Modern Nostalgia?

Charles Ives is quite the twentieth-century composer…

  • Dissonance in all realms; rhythm, texture, language, color.
  • Carefully treading that fine line between the composer and improviser; see the controversy with Elliott Carter, or listen to Ives Plays Ives.
  • Fragmentary quotation—never the full tune, but rather snippets here and there, raggy fragments; hymns next to folk next to rags next to classical next to patriotic next to parlor next to…

And yet… his titles, subtitles and settings seem to look back—nostalgia…

  • Piano Sonata #2 (Concord, MA 1840-1860),
  • Putnam’s Camp
  • Symphony #3: The Camp Meeting,
  • Lincoln the Great Commoner…. etc.

Consider, however, the following anti-nostalgia quotation… “It isn’t necessary to imagine the world ending in fire or ice. There are two other possibilities: one is paperwork, and the other is nostalgia.”—Frank Zappa.  As I get older the ‘nostaliga’ part of this makes more and more sense to me—so many people romanticize the past and never get beyond it, never appreciate where they are.  So many people (is it the same people?) map this into the creative area of other people, never allowing artists to move on, to change, to try something new…  Still, it’s a daunting idea, that the world would end this way, everything stuck in place, artists glued in time.

Is it possible for Ives to be both a modernist AND a nostalgist?  I recently stumbled upon a quote by George Steiner from his After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation, p. 490, which sheds some light on this argument:

“The apparent iconoclasts have turned out to be more or less anguished custodians racing through the museum of civilization, seeking order and sanctuary for its treasures before closing time.  In modernism collage has been the representative device.  The new, even at its most scandalous, has been set against an informing background and framework of tradition.”

This definitely applies to Ives, as a musical collagist par excellence.  See General William Booth Enters Into Heaven as an example of successive collage, and Mvmt.2 from the Fourth Symphony as an example of simultaneous collage.  Steiner lists Picasso, Eliot, Joyce and others as well, and I’ve heard people link Ives to Joyce previously, which perhaps makes more sense now…  So our most forward looking artists are the ones most desperately clinging to the past?

Steiner’s quote is taken from the chapter entitled Topologies of Culture, and on p.448, he explains this title, and addresses our issues with these modern nostalgists….  “These manifold transformations and reorderings of relation between an initial verbal event and subsequent reappearances of this event with other non-verbal forms might be best seen as topological.  […]  Topology is the branch of mathematics that deals with those relations between points and those fundamental properties of a figure which remain invariant when that figure is bent out of shape.  The study of these invariants and of the geometric and algebraic relations which survive transformation proved decisive in modern mathematics.  It has shown underlying unities and assemblages in a vast plurality or apparently diverse functions and spatial configurations.  Similarly, there are invariants and constant underlying the manifold shapes of expression of culture.” (see interesting interpretation here!)

Ah!  So not just the stuff from the past, read ‘invariants,’ but that stuff twisted, distorted, stretched as far as possible across the framework.  That is, not rupture, but distortion…!

Thoughts?  Good night, Mr. Ives


© 2012 Peter J. Evans, theorist

3 thoughts on “Modern Nostalgia?

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