“Sometimes, on Sundays, I heard the bells, the Lincoln, Acton, Bedford, or Concord bell, when the wind was favorable, a faint, sweet, and, as it were, natural melody, worth importing into the wilderness. At a sufficient distance over the woods this sound acquires a certain vibratory hum, as if the pine needles in the horizon were the strings of a harp which it swept. All sound heard at the greatest possible distance produces one and the same effect, a vibration of the universal lyre, just as the intervening atmosphere makes a distant ridge of earth interesting to our eyes by the azure tint it imparts to it. There came to me in this case a melody which the air had strained, and which had conversed with every leaf and needle of the wood, that portion of the sound which the elements had taken up and modulated and echoed from vale to vale. The echo is, to some extent, an original sound, and therein is the magic and charm of it. It is not merely a repetition of what was worth repeating in the bell, but partly the voice of the wood; the same trivial words and notes sung by a wood-nymph.” — Henry David Thoreau, Sounds, Walden (1854)
A musical event extraordinary in every possible way for Salt Lake City will take place next week at Westminster College, featuring pianist Jason Hardink and world premieres by four composers in Concord/Revisited, which celebrates the centenary of Charles Ives’ Concord Sonata.
In three concerts, Hardink will take audiences on a journey that will start with a performance of Ives’ famous work celebrating Concord, Massachusetts, which was the geographic heart of the Transcendentalist movement in the 19th century, and continue with commissioned works by Anthony R. Green, Inés Thiebaut, Jason Eckardt and Steve Roens that expand the intellectual, cultural and philosophical vistas of the original sonata for 21st century musicians and audiences.
The concerts will be performed daily March 21-23 at 7:30 p.m. in the Vieve Gore Concert Hall on the Westminster campus. Concerts will include roundtable discussions with Hardink and the composers, and will be moderated by Lance Newman, a scholar of Transcendentalism and dean of the College’s School of Arts and Sciences.
In a nutshell, Hardink is the musician’s counterpart to the extreme sports athlete. Four years ago, he completed the Wasatch Front 100 Mile Endurance Test in Utah. Hardink is the former music director of the NOVA Chamber Music Series and currently holds the position of principal keyboard with the Utah Symphony and serves on the piano faculty at Westminster College. More importantly, he has a prodigious portfolio of premieres, recitals and commissions that have solidified his reputation as an adventurous musician who never shies from pushing the limits of fresh perspectives on the canon of piano literature.
His 2019 recital at Carnegie Hall in the Weill Recital Hall, for instance, was received with exceptional reviews. Anthony Tommasini at The New York Times wrote, “Most pianists begin a recital with a piece that allows them to warm up a little, and gives the audience a chance to settle in. Not Jason Hardink. He began his concert on Tuesday at Weill Recital Hall with Jason Eckardt’s Echoes’ White Veil, a dizzying, manic 12-minute work of almost stupefying difficulty.”
The music for the first evening of this event will be dedicated to the Concord Sonata, which is cast in four movements (Emerson, Hawthorne, The Alcotts, and Thoreau). To appreciate the impetus for Hardink’s project and the four commissions, one must recognize that Ives was truly the first holistically American composer. As Paul Frucht, the director and founder of the Charles Ives Music Festival in Connecticut, explained in an essay at NewMusicBox.org, “Other composers at the time were also writing music with titles that resembled Ives’s Concord Sonata or Three Places in New England. But those works were informed by the European romantic tradition that American composers were steeped in throughout the 19th century.” Furthermore, “Ives’s music fuses American folk materials with experimental techniques like polytonality, quotation, and quartertones. His polystylistic compositions can be filled with piano clusters one moment, then feature a rip-roaring folk tune he’d heard as a kid in the next, and then move into a combination of the two.”
Thus, one can anticipate the world premieres of the four works, which will be performed on the second and third evenings of the series, for how they pull the Ives work, which certainly was way ahead of its time when he published it in 1920, forward to 2022. Each of the composers take whatever elements from the Ives piece they see as relevant to their creative objective for fulfilling the commission. They subsequently incorporate the context of those aspects into a fresh expression which resonates with our own contemporary sense of place, physically, spiritually and intellectually. Concord/Revisited reinforces and revitalizes the polystylistic vision Ives had when he was composing more than 100 years ago.
For example, on the final concert of the series (March 23), Anthony R. Green’s The Baldwin Sonata, epic in its comparative scope to the Ives work, will be premiered. A comprehensive ode to the literary legacy of James Baldwin, the sonata’s four movements are titled, Going, Telling; The Outing (Queering existence); How Much I Owe and Facing Reality (the changing same).
In an email interview with The Utah Review, Green explains how his long desire to work with the literary output of Baldwin in some way as a composer came to fruition. “When this commission came, the literature-music connection found in the Ives was one of the biggest inspirations for me to draw upon Baldwin in my new sonata,” he writes. Thus, Green achieves a synthesis of the concrete inspirations in the material as they come through the words of Baldwin and the overall architecture of the Ives piece. “As the Ives is quite a consistently dense work, I wanted to counteract that texture by creating more of a note/counterpoint-focused piece rather than composing mostly thick chords,” Green explains. “Of course thick chords appear in my sonata, just in an opposite proportion to the Ives.”
