Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Holly and the Ives

Slow times here at MMmusing, and with a lot of exams, papers, and projects still to be graded, 2012 will likely end quietly here. However, I will continue the tradition of bringing back some old seasonal chestnuts.

Before I even had a blog, way back in Aught Five or so, I created a little online greeting card titled "Merry Christmas from the Ives Family" which effectively reduced Charles Ives to the idea of throwing a bunch of tunes together in chaotic simultaneity. By the time it debuted on my blog, I was just calling it "The Vertical Christmas Medley" - seven of the best-known seasonal tunes in glorious harmony. You can sample this feast (and try to pick out the individual tunes from the mire) by clicking on the hard-working pianist below:
So, there's that. But recently, Ives has surprised me with a couple of unexpected Christmas hints of his own, both surely unintentional. Some time last spring, a coaching student brought in a song I'd never run across before with the merry title, "Like a Sick Eagle." It begins like so, and as I began playing it and hearing it for the first time, a familiar tune caught my ear amidst the dissonant intro (there's a special sort of fun in being surprised by something one is playing!):

That's right, sing along with me: "Oh'the....wea'ther....out-....side....is....fright'ful..." It is a very normal tonal pattern (sol-SOL-fa-mi-re-do-sol), albeit in a non-tonal context, so the connection to the 1945 Cahn/Styne song is surely just an accident, but it jumped right out at me last spring (when the weather was not at all frightful), and then again this fall when I re-opened the music, having completely forgotten everything I just suggested above, and immediately heard/felt the same thing. Musical déjà vu on multiple levels. You can hear the Ives for yourself here, although I suppose I've already prejudiced you to "hear what I hear":

But Santa Ives wasn't done with me yet. (It's worth noting that Ives has popped enough vernacular tunes into unexpected places that one starts to expect the unexpected.) Just a couple of weeks ago, the same singer handed me another Ives song. This time it took a little while in before the Christmas spirit took hold. Do you hear what I hear here at the 0:54 mark?

In this case, it's only the first four notes, but the addition of the syncopated fifth note (alas, a third too low) suggests 1950's Frosty, the Snowman. At least, that's the way I heard it in early December of 2012.

More and more, this kind of connection-making seems to be a big part of what listening to music is for me. I don't know, maybe I'm doing it wrong but, to quote a great lyricist, how can it be wrong when it feels so right?

In fact, although I penned most of this post last night, I just read the following celebration of connecting in a Jeremy Denk appreciation of the great Charles Rosen:
At the end of the corridor was the nerve center: a piano stacked with music, a desk stuffed with papers, a threadbare couch, and a book-covered coffee table. It was desperately unhip. But it was affecting and intense, the accumulation of things, of ideas, and Charles’s shuffle. You felt a kind of slow frenzy at his place—connections mounting upon connections, understanding upon understanding. Erosion in reverse.
One could argue (as I have before) that the musical experience is largely about connections, and though Rosen's specialty was connecting the dots of the past, there's no reason new, coincidental connections can't be just as meaningfully a part of that experience. I would guess even Rosen found meaning in a few connections that weren't really connections until he made them so.

More Christmas specials and kooky connections in the days ahead...

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