increase in complexity" and "the avant garde." History was ramp, we were told. The ramp led upward, we were told. Contemporary music would just keep getiting more ambiguous (Bernstein's lecture), more complex (IRCAM mission statement), more sophisticated (the set theory crew), more mathematical ("Who Cares If You Listen?" 1957), and blah blah woof woof.
...Around the early to mid 70s you get this eruption of composers like Laurie Spiegel who start using all that complex computer power to...program algorithmic pentatonic folk tunes. ("Pallachian Grove") Or play 20-minute-long electronic drones that change only slightly over the course of the piece. ("Expanding Universe.") And then guys like LaMonte Young sit around with analog synth oscillators that make a drone that lasts an hour, and the composition is the random way the synth oscillators drift as the circuits heat up (Young's "Drift Studies). And you get other guys who play repeating figures over and over again, and write six-hour-long operas ("Einstein on the Beach") in completely tonal highly repetitive styles.
This was not supposed to happen. Worse, the IRCAM guys and the Princeton set theory crew, they get outraged. They refuse to even attend these concerts. They write diatribes about this "regressive" stuff. But none of it does any good. Instead, music just continues to fracture into different styles -- like Emanuel Ghent's polyrhythms that turn into neorhythmic music (you call it "totalism") courtesy of composers like Mikel Rouse and Michael Gordon. And then other styles break off fractally so that you've got people like Barbara Benary making Western music using Balinese gamelans and Balinese musical tradition. But sometimes tuned in just intonation, like Lou Harrison's gamelan Si Betty. So is this syncretism, or subversion, or what? Is this Western art music, or Balinese traditional music, or some hybrid?
So musicologists are all bollixed up. There is no mainstream anymore in serious contemporary music. It's subdividing into all these competing incommensurable styles. And nobody predicted any of this (except Leonard B. Meyer in his 1967 book and he doesn't count, because, you know, SHUT UP). So how do musicologists deal with?
Simple. They ignore it.
Head off for an extended vacation into psychogiography and gender studies and deconstructionism! That's the ticket! Ignore the problem and hope it'll go away! We'll find those WMDs in Iraq yet! And keep those troops in Afghanistan, because we'll make the world safe for democracy any day now!
KG replies: Bravo.

Rob Deemer says: Bravo x 10! We already have 30+ years of literature that has barely been scratched by musicologists (or theorists)...and it's not going to improve any time soon for the reasons you list.

Lois Svard says: Great piece, Kyle! One of the reasons that I have always played new music is that the composer can speak for himself. Musicologists may have something to say about these composers in the future, but right now, the composers get to set their own agenda/meaning/psychobiography/ whatever they want to say about themselves and the music they are writing. No filtering through someone else's agenda. Makes it all the more interesting.
KG replies: Thanks, Lois.

Jay Derderian says: "But I'm getting programmed such that if I read the words "Ives's father," a little voice in my head says, "Somebody's about to jerk off."
This is fucking gold.

Arthur Maisel says: I'm not sure that the musicologists are ignoring what's going on now (take a look at the tables of contents of journals or the lists of talks at conferences). It may just be that active musicians are ignoring what the musicologists are saying about them--and rightly so!
I am afraid that McLaren's rant is something of a wishful fantasy: We have finally escaped the oppression of the academic world!.We're finally writing unanalyzable music! I would bet a fiver that if you come back in twenty, thirty years, LaMonte Young and Phil Glass will be stuffed and mounted next to Lady GaGa and Orlando Lassus. And the historians and sociolgists and theorists will be finding connections that are invisible now, commonalities and patterns that we can't see--even if they have to make them up..
To give people who study music and musicians their due, I have used the image of lovers who writes reams of poetry describing their objects of affection--it's something some people do, and it's mostly harmless. But if it became instituionalized and the objects of affection were expected to conform to or live up to the descriptions, that would be oppressive.

Graham Clark says: "I would bet a fiver that if you come back in twenty, thirty years, LaMonte Young and Phil Glass will be stuffed and mounted next to Lady GaGa and Orlando Lassus."
^ This sentence is something of a masterpiece.

