American, Classical, Experimental, I Would Not Be Controlled: the album Jeremy Denk Plays Ives

By Daniel Garrett

Jeremy Denk
Jeremy Denk Plays Ives
Sonata No. 1, Concord: Sonata No. 2
Produced by Adam Abeshouse
Think Denk Media, 2010

I love the sound of beautiful voices, especially a woman’s voice—but, sometimes, a single human personality seems too limiting, too narrow, and I seek the freedom to be found in the interplay of musical instruments suggesting abstract themes and expansive visions.  The sonata, a sound composition without a human voice or lyrics, formed into sections with different relations involving harmony, melody, and rhythm, offers its own reveries.  In the eighteenth century, Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven wrote sonatas, usually with three sections or movements—typically, the announcement of a theme, its exploration, and restatement; fast, slow, fast—though Beethoven preferred four movements; and later, in the nineteenth century, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, and also Chopin and Liszt wrote sonatas too.  Why play the music of Charles Edward Ives?  “It’s because the music is brilliant, inventive, tender, edgy, wild, original, witty, haunting…so many adjectives,” says pianist Jeremy Denk in the album notes of his tribute to Charles Ives, Jeremy Denk Plays Ives.  The American composer Charles Ives (1874-1954), born in Connecticut and educated first by his father, an experimental bandmaster, then at Yale, founded an insurance business that sustained him while he composed his musical work, which was both classical and experimental: he wrote symphonies, sonatas and songs, and had unique ideas regarding structure and harmony, and was interested in improvisation.  Charles Ives conducted “experiments in layering, polytonality, rhythmic complexity…,” says Jeremy Denk, who thinks there is tenderness to be found in the dissonant work of Ives, work that included, rather than excluded, classical European music and American hymns, ragtime, and ballads.


I listened to Jeremy Denk Plays Ives during a cold and stormy winter in the country, the weather in line with things happening—or not happening—in my life, and my calm might have been false or self-deceptive, but it was certainly deeply insistent—and I insist on beauty.  I liked the music but did not realize the depth of its engagement until I left that music and listened to other kinds of music—and there was much less to dip into, leaving me feeling as if I had moved from a river to a pond.  The music of Charles Ives, as played by Jeremy Denk, has significant charm; and it becomes perceptible that a certain kind of charm is not a covering, a matter of surface, but is, like character or spirit, a residue or summation of experience, structure, thought, and motion; evidence of wholeness.  In the five musical movements of “Sonata No. 1,” partly inspired by Connecticut life and the song “Where is My Wandering Boy Tonight?” and the hymns “Lebanon” and “What A Friend We Have in Jesus,” the “first, third, and fifth are serious business: they are long, dense, even arduous.  But in the second and fourth, Ives goes in the opposite direction, to comedy and slapstick,” according to Jeremy Denk.  In “Sonata No. 1,” for me the first movement—the tempo formally labeled “adagio con moto”—has a delicacy of impression that quickly develops depth, a modulation of tempo, a hint of dark speculation, then a rise in volume followed by a sudden fall, notes light and heavy, and a quiet fade.  The second musical movement—in two parts; one, “allegro moderato,” and the other “allegro (‘In the Inn’)—seems first a change of mood, something more assertive, busier; and the second part of the second movement begins with some banging strokes before a quieter, more deliberate playing, with a purposeful density.  There are dramatic passages, like the sound of argument or struggle against a concrete force—something real and present, ending at what appears to be a gesture toward stability.

The third movement of “Sonata No. 1”—‘largo-allegro-largo’—is quiet and hesitant at first, possibly the sign of reticent approach or withdrawal, before there is a display of strength, and notes rise but are cut short.  Is this confusion or negotiation?  I hear in the music a sudden streaming, an insistence, and sounds punctuated with little silences, and what may conclude in resolution or a break.  The fourth movement is divided into two parts—one with no tempo designation, and the other “allegro-presto-slow”—and the first part has a lot of energy, intensity, speed, and volume, with two seemingly contrasting rhythms, followed by a sawing sound—little sharp pitches; and then a more melodious but fast rhythm.  The second part of the fourth movement is moderately fast, with fuller, quieter notes, before a rise in tempo and volume, the suggestion of multiple conversations or social activity, and, finally, a powerful tonal descent.

The fifth movement of “Sonata No. 1”—‘andante maestoso’—has the implication of masterful contemplation, strength, as if something is being challenged, tested, out of choice rather than desperation, need, or weakness.  There are a quickening of rhythm and elevation of volume, which are sustained, then seem to diminish to a bit of rumination and sparkle; and, a run through the piano keys that sound like strikes and counter-strikes, and a building of momentum and sudden end.

The four movements of the Concord sonata, “Sonata No. 2,” are named for Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, the Alcotts, and Henry David Thoreau, New England citizens associated with transcendentalism, an early nineteenth-century intellectual and social movement that respected matter and spirit, celebrating nature and the sublime, a form of idealism—with roots in western and eastern thought, from Plato to Buddha, and also poetry—that influenced American literature, philosophy, and spiritual practice.  The transcendentalists recognized a spiritual reality beyond convention or religious dogma.  Other associates included the writer Margaret Fuller and minister Theodore Parker.  The Transcendental Club began in Boston in 1836, had a magazine, The Dial, and some of its members tried communal living at Brook Farm.

