Friday, September 15, 2006

Ives and Mahler

Someone will someday write the definitive book on Ives and Mahler, the two major landscape artists among composers. For the moment, and very tentatively, let me note one major difference between the two. Mahler's landscapes are always heard from a single, optimal vantage point, the vantage of a cool and detached listener. In Ives, the vantage point can also be dynamic: in his most complex landscapes (the Scherzo of the Fourth Symphony, Putnam's Camp, parts of the Second Orchestral Set and Holidays) the composer -- and, vicariously, the listener -- is constantly on the move, changing his or her perspective on the scene. Ives' landscapes are all drawn from memory, and sometimes even second-hand memories, so that this movement and the consequent fragmentation of the musical continuity has a double purpose, recording not only the disjunctions of acoustic events in real public spaces, but also those in private memory spaces. This is critical, in that Ives can use the pace of these disjuctions and the density of overlaid materials to carry his own commentary on the experience. In contrast, Mahler's commentary tends to be imbedded in more traditional means of musical continuity, albeit always imbued with his own distinctive nostalgia.

There is something of Emerson's "floating eyeball" in Ives' landscapes. Emerson, in Nature: I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all... But Ives' ears are not transparent, they are not anonymous, and they do not hear all; they are very much a particpant in the civic life of the landscapes. The impression of Ives' biography is everywhere, and the point of audition is very much human and selective. Moreover, Ives always appears open to the possibility that not only does the observer change position, the observer can also be changed by the experience. But then perhaps Emerson's metaphor was always more applicable to Mahler: In these cases, by mechanical means, is suggested the difference between the observer and the spectacle, -- between man and nature. Hence arises a pleasure mixed with awe; I may say, a low degree of the sublime is felt from the fact, probably, that man is hereby apprized, that, whilst the world is a spectacle, something in himself is stable.

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