J. Peter Burkholder says: Hey Kyle, I love you like a brother, but I'm feeling a little insulted here. As a former president of the American Musicological Society, I worry about how musicology and musicologists are presented to the public. And as someone who has written about Ives repeatedly, for more than 30 years, I am left wondering whether you mean to include my writings in your diatribe.
Is this how I wrote about Ives in my early book on his intellectual roots and evolution as a composer and thinking (Charles Ives: The Ideas Behind the Music, 1985)? I don't think so. It certainly is not how I wrote about his uses of existing music in All Made of Tunes: Charles Ives and the Uses of Musical Borrowing (1995), where I made the case for his enormous skill in reworking musical material to create new themes, new forms, and new meanings. It is not how I present Ives in the most widely used music history textbook, A History of Western Music (2005, 2009, and 2014). Nor have I discussed him this way in any of a dozen articles.
You clearly disagree with the presentation of Ives in what you have been reading. Please let us know what that is. What books have you been reading, and what do you find wrong with each one? Talking in general terms about "musicologists" does not do justice to those of us who work in the field, or the work we produce. Nor does it serve you well. You are a subtle and penetrating thinker, and you are at your best when you argue with real people, not with straw men.
KG replies: Peter, very sorry you were offended, the last person I would implicate. I read all your books years ago, and every book I'm referring to has come out since your last one. As you'll see when my book comes out, I always rely on your research, and find it well-grounded in evidence, and I keep having to distinguish you (and for that matter almost all Ives writing before a certain year) from the more recent stuff that gets more and more speculative. For instance, I keep being tempted to say (and come close to doing so in one footnote) that the day your All Made of Tunes was published, the other musicologists should have said, "OK, Ives's borrowings are finished now, Peter wrapped it up, what else can we do?" Because everything since seems so speculative and not manuscript-based. I'm really trying not to single anyone out, because it's a general tone that has taken over in some otherwise very informative books. I will say that, for instance, while Budiansky's book has some wonderful new information, his view of Ives is kind of depressing. He's not a musicologist, so perhaps that dilutes the critique. It's like Solomon gave everyone permission to second-guess Ives, assume he's hiding something, interpret his every move condescendingly - and while the old guard, including you, didn't budge in your portrayal of Ives, some of the more recent people have started with the assumption that Ives was a problematic personality, someone whose real motives have to be be teased out from his ostensive ones. It's been the result of a whole lot of reading in a short amount of time, but yours was not included - yours were the first books I read, years ago, when I started working.
I hope we will have a chance to talk about this in person sometime, because there's a lot more to say. And as you'll see, your name appears in my book more than any other, I think, except for Ives and Kirkpatrick.

J. Peter Burkholder says: Kyle, thanks very much for your response. I understand what you're saying, and what bothers you about some of the recent work, especially what seems to you an overemphasis on problems and a tendency to speculate.
But I do think that your views would be more interesting if less broad-brush. For example, Stephen Budiansky's discovery that Ives was diagnosed with diabetes in 1918, which was then a virtual death sentence and required Ives to be put on a starvation diet, explains a lot about Ives's career: for instance, why he focused on getting the Concord Sonata and 114 Songs published, as a way to preserve his work after almost two decades of trying to interest performers. I would love to see you tackle Budiansky's book as a whole, praising what is useful--and based on solid evidence--and what strikes you as speculative, misleading, or unsupported.
KG replies: Peter, you're entirely right, and even more entertaining to me about Budiansky is all the great stuff he found about Ives's insurance life. I've footnoted him over a dozen times. But the book hammers away with stuff like, "It is hard to say how much the shortcomings of the essays [Before a Sonata] reflected Ives's self-imposed pressure to sum up his life's work and his distraught state of mind about his illness, and how much they foreshadowed the growing and deeper disconnect with reality that would become unmistakable by the mid-1930s." (p. 180) You read several such books in a row and can come away with the impression that Ives was a psychological and emotional cripple whose word can never be taken at face value. When in fact, he not only built and ran his own company (a lot of people can do that), but was considered a god by his employees (very few can do that), which means he had a lot more social skills than I do. As an Ivesian friend mentioned yesterday, the most insightful book on Ives's character remains Vivian Perlis's Charles Ives Remembered - by the people who knew him.

Stephen Budiansky says: I definitely would be the last person to disagree with your critique of the usual approach to musical biographies: my whole aim in my new biography of Ives, "Mad Music," was to try to approach the man as an actual human being, who also led one of the most unusual and fascinating twentieth century creative lives, and not treat him as yet another specimen for musicological anatomization or fashionable theorizing. And while unlike J. Peter Burkholder I am not the least bit insulted by your criticisms, I was however a bit surprised that you found my portrayal of Ives as "kind of depressing." There certainly was a tragic element I think to his creative life and his enduring discomfort with the world, but I found his story moving and extraordinarily human and I tried to tell it from a stance of empathy and understanding of what made him tick, where he came from, and what he himself was trying to say artistically.
At least that was in my heart and mind: I have always felt, as a journalist and writer, that the very act of writing about another person, especially one who is dead and can't stick up for himself, is at its heart and inescapably a gross violation of privacy. That doesn't mean one can shy away from the truth or not let the chips fall where they may, but it confers a responsibility to be careful and humble and empathetic and not just sling (as you note) psychobabble theories or other glib conclusions around. And added to that is the fact that it is one of the most difficult things in the world to truly understand another person's life, period.
So for example in my book I ended up being quite skeptical about all of the theorizing about Ives's father and noted how wrenched out of context many of the statements Ives made in later years about his father have been by writers out to prove their theories about the "Ives Legend": as I noted, while "Ives's occasionally idealized memories of his father were certainly colored by George Ives's early death, at age forty-nine, when Ives was just twenty . . . most of what Ives has to say about his father rings completely true and is no different from what most men come to feel when, from the perspective of their own adulthood and parenthood, they look back upon what they owe their fathers."
I was drawn to write about Ives not only by an abiding love and fascination for his music, but by a feeling of being in the presence of a great and strangely wonderful man the more I read his papers and letters and thoughts.
One very small correction in what you say in your post -- Ives certainly became wealthy but never made anything approaching $8 million from his insurance business; his income tax returns and accounts show that from 1909 when he established the Ives & Myrick agency to his retirement from the business he earned about $900,000 in all in salary and manager's commissions. When he died in 1954 his estate was valued by the probate court at just over $300,000.
-- Stephen Budiansky
KG replies: Stephen, thanks much for weighing in, and forgive me for bringing you up as the only person I could without offending an acquaintance. I do certainly appreciate the humanity of your book, and as I say, it adds a lot of depth and color to the total picture. I particularly appreciate your omission of Maynard Solomon. There are differences between us: I've been rereading the Essays for 45 years, and wrote several chapters drawing a consistent and interesting (I think) philosophy of music from it, so I can't consider it a symptom of Ives's infirmities. But you will find yourself heavily footnoted and quoted.
And thanks for the income figures; there are quite a few variations in the literature. I just read the other day (somewhere in this stack) that he left Harmony $800,000. And I took the 1% figure from your book.

