A Place to Land

America Through the Eyes of Ives and Agee

James Agee grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee, and was keenly aware of his surroundings, though he could not yet communicate what he saw, experienced, and felt.

Violence and corruption, along with idealism and integrity, marked the organization of labor unions on the New York City docks.

The streets of New York were full of noise—trains, cars, construction, people, machinery—giving the city a new kind of atmosphere, an urban soundscape of undifferentiated clatter.

Sometime during the evening of July 14, 1881, in or near Fort Sumner, New Mexico, Sheriff Pat Garrett shot and killed Henry McCarty, better known as “Billy the Kid, ” credited with killing 21 men, one for every year of his life.

The promise of America is implicit in the ideas through which it came into being: unalienable, enumerated (as well as implied) rights protected by the state, equality under the law, and the prospect of opportunity and unlimited possibility. There were boundaries on these revolutionary ideas, of course, as the rights weren’t considered “unalienable” with regard to African-Americans (and people of color in general), women, and others, with this exclusion continuing, in some instances, even today.

Even so, the possibility that America’s promise could extend to everyone had been an inspiration to artists since the country’s founding. Charles Ives, son of a New England bandmaster and himself one of the early 20th century’s most innovative insurance executives, set the promise, as it were, to music. That is, the openness, freedom, and visionary quality of Ives’ music are, in part, direct expressions of the country’s aspirational virtues.

In pieces such as the Holidays Symphony, The Unanswered Question, Symphony No. 4, the Concord Sonata, and dozens of songs, Ives’ music animates the American spirit through its incorporation of quotations of hymn tunes, its thick, democratic textures, and through sheer force of musical will. Ives was so convinced of the value of America and its Dream that his pieces risk musical incoherence in their exuberance in expressing it.

The second movement of the Fourth Symphony is a big, garrulous romp through the ideas that animated America’s founding. Themes appear, disappear, and return seemingly of their own free will, and there are entire passages when each member of the orchestra sounds like they are on their own, saying what they have to say in a symphonic town meeting with no apparent agenda besides the fact of the meeting itself. The debate is so raucous that the composer suggests that two conductors are needed for a fully-realized performance.

The ideas and ideals of America that Ives made real in sound and that exploded out of his music needed a place to land. They needed an American landscape in which to grow.

After becoming a writer Agee put his reminiscences down in highly imagistic prose. Samuel Barber set a passage of Agee’s autobiographical prose (from a brief piece called Knoxville) in Knoxville: Summer of 1915 (1947).

Barber’s lyricism is a perfect vehicle for Agee’s rich, impressionistic prose:

It has become that time of evening when people sit on their porches, rocking gently and talking gently and watching the street and the standing up into their sphere of possession of the trees, of birds’ hung havens, hangars.

Barber’s piece captures the swaying of porch swings and the pleasant torpor of early evening in music whose humid harmonies and languid, undulating rhythms support a setting of the text that is both conversational and lyrical. The speech rhythms captured in phrases like “rocking gently and talking gently and watching the streets” are reflected in sung rhythms that push slightly against the regularity of the undulating accompaniment.

The generally slow pace of the musical events is interrupted for a more “urban” section:

A streetcar raising its iron moan; stopping; belling and starting, stertorous; rousing and raising again its iron increasing moan and swimming its gold windows and straw seats on past and past and past ...

By the end of the piece, the atmosphere of the beginning returns, with its invocation of slow evenings in the South during the first part of the century. The time and, especially, the place are summoned into being by Barber’s richly expressive and characteristic music. Because of this specific and elegant evocation, the piece and the feelings and images called up by it transcend nostalgia and reach a deeper part of our consciousness, and, once there, they don’t let go.

Violence and corruption, along with idealism and integrity, marked the organization of labor unions on the New York City docks. Elia Kazan’s 1954 film On the Waterfront is a gritty story of the obstacles facing a young man (Marlon Brando) as he struggles with his past and with the temptation to take the easy way out.

The film’s stark black and white cinematography stands in sharp contrast with Leonard Bernstein’s darkly colorful score. Bernstein’s jazzy and rhythmically aggressive score (often heard in concert as a Symphonic Suite) sets the stage for the drama and evokes the time and place viscerally and memorably. The violence of the fights between labor and management is expressed with slashing, syncopated, dissonant chords with a generous use of percussion. The melodies of Bernstein’s score are filled with “blue notes,” notes that are lowered forms (usually by a half-step) of the major scale. The slow, winding flute melody that begins the love scene music (about eight minutes into the Suite) is a good example. The melody is handed from instrument to instrument as the texture thickens and the volume increases. The blue notes of the melody work with the astringent harmony and growing ardor to highlight the emotion of the scene while still relating it to the overall setting of the film.