The first movement of “Sonata No. 2,” the Concord sonata, is dedicated to Ralph Emerson, the author of the essay “Self-Reliance,” and the book Nature, a man seen by Charles Ives as brave and full of ideas.  The composition requires heightened attention, like a law with several amendments.  It begins with a strong tone, and immediately becomes lighter and more plaintive, to my ears, before there is a thickening of tone as if something, an idea or reality, is being circled, considered.

“Like the Greek tragic authors and the Stoic philosophers, Emerson believed that human beings lived in a grand, exquisitely balanced, but implacably severe morale cosmos.  Virtue, for Emerson, as for Plato and the Stoics, required aligning one’s actions with the principles of this cosmos,” declares scholar Neal Dolan in his book Emerson’sLiberalism (Univ. of Wisc. Press, 2009; page 98).  The Emerson musical movement in the sonata by Charles Ives is an attempt to convey an atmosphere of aspiration, with many ideas; and it has what Denk acknowledges are “haunting recurrences of Beethoven’s Fifth.”

The temperamental Beethoven (1770-1827), a child prodigy and music tutor, studied in Vienna with Haydn, and as a pianist and conductor played for the wealthy, and he sold his compositions, sonatas and string quartets, symphonies, and concertos.  His personality was invested in his music, with sudden changes of mood and volume; and he experimented with chord changes.  Beethoven was the first to link the sonata form—its four movements—thematically.  He also went deaf.  His late work began to be criticized for its irregularity, its radicality, before being acclaimed.  The pianist Jeremy Denk makes a point, in his notes, of the importance of the treatment Charles Ives gives Beethoven (Denk says that the Concord sonata by Ives performs an “obsessive assault” on Beethoven’s “Fifth Symphony,” but “the raw energy of Beethoven’s notes is made more vivid,” a form of both destruction and devotion).

Is there joy or sadness in the Emerson movement in the Concord sonata, or a more ambiguous state?  A thought rather than an emotion?  There might be sensations or speculations, but listening, I do not feel a particular thing.  It is a guiltless wandering and wondering that ordinary language can acknowledge rather than detail.  Something emphatic is struck; whether what it means can be known, it exists; and then there is a quiet that can be mistaken.

The second movement of the Concord sonata was inspired by Hawthorne.  I recall that I liked Hawthorne’s novel TheScarlettLetter, appreciating it first for its portrait of ostracism and then as an indictment of hypocrisy, but I relished TheBlithedaleRomance for its depiction of an intellectual community, a partial portrait of Brook Farm.  Denk sees the Hawthorne movement by Charles Ives as containing “supernatural humor.”  It seems grand to me, like a long string of pearls or a fancy handkerchief, something everyone can see but not possess, with notes like enticements, elements of intrigue and prancing, full of changing patterns of emphasis, of rhythm, tone, and volume. There is the implication of something serious beneath the gleaming, but it will not give up glamour or wit.

The Concord sonata movement named for the Alcotts seems relaxed but not inert.  Possibly the Alcotts were like that.  Amos Bronson Alcott (1799-1888), a writer and philosopher, taught children through conversation in Boston, a controversial method (and very Socratic); and he moved to Concord, where he lectured and was an abolitionist, and a proponent of transcendentalism.  His daughter Louisa May Alcott had Emerson and Thoreau as tutors, and later was a civil war nurse, with her greatest fame accruing to her authorship of LittleWomen.  The musical piece named for the Alcotts is supposed to suggest the mood of their home; and, while relaxed, it has its own force and poignancy, and there is increased warmth in the piano playing.

The last movement of the Concord sonata, “Sonata No. 2,” is dedicated to Thoreau, born in Concord, educated at Harvard, and a close friend of Emerson; Thoreau, a questing man who moved to a Walden Pond hut and wrote about it.  Thoreau sometimes lived with his family, and sometimes with Emerson; and did carpentry, gardening, and surveying for money, a reminder that it has been hard for a long time to be an independent intellectual in America, for which he is an inspiring model—especially as the author of “Civil Disobedience,” which advocated passive resistance as a political strategy.  The Thoreau movement in the sonata was inspired by Walden Pond, the place, and Thoreau’s life there.  It has what seems a soft beginning to me, with possibly a bit of randomness, and a weightier sound evolves; and there are starts and stops, like plans and accidents, paths taken through reflection and feeling: a found direction, and a surge of energy.  What emerges is not for everyone, but for the one person—or the few individuals—who will see or hear.  It is beauty that does not deny force or thought.  (The pretty sounds of the flute of Helen O’Connor are heard with the piano; but, meaning no disrespect, beauty and prettiness—as I have been reminded—are not always the same.)  I think that the composition ends with the sense of release, of something let go.  The only reason to listen to this music is the music itself; a great reason.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Offscreen, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today.  Garrett originated two internet logs: one focused on culture and social issues, “City and Country, Boy and Man,” and one focused on books, “The Garrett Reader.”  He has been writing a novel, A Stranger on Earth