An aspect from Ives that all four composers consider in varying degrees with their respective pieces is the use of quotation. “Growing up as a Sunday churchgoer, coming across hymns in Ives’s music transports me to a plethora of diverse church-related circumstances in my youth,” Green explains. “For example, when I hear Bringing in the Sheaves in the first piano sonata, I am reminded of Thanksgiving services at church, and I am – perhaps humorously – also reminded of a scene in the 1966 Batman movie where a community marching band is playing the same hymn as Batman is essaying to dispose of a bomb. That is quite humorous, I guess, but I also question how many children my age recognized him when they watched that movie, and how many people can recognize that hymn when watching that movie or listening to Ives? And structurally, what is Ives’s intention for the audience? What is he saying by placing that hymn at that moment? These questions guide me in my own use of quotation in my music.” Green adds that this newest work represents the most extensive use of quotation he has used as a composer in his oeuvre.
While Green does not focus on Transcendentalism per se in his work, nevertheless the journey he embarks on as a composer and subsequently invites the audience to join in drawing an intriguing parallel between how Ives expressed his own identity in the place that was the center of Transcendentalism and how Green expresses the impact of the words and life experiences of a single writer (Baldwin) upon his own “life, legacy, and practice.” Green’s sonata will cap a journey that warmly encourages the sincere desires of individual audience members to immerse themselves freely in the music of all three evenings and to listen as closely as possible, because the rewards will help clarify the sprawling intellectual quest that animates the Concord/Revisited Project.
“The titles of the movements give hints as well,” Green says. The composer also explores layers of contemporary scholars and their contributions challenging and contextualizing the Baldwin legacy. “One of whom, loosely, was Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), whose 1966 (!!) essay The Changing Same – focusing on Black music – shares quite a bit philosophically with some of Baldwin’s observations and postulates. In my sonata, the incorporation of this idea of the changing same is a symbol of Baldwin’s conflicts and, to use a term associated with dialectical materialism, contradictions.” One movement becomes a musical rendering of Baldwin’s very short story from 1951, The Outing, the first published work of the author which had a queer narrative treatment. Green also acknowledges Baldwin scholar Ed Pavlić, “whose seminal text Who Can Afford to Improvise? James Baldwin and Black Music, the Lyric and the Listeners was intrinsic to the composition process.”
The second concert (March 22) will feature the premieres of three shorter works: panta rhei by Inés Thiebaut, Promontories by Steve Roens and a melody which the air had strained by Jason Eckardt.
Like Green, Eckardt, in an email interview, says that he wanted to use quotation but did not want to directly quote Ives. “It struck me that the temporal distance between Ives and Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, which is quoted frequently in the Concord Sonata, is about the same distance between my present work and that of my early 20th-century forebears, using the composition of Schoenberg’s Op. 11 [the atonal 1909 work Drei Klavierstücke] as a seminal time point. All quotes came from that body of composers who have deeply influenced me, specifically the piano works of Babbitt, Carter, Feldman, Finnissy, Schoenberg, and Stockhausen.”
Eckardt alludes to various elements in the Concord, including the opening, “the linear filigree of the Hawthorne movement [and] … the famous arpeggiated chord of the Thoreau movement.” The title of the work comes from a phrase in Thoreau’s Sounds chapter of Walden. Eckardt also explained the elements he found important in excavating the harmonic characteristics of the Concord. “I began exploring interval combinations that were both new to me (emphasizing minor sevenths over major sevenths, for example) and also reminiscent of Ives. Many passages sound to me like prolongations of the major-minor 7th chord (though not functioning as a dominant) with whole-tone and octatonic colorations.” For textures, Eckardt was influenced by how Ives used the piano’s “baritone” register. “I was able to find a certain weight to the ‘core’ of the sound in this register without having to resort to octave doublings,” he adds.
As for how he envisions the contemporary value and relevance of Ives for musicians and audiences, Eckardt mentions the New England composer’s conglomeration of experimentation that signaled musical developments which would not be manifested until decades later on one hand and his strong sense of nostalgia on the other. “There is also something quintessentially American about his use of, as [Walt] Whitman put it, ‘multitudes’: the proliferation of materials that provoke associations, memories, and identities are – sometimes chaotically – jumbled and layered together and yet have a distinct and recognizable character.”
Likewise, Eckardt finds kinship with Ives in terms of the Transcendentalists, particularly, as mentioned above (Thoreau’s Walden), as well as Ralph Waldo Emerson’s writings. “Since I moved out of Manhattan and to a remote part of the Catskill Mountains 14 years ago, my relationship to the natural surroundings has deepened a sense of connection to the nonhuman living world,” Eckardt adds. “With this in mind, I wanted to embody overlapping worlds that Thoreau and I share (such as the calls of birds that Thoreau observed) and the rugged individualism and optimism of Emerson.”
