Books: Mad Music

ivesMad Music: Charles Ives, the Nostalgic Rebel by Stephen Budiansky. Lebanon, NH: ForeEdge/University Press of New England, 2014. Mad Music Web site; available from

Let me add my own small voice in recommending Stephen Budiansky‘s Mad Music, a biography of American composer Charles Ives (1874-1954) released last year. Much smaller, my voice, than those of Leon Botstein in the Wall Street Journal (“a first-rate introduction geared to the general public. … Mr. Budiansky lures the reader into the mystery of Ives’s life, and the eccentric power of his music, in prose free from jargon and pretense”) and Sudip Bose in the Washington Post (“[a] superb and genial biography”), but let me add it nonetheless and promise that you won’t be disappointed.

madmusic_coverAs Botstein points out, this is a biography for a general readership — and, since Ives is an acquired taste, it is therefore most welcome. Ives was arguably the first great American composer, devising a distinctly American kind of music (even Scott Joplin looked to European models in his attempt to legitimize ragtime), and it was met at first with ridicule and even contempt, not least because, like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Ives perceived that a distinctly American content required, for its aspirations to transcendental art, a distinctly American form. Many of Ives’s compositions were based on the hymns and band music he heard as a New England youth, growing up in the intellectual shade of Thoreau, Hawthorne, and the Alcotts as well as the musical shade of John Philip Sousa (Ives’s father was himself a professional band leader for a few years during his early manhood and made sure his children, like many parents of the time, received at least a rudimentary musical education). Budiansky paints a vivid picture of New England musical culture at the end of the 19th century, a culture that Ives would mine and even cannibalize for his own work.

Shortly after his graduation from Yale, Ives entered the insurance industry in New York and rapidly rose to the top of his profession, which had recently been decimated by a series of financial scandals. It was a full-time job and it made Ives rich. (It also made Ives generous; Budiansky lists Ives’s extensive donations to the careers of many young composers and new music publications, and touchingly details his financial and emotional support of Henry Cowell, who had been imprisoned in 1936 on a “morals” charge — Cowell was homosexual.) Ives’s musical output, however, was still prodigious, at least until he began to suffer from the ravages of diabetes several years before insulin therapy was generally available. In 1918 he stopped writing music almost entirely, devoting the rest of his life to preparing final versions of his earlier compositions.

It may be a simplification to say that Ives was a “Transcendentalist” composer as Emerson, Thoreau, and the Alcotts were “Transcendentalist” writers, but there’s evidence that the label is not unfair. “We return to reason and faith,” Emerson wrote in Nature, a central Transcendentalist essay. “There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, — no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite spaces, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.” Not to push the point too much, Ives in his music and his writings made a pleading for a “transparent ear,” somehow confronting and becoming absorbed in all of natural experience and God through surrender to a particular soundworld, in this case the soundworld that Ives attempted to reconstruct through his memories of childhood and youth.

Ives was, along with Walt Whitman and Mark Twain, among the first masters of an American vernacular, rejecting Old World practice and tradition for a New World art. The similarities don’t end there; Ives, like Whitman and Twain, was condemned for his seeming vulgarity; Ives, like Whitman and Twain, forged new forms and structures in his chosen discipline (though, it must be said, form and structure were not strong points in the work of any of these three men). In his 1837 speech “The American Scholar,” Emerson had insisted that it was time for the new nation to create its own art distinct from that of the Old World. It was twenty years before Whitman and Twain would do so in literature, apparently sixty or so years before Ives did so in music. There have been a few Americans who have done so in theater, but they were not O’Neill, Williams, and Miller, who remained straitened by melodramatic and European forms, however vernacular their dialogue.

So do yourself a favor and open yourself to Ives and this new biography. You will be encouraged to seek Ives out, who still remains something of a jewel in the exclusive hands of the academic and critical professoriate. Try, for a start, Ives’ 1908 The Unanswered Question below; the piece likely took its title from Emerson’s “The Sphinx.” There is a short text about the connection between the Ives piece and the Emerson poem here. In the below performance, Rutger van Leyden conducts Combustion Chamber in the work.

