Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Jimi Hendrix and Charles Ives

They may never have been mentioned in the same breath, but I'm thinking now these two men may be cut from the same cloth.

In Pittsburgh, at the Woodlands Music Camp for adults with disabilities, I have been teaching music appreciation.  Last week, after playing Aaron Copland's arrangement to "Shall we Gather by the River," I played Ives's version of the song for violin and piano (from his Fourth Sonata).  Predictably, some members of the class liked it, and a healthy majority did not.  One student mentioned how listening to Ives was like hearing someone go crazy on the electric guitar. Another threw out the name Jimi Hendrix, and we were off and running.

I subsequently showed the class a clip of Hendrix at Woodstock playing the Star Spangled Banner, in which the guitarist riffed, improvised, and otherwise deconstructed the anthem to the point of obscurity. Near the end, Hendrix began wailing on Taps, played at funerals for the U.S. military. I wondered if on that August day in 1969 there were young Vietnam veterans in the audience who might have been offended.  It's one thing to dismantle our national anthem, but unraveling and dissecting Taps is another matter entirely, maybe the musical equivalent of burning the American flag.  Had Hendrix gone too far?

Whether he did or not is a matter of opinion.  But I believe Ives would have defended his right to do so.  As with Hendrix, his music was not written to offend, though it certainly isn't to everyone's taste.  During my years leading the Hartford Symphony, I programmed the music of Ives on numerous occasions, which I thought to be particularly appropriate given that the composer grew up in Connecticut and spent a lot of time in the capitol city.

A few people liked his music, more still simply endured it, waiting patiently for the Beethoven symphony that would come later on the program.  In August 1969, one wonders if more people traveled to Woodstock to hear other groups --- like Blood Sweat & Tears, or Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young --- rather than Hendrix, who had been scheduled to play at the end of the festival.  By the time he took the stage, the audience had dwindled.

Hendrix probably didn't care. Ives would have understood.

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