Most music lovers know the story of how the young Charles Ives sat in the central square of his home town Danbury, Connecticut while multiple marching bands (one led by his father, George) approached the square from different directions, all playing at the same time. This is often described as the source of Ives’ love of the cacophony of the superposition of unrelated tunes, all going full blast at the same time. That cacophony would resurface in any number of Ives’ compositions, even when performing resources required only a single piano; and it never fails to make an enduring impact on listeners encountering it for the first time.
Keyboardist Andrew Jamieson created the Ives Band to honor both Ives and this particular aspect of his approach to composition. The idea of a collage that juxtaposes sharply contrasting melodic sources can be found in post-Ives composers that include Luciano Berio and John Oswald. The Ives Band was formed around a commitment to build an entire repertoire around the practice.
The thing about superposing familiar tunes, whether fragmented or in their entirety, is that mind easily recognizes them and can even “flesh out” their presence, even when they are obscured by other sources. When those other sources are also familiar, mind has an experience somewhat like a funhouse ride, where everything is both expected and surprising at the same time. This seems to be the effect Jamieson has in mind in his arrangements for his Ives Band.
Most important is that he recognizes that listening experiences today are not what they were a century ago. In the secular society of our brave new world, it is easy to see how those listening to Ives’ music might take many of the hymn tunes he quotes as original themes. The Ives Band is more attuned to a collective memory of a different age. Thus, one can appreciate that the music during the “think time” for Final Jeopardy is more recognizable than “There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood.”
The result is a musical take on what may be viewed as an amalgamation of the familiar images of the last century’s pop art movement presented in the spirit of Marcel Duchamp drawing a mustache on the face of the Mona Lisa. Everything is in good humor, leaving any suggestions of irreverence to the ear of the listener. Most important is how the high spirits of the idea are sustained by the high energy of the performers, all of whom were skilled at negotiating drifts in and out of coordination. The current ensemble consists of three keyboardists (Jamieson leading from his and joined by Brett Carson and Ben Zucker), Zachary Hazen on violin, Joshua Marshall on tenor saxophone, Tim DeCillis on drum kit, and Aaron Oppenheim contributing sampled sounds from his laptop.
Last night in the Luggage Store Gallery, the Ives Band took the second set in this week’s installment in the Luggage Store Creative Music Series. They were preceded by accordionist Ben Richter playing his 45-minute solo composition “Panthalassa: Dream Music of the Once and Future Ocean.” Richter completed this piece last year, and its first performance took place in New York this past June. He then began a tour that included performances in Montreal, Los Angeles, and New Haven, as well as here in San Francisco.
Richter describes “Panthalassa” as “a 3-movement work for multitracked prepared accordion.” The multiple recorded tracks provide an ongoing drone, against which Richter progresses through a score structured as a timetable of events. Preparation of his instrument involves retuning the individual reeds and removing one of the instrument’s covers to give them greater exposure.
Listeners familiar with John Luther Adams’ “Become Ocean” are likely to recognize quickly the extent to which “Panthalassa” is a kindred spirit. Nevertheless, it is very much its own composition. If anything, it is somewhat more impressive through Richter s ability to establish a “rhetoric of flow” with only a single instrument, rather than the rich instrumentation that served Adams so well. This is as much a matter of Richter s command of air flow that does not always excite the reeds, as well as the choices he makes in depressing the instrument’s keys and buttons.
“Panthalassa” was also released as a recording shortly before its first performance. Whether or not the capture technology did justice to the subtle refinements in sonorous qualities that were clearly evident through the performance experience is an open question. However, for those without the benefit of such a performance experience, the recording is likely to offer a profound impact on the very nature of listening.