Friday flashback: Jules Feiffer’s Little Murders

From March 2015

Rumor has it that when Elliott Gould secured the film rights to Jules Feiffer’s 1967 Broadway satire Little Murders (according to the Internet Broadway Database, it ran for all of 23 performances, including previews; Gould appeared in the play on Broadway), he tried to interest Jean-Luc Godard in directing the film; eventually Godard withdrew and the film was completed and released in 1970 in a version directed by Alan Arkin. The idea of Godard directing Gould in Feiffer is daunting, to say the least. But the film that resulted in the end is one of those products of Hollywood that makes you wonder how it was ever made in the first place, let alone released — and it’s very very certain that it would have been neither produced nor released had it been proposed today. Little Murders is an extraordinary work that retains a profound significance for 21st century America, and putting things like Richard Nelson’s Apple plays, presumably also a family-centered meditation on the conflicts in American culture, next to it is an indication of just how toothless American drama has become over the past four decades.

The play’s lead character, Alfred Chamberlain, the son of Chicago-area intellectuals, describes himself as an “apathist.” He is frequently mugged and beaten by strangers for no discernible reason, but he never fights back; if he puts up no resistance, he observes, the muggers get bored and eventually leave him alone. One day he crosses paths with a woman named Patsy Newquist, who becomes determined to introduce him to happiness and compassion, as well as the necessity of fighting back against whatever forces conspire to rob him of his dignity. It is an uphill battle. Late one night, Alfred reveals the source of his quietism to Patsy (and actors seeking unusual audition monologues, take note):

Having made this confession of his own paranoid cruelty, Alfred finally realizes the importance of fighting for what he believes in, of hope, of trust, and of love — and, in the next moment, all of these are cruelly shattered by a tragic act of random violence.

Feiffer was writing about the American culture of the late 1960s, but the violence, the surveillance state, the rapid crumbling of traditional values remain central dynamics of the 2010s. In Little Murders, he proved himself a far more observant and caustic satirist of the American scene than his status as West Village Liberal might have suggested. “It’s dangerous to challenge a system unless you’re completely at peace with the thought that you’re not going to miss it when it collapses,” Alfred says at one point — and he turns out, with terrible consequences, to be right. It’s a line that should echo through things like the Occupy movement.

Among Feiffer’s many targets in Little Murders are the upwardly-mobile middle class; the justice system; religion both old and new (the parson who marries Alfred and Patsy in a disastrously ridiculous ceremony is the head of the “First Existential” church); homophobia; both apathy and idealism (obviously); the art market and photography; and, as I mentioned earlier, intellectuals. Beyond all this, though, it’s a shockingly emotional and compassionate work. Patsy’s Upper West Side family seems oblivious and ridiculously hypocritical, but it’s revealed early on that their promising first son was killed in a random, unsolved act of violence on a New York City streetcorner (as their first daughter would be killed several years later); the revelation undermines an easy dismissal of their defensively bourgeois perspective. In many ways, the rhythm of the plot is cruel, not only to Alfred and Patsy but to the audience as well; and though the conclusion of the play appears facile at first glance, there is a poetic rightness to it that gives the play a cohesive shape. I know that a few artistic directors of regional and New York non-profit theatres read this blog; though I’m usually loathe to make recommendations, I would hope that they would take a look at Little Murders, a cruelly underrated and even forgotten American play that ranks with the most powerful work of Twain and Swift. (A 1969 revival at Circle in the Square, also directed by Arkin, enjoyed a more successful 400 performance run and won Feiffer an Obie for the play.)

“And of course it’s funny” is often a phrase used to encourage audiences to see a play that presumably has a darker core — and it’s usually wrong. But in this case it’s right. Little Murders is an extremely funny play, with gorgeous setpieces like the first meeting of Alfred with Patsy’s parents and the wedding ceremony itself. Somewhere about three-quarters into the film (and the play), though, Little Murders splits apart explosively and powerfully. The film is streaming free on Time Warner Cable this month via the Fox Movie Channel. It’s a remarkable piece of work, with standout performances from Elliott Gould as Alfred and Vincent Gardenia (who should have been given an Oscar or two for his performance, which is one of the most textured I’ve seen in this context) and Elizabeth Wilson as Patsy’s father and mother, but also memorable cameos from Lou Jacobi, Donald Sutherland, and Doris Roberts. (The director of photography, Gordon Willis, captures New York of the 1970s perfectly — not surprisingly; he later shot The Godfather, Annie Hall, and Manhattan.)

