Monday, May 27, 2013

Decoration Day

It's Memorial Day in the afternoon and I've found myself alone in the house and, in an attempt to connect with the holiday, listening to a piece called "Decoration Day" by American composer Charles Ives.

Holidays can be easy to lose, sometimes. One way to do that is to be too busy all the time and just keep on working straight through them. At a gathering of graduate students working through dissertations and Medical School and the like, several students confessed they hadn't even realized that the next day was a holiday at all. One thought it was next week. Sometimes in the scramble to meet deadlines you lose contact with the society around you and every day becomes every other day, which is exactly what Holidays are supposed to counteract.

Or, if you are a musician like me, a holiday like Christmas, one of the few that haven't gotten lost to me along the way into middle age--no longer a child and without children, many customs and traditions lie buried in my pysche gathering dust until?--even a holiday like Christmas, which can't be ignored, becomes, instead of a commemoration of something, an obstacle course of obligation. Gigs, concerts, rehearsals--once I loved Christmas; now I have to try very hard not to loathe it. Along the way there are usually just enough beautiful moments to keep the embers alive for another year.

But holidays are the ways society marks things, together. They are designed to make us stop our routines and reflect on whatever it is that needs to be remembered. The rhythms of the year, perhaps, or the significant events of the past that our culture considers important. Founding moments, pivotal moments, or cherished national myths about freedom and sacrifice.

So on this holiday, which even more obviously than most is about memory, I listened to a piece of music which was also designed to make a connection, to prevent it from being lost; to, as Ives put it, recollect "boyhood holidays." Ives spent a lot of time during his adult years trying to preserve those boyhood memories in music. Unfortunately, I can't legally post a recording of this piece, for full orchestra and still under copyright, so for the first Monday I can remember, instead of a piece of music I play for you you'll get merely a description of the music.

It's called "Decoration Day" and became the second movement from the "Holidays" Symphony. Decoration Day is the original name for Memorial Day, and it was meant to remember the soldiers who died on both sides of the Civil War. Ives begins the piece with a fog of string sound, interlarded, as so often in Ives, with bits of hymn tunes, Civil War tunes, and other songs familiar to the people of New England around the turn to the 20th century.

If you are not familiar with Ives, the music may strike you as very bizarre, even as not music. What is there to hang on to here? As a sonic act of recollection, there is no easily recognizable and hummable tune: instead, there are bits of multiple tunes, often sown together in unpredictable ways, as if, in the act of remembering the one, the narrator was suddenly reminded of something else, and jumped to it. Often different instruments remember different tunes at the same time and form a tapestry of many things going at once. This is the way the mind actually works, and it is shockingly disorganized, in contrast to the well-ordered, sanitized musical plot you are used to.

But for an Ives piece, this is one of the easier pieces to get your ears around on the first pass. The harmonies aren't that shocking, and the textures aren't that thick. Instead, much of the early part of the piece is a sad, unending melody. You won't be able to remember it, but it is still beautiful in its melancholy, and simply put and heartfelt.

What might have made this section more effective would have been recognition of tunes. Studying Ives in graduate school I found that I had a closer connection with him than my colleagues. It is one thing to point out that oh yes, there is the hymn tune called "Azmon" here, and "Erie" over there, and quite another to have sung the tunes, to know them, to have them part of your tradition. Ives and I both grew up in small town America and were singing the same hymns as boys in church a century apart. (What does that tell you?) However, either because my ears aren't that sharp today, or he is using a different set of tunes, they aren't stinging my ears in the same familiar way. But I have to say that when a bit of "Hail, Columbia" floated by about six minutes in I was nearly overcome with the tragedy of our now 150 year past Civil War. This was followed by a quite haunting haze of strings with a trumpet slowing blowing "taps" in the background. Ives' remembrance of the familiar cemetery remembrance that marks the holiday is followed by an abrupt transition that at made my hair stand on end with the first rumbling, ineffable chords. It sounded as if those dead were rising from their graves and made me think of the passage in Ezekiel, "Man, can these bones live again?"

But it turned out only to be the start of the parade down Main Street, complete with blaring trombones and enthusiastic percussion. After "the boys get going" as the composer describes a similar burst of enthusiasm in another piece (and there are many moments in Ives like it) the fog returns in a short coda and the somber, important act of remembrance, of solemnity, concludes the work.

Listening to Ives is unlike listening to any other composer. It may be, for most of us, an alien experience, since the music is of different stuff than we are used to. It is more psychological than melodious, it is unpredictable, and it is propelled by a love of the experiment and of "trying things out." It is sad that it is behind such a wall of unfamiliarity, though--a wall of our own insistence, I should point out--, because what Ives wants to do is share his experience, more specifically and more dramatically than most, and if you can hear it, there is much to hear. But like Decoration Day itself, it may not be easy. What is it all about? What is behind it all? It is buried in our history, our traditions, receding into a time when America was a very different place, and yet not so different, buried in those cemetary plots under the green lawns and the processions of white stones marking the place where lie the silenced voices that could tell you so much about this day and its meaning.but are no more. But Ives can tell you something about it...if you can hear it.

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