Taking full advantage of Hardink’s desire to make the Concord/Revisited Project as multidimensional as possible, Inés Thiebaut decided to compose a piece for piano and electronics. “The Concord piece is so multilayered and I decided that by creating a piece with all of the tools I use in composing, I could support Jason’s wishes with a multilayered homage,” Thiebaut says in an interview with The Utah Review. Thiebaut also was thinking about Ives’ Fourth Symphony, a piece that he began writing during the same time as the Concord Sonata but the large orchestral work was not completed until later in the 1920s. The symphony breaks the mold in many conventions. The collages of hymns and melodies popular during Ives’ day are presented by an enormous instrumentation as described in the original score, including two offstage ensembles and two conductors, a theremin, ether organ, a quarter-tone piano, gongs, drums and a chorus. The two conductors are needed for coordinating passages that are played simultaneously in different meters. Even within the string sections, the parts are divided into numerous fragments with different instructions for the players.
Thus, Thiebaut does not quote material specifically from Ives as much as the new piece incorporates the Ives aesthetic in which, as she explains, “masterfully tweaks and transforms the source materials of the hymns, popular tunes and folk songs he used that allowed them to coexist individually and coexist in the same timeline.” To wit, an excerpt from the program notes for panta rhei: “One of my favorite Pre-Socratic philosophers, Heraclitus loved to write and think about the concept of flow (rhei), the stream of things. He is the one that talked about not being able to step on the same river twice, and that nothing ever just is, it is always becoming. This piece is always becoming. It is cyclical, yet different every time. It is also a reflection on the symbiosis of the piano and the electronics, how they both need each other throughout, starting and finishing each other’s gestures and colors.”
This is how Thiebaut conceives the connection to Transcendentalism and the relationship of symmetrical reciprocity between the individual and community. “Near the end of the piece, the electronics exhaust themselves and the piano is solo for the first time in the piece,” she explains, adding that the piece then abruptly ends. “The piano just stops as if the soloist says ‘I’m not going to continue.’” That mutual acknowledgment of reciprocity in relationships individually and collectively is essential to nourishing our community relationships in constructive ways, as the Transcendentalists believed.
Thiebaut believes that had Ives been alive in the age of electronics, he would have enjoyed using such tools as a composer, in some ways similar to well as different than, for example, French composer Edgard Varèse. She also cites the American composer Elliott Carter who achieved a multilayered cohesion in his work that was similar to Ives but also was more organized in melding the dissonances and being less prone to the clashes that Ives relished in his musical settings. Overall, “being an admirer of Ives is an easy fit for me,” Thiebaut says. “This project came very naturally for me.”
Steve Roens, an emeritus faculty member in The University of Utah’s school of music, decided on a 17-minute single movement piece with five sections for Promontories, as his contribution to the project.
In an interview with The Utah Review, Roens says he initially thought about building the piece with his take on the descent in octaves at the beginning of the Concord but instead it would be a rapidly occurring devolution of that descent, and then lead into a slow middle section echoing the sonata’s overarching theme of human faith. “But I’m not good at quoting things in music so that fell by the wayside,” he says.
Roens instead was attracted to the possibilities of a contrapuntal musical structure to handle “the amazing clusters” which populate the Ives work. “My clusters though are much smaller,” he says, adding that the first section of his piece comprises a rapid series of micro-clusters that eventually lead to a sequence of three variations punctuated by a quiet cadence. As his program note indicates about the remainder of his composition, “The second consists of a slow section interrupted by a quiet rapid passage after which the slow music returns. The third section consists of a return of the opening music and the fourth of a return of the slow section. The final section consists of the aforementioned interrupted chorale-like music, the interruptions being inspired by the rapid passage that first occurred in the original slow section. The piece ends with the longest of the quiet, fast passages disappearing into the extreme upper register.”
Roens decides to quote briefly the pilgrim hymn from the Concord’s Hawthorne movement, inspired, as he explains, by the overarching darker “phantasmagoria” elements, as suggested in that particular movement of the Ives sonata. The literary anchor Ives used for the movement was Nathaniel Hawthorne’s satire The Celestial Railroad, an example of a riff of rapier wit on the utter sanctimonious tone of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. It is this movement from the sonata which represents most clearly the delightful effects of the ever-shifting pattern of bursts in the attention span that characterizes Ives’ writing here. It then becomes easy to see what Roens sets out to accomplish, with the scurrying pace of Ives-like clusters but presented in a more compact form. And, there is the fantasy-like sensation which also flits through the second half of the Hawthorne movement in the Concord Sonata. Meanwhile, the chorale opens up the opportunity for Roens to intersperse darker and lighter textures, “punching up” the lowest notes from the keyboard part and ending with an ethereal sensation at the opposite end in the upper register.
For more information and tickets which are available for all three concerts as a single, affordable package, see the Westminster College website.