And screw Godard. Director Alan Arkin has a brilliant four-minute cameo towards the end of the film as an insane police detective that makes Joe Orton’s Truscott look like Lenny Briscoe; I doubt Godard would have been nearly as effective. Arkin’s cameo is below (and, again, actors seeking unusual audition monologues, take note):

October list

No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger by Mark Twain (1916)

Journey to the End of the Night by Louis-Ferdinand Céline (1932)

Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West (1933, 1939)

The Recognitions by William Gaddis (1955)

The Magic Christian by Terry Southern (1959)

Naked Lunch by William Burroughs (1959)

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (1961)

Writers in Revolt, edited by Richard Seaver, Terry Southern, and Alexander Trocchi (1963)

Cabot Wright Begins by James Purdy (1964)

Black Humor, edited by Bruce Jay Friedman (1965)

Little Murders by Jules Feiffer (1967)

Blue Movie by Terry Southern (1970)

Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead, edited by Rick Meyerowitz (2010)

Something Happened by Joseph Heller (1974)

J R by William Gaddis (1975)

Guy Grand returns

A grand guy: Terry Southern.

A grand guy: Terry Southern.

It was a pleasure last week to see a little piece of my youth flying towards me again. In his essay “The Importance of Donald Trump” that runs in New York magazine this week, Frank Rich compares the current GOP frontrunner to Terry Southern‘s magnificent fictional creation Guy Grand, the hero (if that’s the word) of his classic 1959 novel The Magic Christian. Like Trump, Grand is fabulously wealthy, and like Trump Grand has a desire to mix things up in popular culture — to “make things hot for them,” as Grand’s phrase goes. Writes Rich:

Southern’s protagonist is a billionaire named Guy Grand who spends his fortune on elaborate pranks to disrupt almost every sector of American life — law enforcement, advertising, newspapers, movies, television, sports, the space program. Like Trump, he operates on the premise that everyone can be bought. In one typical venture, he pays the actor playing “an amiable old physician” on a live network medical drama a million bucks to stop in mid-surgery and tell the audience that if he speaks “one more line of this drivel,” he’ll “vomit right into that incision I’ve made.” The network, FCC, and press go into a tizzy until viewers, hoping to see more such outrages, start rewarding the show with record ratings.

The significant difference here, of course, is that Grand knows what he’s doing and Trump doesn’t — at least, unless Trump’s is a gargantuan Andy Kaufmanesque stunt done in full self-awareness. Grand is a textbook example of the trickster — a very familiar figure to anyone who’s studied American humor and comedy, a figure that reaches perhaps its fullest expression in contemporary America in Southern’s novel, one of the nation’s most provocative and still relevant contemporary literary satires.

I first read The Magic Christian in college in 1979 or so, twenty years after it was written, and I was just about ready for it, so Rich’s appreciation of the novel fell kindly on my far-from-deaf ears. I’m also ready for Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead, Douglas Tirola’s new documentary on the vintage years of the National Lampoon (1970-1980), which opened at the IFC Center this week and is now available for streaming at Time Warner Cable. I grew up as so many of my generation did on Mad magazine and I remember it with great fondness, but when I was old enough to move on from that it was National Lampoon that welcomed me with open arms; if Mad was marijuana, NatLamp was the hard stuff, the bitter heroin of the period’s satire.

There’s been a slow but steady trickle of books about the Lampoon’s glory years, starting with Tony Hendra’s memoir in his 1987 Going Too Far: The Rise and Demise of Sick, Gross, Black, Sophomoric, Weirdo, Pinko, Anarchist, Underground, Anti-establishment Humor; more recently we’ve had publisher Matty Simmons’ If You Don’t Buy This Book, We’ll Kill This Dog! (1994), Josh Karp’s A Futile and Stupid Gesture (2006), and Ellin Stein’s 2013 That’s Not Funny, That’s Sick. There must be nothing that cements a magazine in the history of popular culture, though, than a coffee-table book, and in 2010 National Lampoon got that too, when the previously respectable art book publishers Harry N. Abrons released Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead, Rick Meyerowitz’s richly illustrated memoir of the business and personalities behind the magazine in its glory years.

