Heather O'Donnell/Responses to Ives

Heather O’Donnell, Responses to Ives, Mode Records (Mode 211)

I’ve never much enjoyed Charles Ives’ shorter works for piano, as opposed to the magnificence of his orchestral music where the colliding layers of his ever-excitable musical imagination can be heard to best advantage. The short piano pieces – which include studies, ‘take-offs’ (Ivesian shorthand for parodies or jokes), ‘transcriptions’ (reworkings of parts of his longer pieces) and others – have always seemed to me, for all their technical innovation, cantankerous and uncommunicative, inhabiting a private world filled with post-adolescent naughtiness and a kind of aggressive humour, harbouring all sorts of grievances with the world at large. The ‘take-off’ Bad Resolutions and Good WAN!, for example: a homely melodic fragment, sounding like a quotation from a hymn tune, gets blown to smithereens in a spasm of crashing dissonance. All very witty and spirited – Ives’ two fingers to the conservative composition teaching he received as a student at Yale – but how often can one really enjoy this sort of music-in-opposition? Other works are amusing if a bit pointless, like his arrangement of London Bridge is Fallen Down! [sic] in two keys at once. The study The Anti-Abolitionist Riots is a more considered exercise in complex, dissonant counterpoint, but it still sounds to me as though somebody had defaced a virtuoso piece by Liszt by adding lots of wrong notes and crazy rhythms, a bit like Marcel Duchamp drawing a moustache on the Mona Lisa.

Ives, of course, was the innovatory American composer who worked as a life-insurance executive by day (becoming a millionaire by his forties) and was a radical compositional genius in the evenings, at weekends, and in vacation. He created – in almost total isolation from his contemporaries – music that explored the emerging vocabulary of contemporary music (polyrhythms, dissonant counterpoint, spatial separation of sound sources, microtonality, and so on) decades before, as Stravinsky memorably put it, ‘anyone else had even found a seat at the same table’. His greatest music is filled with visionary uplift, and can be raucous one minute and deeply moving the next. This brilliant new Mode release goes a long way to reconciling me with the shorter piano works, emphasising their explosive creativity by placing them in the context of new work that in some ways derives inspiration from them. Heather O’Donnell is an American pianist based in Berlin, and is a wonderful example of the intelligent and articulate modern performer; she not only plays Ives’ music with sensitivity and gusto but has curated this programme of new works around it and written the thoughtful liner notes, explaining her project’s essence and its motivations.

Responses to Ives was conceived to mark the fiftieth anniversary, in 2004, of the composer’s death. The responses are not attempts to emulate Ives’ style (something that, curiously, no composer has ever really tried, and good thing too), but draw diverse compositional starting points from aspects of the Ivesian universe, musically and philosophically. The potential problem with such an idea is that placing the cluster of new compositions alongside the works of the recognised genius might only serve to prove how much better the genius really is. But that trap is largely avoided here by the quality of the composers O’Donnell has approached. Walter Zimmermann’s magical piece for piano and toy piano was inspired by finding an old nail lying on the front porch of Ives’ childhood home, a sort of fourth-class saintly relic. James Tenney’s meditative, harp-like piece for ‘inside piano’ (the pianist plucking the strings directly without touching the keyboard) gradually reconstructs a theme from Ives’ Concord Sonata, like carefully decoding a message written in invisible ink. Oliver Schneller’s And tomorrow… takes the concept of Ives’ last composition, the Three Quarter-Tone Pieces for two pianos tuned a quarter-tone apart, and applies it to a work for piano and electronics full of gorgeous microtonal sonorities and infused, like O’Donnell’s project as a whole, with exuberant creative energy.

Published on 1 February 2010

Bob Gilmore (1961–2015) was a musicologist, educator and keyboard player. Born in Carrickfergus, Northern Ireland, he studied at York University, Queen's University Belfast, and at the University of California.

His books include Harry Partch: a biography (Yale University Press, 1998) and Ben Johnston: Maximum Clarityand other writings on music (University of Illinois Press, 2006), both of which were recipients of the Deems Taylor Award from ASCAP. He wrote extensively on the American experimental tradition, microtonal music and spectral music, including the work of such figures as James Tenney, Horațiu Rădulescu, Claude Vivier, and Frank Denyer. 

Bob Gilmore taught at Queens University, Belfast, Dartington College of Arts, Brunel University in London, and was a Research Fellow at the Orpheus Institute in Ghent. He was the founder, director and keyboard player of Trio Scordatura, an Amsterdam-based ensemble dedicated to the performance of microtonal music, and for the year 2014 was the Editor of Tempo, a quarterly journal of new music. His biography of French-Canadian composer Claude Vivier was published by University of Rochester Press in June 2014. 

Between 2005 and 2012, Bob Gilmore published several articles in The Journal of Music, including seven significant profiles of Irish composers.

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