Stephen Budiansky says: Nothing to forgive-I appreciate your insights and viewpoints very much and have never minded interesting criticisms.
Just wanted to add one more observation re your point about Ives biographers seeming to make him out to be an "emotional cripple."
Perhaps because I was a journalist before I was a historian and biographer, my reaction whenever the facts don't quite seem to add up is to try to first find the missing facts before formulating any fascinating theories. And I found myself just extremely dubious and dissatisfied with all of the explanations in the Ives literature that had been offered to explain his 1918 crisis and his subsequent artistic and emotional decline. That was what led me to dig not only into Ives's own medical history but also to try to better understand the historical context of diabetes and its treatment.
And so as I tried to show in Mad Music and in my American Music article, I think the heretofore unrecognized fact of Ives having received a clear diagnosis of diabetes in 1918 substantially explains both the 1918 crisis and the events that followed. Indeed, far from seeing him as an "emotional cripple," I see him as a man who reacted as almost any man would have to being told at age 43 he had an incurable (as it was then) disease and probably didn't have many years left to live.
The subsequent wasting Ives endured in the 1920s (which had also escaped notice) as his weight dropped by a third, until he weighed little over 100 pounds -- which was both the direct consequences of his diabetes, before he began receiving insulin in 1930, and the result of his efforts to control the disease with a strict diet -- likewise surely would have left him feeling miserable a lot of the time, as well as striking a very hard blow to his self-image as a vigorous and competent man.
There is certainly a tragic and perhaps depressing aspect to this story, but I strove to show that what had been ascribed to willful eccentricity, or "neurasthenia," or an artistic crisis, or Freudian guilt over his father's early death, or whatever is in fact well explained by his diabetes, particularly when placed in an informed historical context.
But I also don't think you can get around the fact that Ives did undergo a serious emotional decline from the late 1920s on in particular. Ives himself made frequent references to his "slumps" and being unable to do anything mentally or physically for months at a time; there are the angry tirades all his friends reported; and there are some pretty truly unhinged moments in his letters and writings of his later years. This wasn't a minor or incidental part of his personality and life, and a biographer has to come to grips with it.
As for his Essays, perhaps because I judged them as a writer, I did find them to make for painful reading. Maybe that was a too hasty judgment but there was a tone to them that seemed extremely similar to his later and growing disconnects from reality (which as I say I don't think you can deny in those later writings). There is an air of naive grandiosity in particular to the Essays that I found very disturbing in places and reminiscent of all too many autodidacts who try to compose grand philosophical statements. Of course there are also some wonderful Ivesian wry touches and insights too. But overall, they are, to use a technical writer's term, a mess.
Just to clarify on the income data: Ives's income in 1918 was $35,000, which indeed placed him in the top one-tenth of a percent of wage earners in the country; in 1921 he earned just over $60,000, his best year. But there's just no way that adds up to $8 million; it's about a tenth that for his total career. (The $800,000 figure you mention is also from my book, but it was the value of Harmony's cash and securities at the time of her death in 1969, and by then included a lot of accumulated income from the trust Ives set up for her.)
Thanks again for your comments and the interesting discussion!
KG replies: Nice to talk to someone who writes as fast as I do. The Essays are a mess, but I wouldn't alter a word. If you look up the passages Ives quoted, especially in Sturt's neo-Hegelian "Art and Personality" and Ruskin's Modern Painters II, the parts Ives *didn't* quote are often more pertinent and revealing than the ones he did. Add those in, move some sentences from Emerson into the Epilogue and vice versa, and you can trace the Romantic basis on which he defended his right to write music no one understood. Boatwright greatly overstated the inaccuracy of Ives's quotations, and misattributed several; he just couldn't find them pre-Google. Ives was usually pretty meticulous:
Another point on which he hasn't gotten the credit for competency he deserved.

Doug Skinner says: My favorite comment on the psychoanalytic school of musicology comes from the rather wonderful Argentine ensemble Les Luthiers. Their show "Lutherapia" is about the psychoanalysis of a musicologist, with musical interludes in the grand Hoffnung-Schickele tradition. And it has a happy ending: the musicologist finally learns that the composer he's writing about is not a father figure, but is actually his father.
KG replies: Very good.

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