Ives’ music is exuberant music, sometimes to the point of controlled cacophony. His point was to push boundaries, to get listeners to appreciate the hidden, spiritual unity behind music and nature. The music is, partly, an embodiment of Ives’ embrace of transcendentalism. Transcendentalism
was a speculative philosophical movement of 19th-century America, spearheaded by the famous essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of Ives’ heroes.
- Ives the populist: Although trained in European art music and influenced by Romantic composers, especially Beethoven, he disdained the hierarchy of his time, which put classical music at the top of the pyramid (with traditional and popular musics below that). He wanted to create a style that reflected the songs people made in their daily lives, a music that honored the spirit of amateur music-making. So he often arranged “layers” of music in his pieces, incorporating entire quotations of hymn tunes, as well as ragtime and older popular tunes.
- Ives on his “layering” technique: “As the eye, in looking at a view, may focus on the sky, clouds or distant outlines, yet sense the color and form of the foreground, and then, by bringing the eye to the foreground, sense the distant outlines and color, so, in some similar way, the listener can choose to arrange in his mind the relation of the rhythmic, harmonic, and other material. In other words, in music the ear may play a role similar to the eye in the above instance.”
- Progenitor: Ives is the earliest American art-music composer with a worldwide reputation, and he was a tremendous influence on Aaron Copland, Henry Cowell, Elliott Carter, Lou Harrison, Leonard Bernstein, and a host of other composers of later generations.
- Yankee ingenuity: Ives’ technical innovations are the most-discussed part of his legacy. He anticipated many important aspects of 20th-century composition, including the use of quarter-tones (pitch differences smaller than the smallest interval of traditional Western music theory); “atonal” composition (though most of his works are tonal); cluster chords (played with the fists on the piano); quotations from popular music; polytonality (use of different keys and scales at once); and simultaneous layers of separate, contrasting strands of music.
- The Everything Symphony: Ives’ most ambitious work, mostly sketched in 1915, but left incomplete at his death, is his Universe Symphony. It is nothing less than a sweeping look at all creation, ending with a section called “Heaven” — “the rise of all to the spiritual [plane].” Two finished editions, both recorded, exist of this work, which features a percussion orchestra, along with two further orchestras divided into high and low instruments, and which amalgamates dozens of scales and kinds of tunings.