That said, Meyerowitz’s book is rather disappointing in the selection of work it offers from the 1970s; the best anthology of its satire remains 1979’s Tenth Anniversary Anthology, not least because it contains a greater wealth of material as it originally appeared in the magazine. What made the National Lampoon particularly special was an extraordinary detail to the popular culture that it parodied. From pitch-perfect graphic parodies of comic books to xeroxed newsletters to baby books to display advertising, the NatLamp‘s art director Michael C. Gross crafted elegant containers for the caustic, acidulous satire written by Doug Kenney, Henry Beard, and others, satire that would not have had the bite and the punch that it did were it not for its precise resemblance to the real things.

But parody and lampoon weren’t the only things the NatLamp was about, despite the magazine’s name. Its satire took aim at American qualities that remain with us today: an obsession with celebrity and sex; a delight in gargantuan size, of crowds, buildings, and cities; nationalistic xenophobia; violence; ersatz spiritualism and religion; consumerism and greed; lachrymose sentimentalism and nostalgia. These were Southern’s satiric concerns as well, and Southern was the guiding spirit of the magazine, especially through its other guiding spirit, Michael O’Donoghue, whose razor-sharp pen eviscerated a herd of American sacred cows with The Vietnamese Baby Book, Children’s Letters to the Gestapo, and dozens of other pieces (many of which can be found in the tenth anniversary anthology; Dennis Perrin has just released an excellent updated version of his 1998 biography of the satirist, by the way) that would never find their way into print in 2015.

The success of the new documentary — “The film is uproarious,” said Stephen Holden in last week’s New York Times, “not for what its many talking heads say but for its astonishing procession of brilliant, boundary-breaching illustrations and captions (augmented by some animation), many of which are as explosively funny today as they were when first published” — and Rich’s citation of Terry Southern suggest that we haven’t really moved along much from the 1970s. An obsession with celebrity and sex; nationalistic xenophobia; violence; ersatz spiritualism and religion; consumerism and greed; lachrymose sentimentalism and nostalgia — these are all still qualities of American life in the 2010s, as that same New York Times proves with its front page stories, day after day after day. And it’s those same things that Donald Trump most powerfully represents; his speeches resonate with a perhaps small but very vocal minority, his own followers as well as the Republican Tea Party (and not a few on the progressive left besides).

Some of these satirists’ work has become dated, but not as much as you’d think, obviously. I doubt this leads to a resurgence of this kind of satire in America; the lampoon and parody of The Daily Show and The Onion seems more palatable to a nation that still believes, rather obliviously, in its own smug, self-important goodness. But The Daily Show and The Onion will date even more, because great satire lacerates not individuals and institutions of the day but belief systems and more general qualities. It’s why we still read Gulliver’s Travels (whatever parody of the travel literature of the 1720s it reflects is quickly subsumed by its larger satiric points) and The Mysterious Stranger.

If the same satire that was produced by American writers in the 1960s and 1970s remains relevant in the 21st century, it’s hard to think we’ve progressed much. But it is a reminder that there were a few sane heads around then, and there may be a few now. So I’m glad that Mr. Rich reminds me so delightfully of the joy I felt on first encountering Southern’s work.

But I must confess a disagreement with Mr. Rich — it’s not Guy Grand whom Donald Trump best represents. I’m reminded instead of another extraordinary fictional character that came to movie screens in 1978. At the center of National Lampoon’s Animal House — the first and still the best film to be released under the magazine’s banner — was Bluto Blutarsky, memorably portrayed by John Belushi. Blutarsky was a raving drunken figure of Rabelaisian appetites for food, drink, destruction, and sex, anarchically undermining any given standard of behavior, less a human being than Bacchus incarnated by an American college student, completely without guilt or a concern for the consequences of his rampaging nihilism. At the conclusion of The Magic Christian, Guy Grand is last seen running small grocery stores in obscure neighborhoods of American cities. At the conclusion of Animal House, as its last great joke before the credits roll, it’s revealed that Bluto Blutarsky has finally been elected to membership in the United States Senate.