In parallel with our recent American Mavericks series of concerts, and as a part of our Break the Rules campaign, Music Humanities students at Columbia University were challenged with considering some of the American maverick composers and to think outside the box in creating art inspired by the spirit of those composers. Over the next 10 days, we're delighted to post a selection of their eclectic and startling responses.
The series kicks off with Eduardo Martinez's use of the seeming widely divergent words of Dr. Seuss and Malcolm X over a range of music beds to evoke the spirit of Charles Ives.
Charles Ives's compositions resemble soundscapes aimed at recreating the sounds and experiences of everyday life. He had formal musical training, yet he incorporated references to American popular culture in his work with hymns, marches, and dance music. These mixtures form interesting and often dissonant music collages to recreate the sounds of the world. In listening to his "Concord" Sonata, I was struck by the use of irregular rhythms and the feeling that two different piano parts were in struggle with one another. Henry Brant's orchestral arrangement of this sonata captures many of these qualities, but carries them out in a more explicit fashion. In the Concord Symphony, the eerie subdued strings are interrupted by dissonant bursts from the brass or extended brass parts with the feeling of marches and fanfare. Ives was influenced by the writings of the Transcendentalists, and the free-flowing and unpredictable nature of his work seems to realize the Transcendentalist idea of individuality and making one's own path.
In my project, I have tried to make use of the ideas of a soundscape, the combination of different genres of music, and the experiential philosophy of the Transcendentalist into a modern experience of a school and learning in general. The two texts read simultaneously are Dr. Seuss's The Sneetches and Malcolm X's 1964 speech entitled "The Ballot or the Bullet." Although a children's story and a revolutionary speech would not usually be found together, the one place you might hear these together is a school. I have imagined the simultaneous experience of a read-aloud of the Dr. Seuss story to a kindergarten classroom and a high school history class studying social movements and their importance in breaking down barriers. I am certainly not equating the two texts by any means, but there is an overlap in their intended meaning. Malcolm X begins the speech, arguing for cooperation in the African American Civil Rights Movement across organizational and religious lines, while Dr. Seuss seeks to demonstrate the problems with discrimination through the example of the star-less sneetches who must do all of the work for the star-bellied sneetches. Thus, at the most basic level, they are examples of the same kind of discussion of oppression and potential liberation; the difference lies in the way this message is taught to children of different ages.
For the music in the background, the song starts with "L'internationale," which is quickly blended with a modern electronic dance music beat. "L'internationale" has been used as a liberatory song in a variety of struggles and is supposed to call forth images of past struggles that children may learn about when studying history. The use of modern dance beats is intended to serve as a background reminder to the listener that the fragments that fade in and out throughout the song are being experienced as past events being studied. Later on, the project features portions of a civil war march entitled "Marching Through Georgia." This song brings forth images of another historical event of struggle and liberation, even though the song's lyrics are still indicative of racism. The clashes between these historical songs and the dance beats in the background are further emphasized by the use of the sounds of children playing, applause that might follow a student presentation, and class lessons. These sounds are an attempt to recreate the surprising, dissonant blasts in Ives's music, while building up the experience of a school throughout the project. I have attempted to recreate these moments of tension with a short trumpet fragment, and I have also used Ives's technique by mixing in a fragment of the Concord Symphony as well as a portion of Django Reinhardt's Brazil, possibly calling up images of music being played outside the school or students playing in music class. The blending of such different pieces of music also exemplifies the Transcendentalist mindset that inspired Ives. The different types of music have an improvisational and free-flowing quality when put together and are literally marching at two different beats.
The song ends with the smaller parts dropping out, then the voices dropping out, leaving just a dance beat. The beat finally gives way to a portion of the "Concord" Sonata played on the piano to remind the listener of the work's inspiration. Whereas most of the project recreates the spontaneity and tension in Ives's music with many different samples of songs and sounds, the end shows the same tension with just one instrument: the piano.
Related:American MavericksBreak the Rules