RUGGLES: The Old Man and the Mountain

On August 2, 2012

“Chord and Discord” was the weighty title of a now-defunct music journal that once championed the music of Anton Bruckner and Gustav Mahler, back when performances of those two composers’ music were a rare and special thing. Of course, today you can’t get away from their symphonies, which loom like totems over our musical landscape. So it’s no surprise that, having served its purpose, that late periodical has since passed on to footnote-land.

But its suggestive and somewhat peremptory title (“Chord and Discord,” oooooohh) sprang to mind the other day as I was pondering the music of American composer Carl Ruggles, another obscure fellow whose music seems ripe for resurrection.

Discordance, after all, was Ruggles’ modus operandi, his very theater of operations. His style, described by his contemporaries as “dissonant counterpoint,” was nothing less than an exploration of clashing tones, of intervals that don’t normally play well together.

I had a jazz teacher who described how the various intervals — the stepping spaces between two notes — established a hierarchy of consonance and dissonance that intensified or lessened as these intervals changed. Certain intervals — thirds, fourths, fifths — are intrinsically consonant, because their frequencies tended to blend more gratefully with each other. (There is a literal scientific basis for this, as the respective wavelengths of these respective pitches can be divided into each other more evenly, without leaving too many clashing remainders to foul up the air.)  Others — the major second and the sixth, the major and dominant seventh — were considered dissonance “lite,” useful in the jazz realm as color notes. And further out was an undiscovered country of extreme dissonance, what might even be called “mistake” notes, that were to be avoided at all costs. Hit two adjacent keys on a piano — a minor second — and you’ll be exactly where you shouldn’t be.

But it’s this outer frontier of tonality that is the vanguard of modern music,  where composers like Alban Berg, