A response to Kyle Gann

I have found Kyle Gann’s writings over the years to be interesting and stimulating (I first encountered him when he was a critic for the Village Voice, back when there was a reason to read the Village Voice). For the most part, he writes about music that I don’t know well, so I am not usually in a position to evaluate his positions. Recently on his blog (PostClassic), he wrote about Ives, and asked the question “…why the musicological glee among those who attempt to discredit Ives?” Leaving aside the polemical wording of the question (it has since become obvious that I shouldn’t have ignored it), I thought I had an answer. So I wrote to Gann:

SUBJECT: Why the musicological glee among those who attempt to discredit Ives?

You’re missing the issue. The issue is not about revision, it’s about
the back-dating of the revision to stand in place of the original

Maynard Solomon’s article from way back when about Ives and his
father (which is the first source I know of regarding the manuscript
evidence of Ives’s alterations to his works — given Solomon’s work
on Beethoven and his father, Mozart and his father, and Ives and his,
I always thought someone should write an article on Solomon and *his*
father, but I digress…) made the assertion (insofar as I’m
remembering it) that Ives made the revisions without acknowledging
them as later revisions.

My memory of the timeline on this may be wrong, but I seem to
remember that the MSS of some works that are dated as having been
composed in the teens were altered in the 30s or later to have more
adventurous juxtapositions of harmonies. But the works are still
treated (either by Ives or by those writing about Ives) as having
been brought into that final state in the teens (not the 30s).

And because of the 20th-century fetish for novelty and innovation,
Ives got credit for being a before-his-time innovator on the basis of
a perception that he was writing the more adventurous harmonies in
the teens, not revising the works to use them in the 30s (at which
point they wouldn’t have been particularly innovative).

Now, I may have mis-stated the exact facts here in regard to dates,
but the main point is this: the works have not been *treated* as
works with two versions (at least, before the publication of
Solomon’s article and the discussion that followed), but as a single
work dating from the original composition date, yet bearing the
musical content of the later revision.

Whether it was Ives himself who perpetrated this misrepresentation or
Ives’s promoters, the fact remains: Ives was not in all cases the
innovator he is painted as being in the conventional narrative about

This matters most to people who think “getting there first” has some
value, but given that Ives was himself one of those people, it seems
to me to be a significant point about Ives and his works, and worth
noting, rather than trying casting it as merely the revisions of any
composer who revisits and alters earlier compositions.

And if I’m not mistaken, Solomon’s conclusions about the MS
alterations have themselves been disputed (Solomon is not the most
reliable researcher in regard to evaluation of musical sources). So,
it could be that, as with Solomon’s Schubert speculations, the
original argument has been wholly disproven.

But I would say this about Ives’s music: the reason the allegation
has always made sense to someone like me is that I’ve always felt
that his music lacks an organic unity, that it seems to have been
composed by layering by chance and not by design — his music often
sounds to me exactly like a piece that has been altered at some later
date. While this is a perfectly valid compositional approach, it is
not entirely in line with that Ives himself advocated, nor with what
he is valorized for having practiced.

In short, his music has always felt more like taped improvisations,
added to in tracks layered on top of the original, than it has like
organically-designed musical wholes that hang together.

Indeed, I have always felt that the main lack in Ives’s work is the
*lack* of sufficient revision, the process by which the composer
takes the original inspiration and reworks it to make it more
consistent and resonant with itself.

Of course, these comments betray my own esthetic stances on musical
value (as musicologist and composer).

But that is hardly a topic to be avoided when discussing a composer
like Ives, who was himself rather hard-headed and voluble on the

Now, the tone was rather informal, I allowed as how I wasn’t completely in possession of all the facts. I thought I was speaking to a sympathetic individual who was interested in finding the answer to the question. I was sadly mistaken. Next I replied to his response:

SUBJECT: Why the musicological glee among those who attempt to discredit Ives?

On 16 May 2004 at 17:29, Kyle Gann wrote:
> There are many
> composers from the classical repertoire whose
> music I’m not fond of, but I don’t go out of
> my way to try to discredit them, to prove that
> they were fakes in some way.

The reason the charge resonated for me was that the music always felt
fake, false, inauthentic, incompletely realized, half-finished — and
that was in all my exposure to the music before having read the
allegations of tampering with the MSS.

So, I think we all hear different things in the music. Ives has
always sounded to me like someone with interesting ideas who didn’t
work them out sufficiently.

And it does to this day.

Perhaps it’s true that were I to perform the music I’d find things
that are not audible (to me) in repeated hearings (the Concord is
actually one of his pieces I’ve heard a lot) — that is certainly the
case with other music that I’ve performed.

But in other music that I’ve invested time in, I’ve found the surface
of the music and its discourse with itself interesting and satisfying
*before* delving in deeply.

And for me, it’s the failure of Ives’s music to work with itself
internally that has been off-putting. For my ears, there was never
any there there in terms of the reputation of the composer and music.

There was a damned good story, though, and I still think that has had
a lot to do with Ives’s continuing popularity.

Which is fine.

I do not begrudge people their ability to enjoy his music.

I just don’t see what’s so attractive about it.

There was something of Schadenfreude in the possibility of Ives’s
having tampered with his scores to make them retrospectively more
“modern”, to find out that the emperor had no clothes.

But, nonetheless, it didn’t seem to me to be a matter of revisions
(of which Ives did plenty, no?) as of covert back-dating to establish
chronological primacy of innovation.

All of that could be a matter of Ives needing to be defended against
his defenders, but I’ve never liked him personally either (the
individual that comes through in his writings is a homophobic,
arrogant bastard, so far as I can tell), so he didn’t get the benefit
of the doubt from me when someone stuck a pin in the bubble of his

Of course, I also think Schubert is vastly overrated…

In response to this informal reply, I got back the “challenge” replicated in Gann’s most recent posting (If Ives Was a Poseur, Prove It):

SUBJECT: Why the musicological glee among those who attempt to discredit Ives?

On 16 May 2004 at 22:11, Kyle Gann wrote:
> You show me where in Ives’s writings,
> letters, or recorded conversations he
> makes a claim to have been the first in
> history to have done anything, and I’ll
> recant everything. Failing that, leave me
> alone to enjoy his music as I have for decades.

Ah, we come to the crux of the problem: you think that I don’t want
you to enjoy Ives’s music.

I never said that or implied it.

Nor did any of Ives’s other critics so far as I can tell.

Gann then agrees that I never objected to his enjoyment of Ives’s music, and levels a different accusation:

SUBJECT: Why the musicological glee among those who attempt to discredit Ives?

On 17 May 2004 at 12:23, Kyle Gann wrote:
> No, you said you didn’t begrudge me enjoying
> Ives’ music. But you sure find it important
> to let me know that you don’t, and why, and at
> length. It seems an odd thing to tell a total
> stranger who you already know disagrees with you.

Read the subject of this email exchange. It’s a question you asked on
your blog. I was only responding to a question you asked.

In other words, my simple reply to his question constitutes for Gann an attack on his esthetics, which he seems to think was initiated by me, personally. This, despite the fact that I admitted that my esthetics were my own and put no requirements on other people.

In reponse to this, Gann descends into more of the same intellectual dishonesty exhibited in his blog’s summary of my position:

SUBJECT: Why the musicological glee among those who attempt to discredit Ives?

On 17 May 2004 at 14:32, Kyle Gann wrote:
> Ah! It didn’t even occur to me that that could
> be an answer to the question, but now I get it:
> Q. Why the musicological glee among those who
> attempt to discredit Ives?
> A. Because we don’t like his music.

That’s an intellectually dishonest summary of my reply and you know

> Subjectivity as a basis for music history. There
> are a lot of composers whose music I don’t like,
> but I don’t jump to the conclusion that they’re
> bad people. But I appreciate the frank admission,
> which sort of confirms my worst suspicions.

I made no such “admission,” which you know quite well.

Are you a Republican?

In any event, no reply necessary — clearly no honest discussion is
possible with you.

It was only after that reply that I discovered that Gann had used my emails to him as a jumping off point for his blog entry (and, as you can see from the text of my emails above, mischaracterized my position badly), and I fired off one last email to him:

SUBJECT: Your most recent post on your blog

I did not say I *believed* Solomon’s article — I said the accusation
was plausible to me based on how I hear Ives’s music, and on what I
know of the valorization of Ives in the literature, and based on the
attitudes espoused in Ives’s own writings. [Here, I also should have pointed out that I was mostly talking about how it felt in 1988 reading Solomon's 1987 article, before other scholars got a chance to dispute Solomon's hypothesis]

When you write:

     What puzzles me is why people who find Ives not to their taste
     always seem in such a hurry to discredit him

you are inventing motives.

I don’t give a rat’s ass if Ives is discredited.

I simply answered your question in your last post, and you’ve twisted
everything I’ve written to you, summarizing it in your public posts
in a way that gives you a handy hobby horse to ride into the battle
against the musicologists.

You are the most intellectually dishonest blogger I’ve ever [sic]
encountered in a long time.

Enjoy your echo chamber, since it’s pretty clear you can’t abide
discussions with anyone who disagrees with your esthetics.

No reply, please, and don’t even think about summarizing this message
in your blog.

This is all pretty shocking to me. Gann seems to have brought a huge load of baggage along with him when he read my email. I should have seen the sneer behind his every reference to “musicologists.”

The other thing that bothers me is that, in the end, he seems to think that subjectivity should play no role in motivating musicological research. Of course, what he’s actually alleging is that I am judging musicological research not on the facts but on my own subjective feelings about the music, when, in fact, I pointed out that I didn’t know whether the Solomon accusations were true or not (this was in my original email to him). I was simply explaining to him one reason why a musicologist could reject the “revisions” special pleading.

I’m not in a position to do the library research to answer Gann’s juvenile challenge, but I’m really not interested in it even if I had the tools handy, because doing so would tend to reinforce the impression that Gann has correctly characterized my position in the first place.

My mistake was in considering Gann to be a sympathetic correspondent. Instead, he was clearly suspicious of everything I wrote, and took the inconsistencies of informal communication as an opportunity to beat musicologists around the shoulders once again for supposedly being stupid.

Maybe he’s auditioning for a job at the New York Times.

And here’s a final note to Gann:


With the evidence available to me, I can’t prove the assertion you erroneously attribute to me.

I’m not going to play your game, so you win. You can feel very satisfied that you’ve discredited the discreditors.

But to me, it just looks like you were spoiling for a fight, and not really interested in most of the issues I raised in my original email messages to you.

So, you can feel as superior to this lowly musicologist as you like.

And I shall take you off my blogroll.