The combination of the jazzy melodic turns, rhythmic incisiveness, and sophisticated urban orchestration (the use of solo horn at the beginning to give the main theme, for example) combine to vividly put us (the viewer of the film or the listener to the music) right in the middle of the culture and the place depicted.

The streets of New York were full of noise—trains, cars, construction, people, machinery—giving the city a new kind of atmosphere, an urban soundscape of undifferentiated clatter. George Gershwin heard that bang and clatter, specifically the rhythms of the train he took from New York to Boston, and conceived his Rhapsody in Blue (1924, piano and orchestra) as, Rodney Greenberg put it in his 1998 George Gershwin, “a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America, of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our blues, our metropolitan madness”.

The Rhapsody succeeds to an extent that Gershwin himself probably didn’t anticipate. The clatter of the city is rendered in a series of tuneful episodes that capture the qualities Gershwin mentions as well as providing ample opportunities for the piano soloist (Gershwin himself at the premiere) to show off his virtuosity and musicianship.

The piece is about noise. That is made clear from the first gesture we hear—the clarinet trill that leads to a run that becomes a siren-like glissando. The atmosphere is set: urban, brash, and new. I used to view the Rhapsody as a failed experiment. Sure, the melodies are great, the piano part is spectacular, and the whole is a crowd-pleasing display of talent and will. The “problem” with it (and others have the same problem) was that it seemed to have no coherent form, that one thing came after another without development or what we now call narrative. Granted, the “one thing after another” were great melodies, sharp harmonies, and wild, syncopated rhythms.

I now realize that the structural “flaws” I heard in the Rhapsody are actually its musical and expressive strength, as the chaos of the modern city is ordered in melody and virtuosity, while its inherent disorder is honored in the episodic structure. Just as you never know what’s going to be in the next block or around the next corner on a city street, the next section of Rhapsody in Blue always holds the promise of surprise.

Sometime during the evening of July 14, 1881, in or near Fort Sumner, New Mexico, Sheriff Pat Garrett shot and killed Henry McCarty, better known as “Billy the Kid,” credited with killing 21 men, one for every year of his life. As children, many of us played at Old West gunfights in makeshift Western settings and clothes, our toy guns brandished menacingly at an offending sibling or playmate, as we played the role of the Sheriff or the Outlaw.

The place where the killing of Billy the Kid occurred and where we acted out these scenarios as children didn’t even exist until Aaron Copland called them into being.

Copland’s 1938 ballet Billy the Kid begins with a slow, plaintive melody, dominated by the minor third, harmonized with open perfect fifths. (The minor third plays an important role in all four pieces discussed here. Some years ago I heard a lecture that claimed that all American music is derived from the minor third, that the minor third is the “Ur-interval” of American music. I think there’s at least a little to that, especially in light of the use of blue notes in American music, and they tend to encourage melodic minor thirds.) This beginning section, called “The Open Prairie,” so clearly and directly evokes the kind of setting in which we imagine Western adventure occurring that its imagery has replaced the actual settings of these events and others like them.

The plaintive melody is largely an elaboration of the descending minor third of the first measure, and like that first gesture, it is harmonized with perfect fifths. The effect of this is to create a sense of isolation in the melody, with the harmony creating the impression of a vast unpopulated space. Instruments are added and the volume is increased until the introduction ends with blazing brass and roaring percussion. The music retains, however, its sense of vastness, which becomes overwhelming by the end.

The main body of Billy the Kid consists, naturally, of dances. Copland uses bits of found cowboy tunes in the dances, but imbues them with his personal stylistic stamp, notably in the areas of rhythm (nothing conveys the bowleggedness of a cowboy like a dance in 5/8) and orchestration. The use of a large symphony orchestra and Copland’s rhythmic style preclude the possibility of the music ever actually being used at a town dance, of course, but town dances are so vividly evoked here that that ceases to matter.

Following a brief lament over Billy’s killing, which itself follows a celebration of that same killing, the music of “The Open Prairie” returns. It is more aggressive from the start this time, showing that the prairie continues in its vastness regardless of the human drama played out on it.

These places — Knoxville, New York City, and the prairie (and countless others in countless pieces) — become both specific and generalized in their musical representation. Underlying it all is the special ability of music to render the abstract concrete, as in Ives’ music about the American idea, and to render the concrete abstract, as in these four pieces about specific American places.

So much about life in the 20th century was characterized by alienation, and a feeling of dislocation. The growth of suburbia in the United States and the resulting development of shopping areas filled with the same stores and restaurants only contributed to the alienation and dislocation. One place became like any other place, or no place at all.

One of the ways art functions is to express that alienation, to give it voice, and in the voicing to somehow lessen it. Art works like these compositions serve a different function (besides providing a very good listen); they can directly lessen this alienation by connecting listeners to specific places with unique and telling characteristics. It may not be home, but at least it’s somewhere.