Friday, April 8, 2016


Although I haven't blogged as often as I'd like lately, I've been at this long enough to have a certain "reputation" among friends and followers. Simply put, I like to mash things together*, so when I saw this fun tote bag was being sold as part of a recent Timo Andres/Gabriel Kahane collaboration....

tote bag with cartoon image of Charles Ives and Benjamin Britten facing off in a 'celebrity death match'

...I couldn't help but start thinking of ways to bring the dueling Ives and Britten together. It's an interesting matchup of composers who don't share a lot of close stylistic ties - other than love for simple folk material and use of mostly tonal idioms spiced with plenty of colorful dissonance. Each has a reputation tied closely to his respective native land, though each is also too idiosyncratic to be a classic nationalist. Ives was a macho capitalist, while Britten was more the mild-mannered communist, though Ives has the more sentimental sweet-tooth. 

I first thought of making a silly Ives joke by layering two Britten pieces together and calling it an "Ives arrangement," but as I was thinking of works that best represented each composer (difficult to do as neither can easily be defined by one kind of style), it occurred to me that the serene strings of The Unanswered Question might alternate nicely with the amazing waves in the first Sea Interlude from Peter Grimes. From that basic idea, this came together pretty quickly:

If you don't know the originals - well, first of all, you should! But, I think these two landscapes merge together pretty naturally. Honestly, The Unanswered Question (1908) is music I hadn't thought much about for years, and I was surprised to realize only now that its opening sonority sounds very close (pitch and all) to the opening of Vaughan Williams' famous "Tallis" fantasia from 1910:

[NOTE: I wove together this Vaughan Williams with some even more unlikely Shostakovich at the end of this blog post.]

Perhaps that's why this particular Ives sounds more "British" to me than usual and seemed a natural setting for Britten's uncannily natural sea sounds.

I don't think there's a lot to add about my fairly straightforward mashup, although I'm particularly proud of how Britten's violins make such lovely counterpoint with Ives' bass line from about 0:30 - 0:55. I also like that Britten's brass at 1:08 seem to introduce Ives' questioning trumpet at 1:18. Easily, the most jarring music in the brief mashup is not my "fault," but is due to Ives' flutes playing the role of "fighting answerers," although I only gave them a brief cameo [1:42]. (For the record, the Ives begins at its beginning and is left as is except the one jump to the final trumpet question; Britten's music is chopped up a bit to fit above.)

So, there I go again. I definitely can't resist doing this sort of thing, but I like to think it's more about letting these composers speak to each other than it is about clashing.  As far as Ives and Britten go, I think these works are about as iconic as it gets for each, so I'm glad they were able to play nicely with each other.

* Let's just say more than one person made a point of sending me the link to this recently gone-viral medley, which is fairly clever, although not as insightful to me as this great bro-country wall of sound.

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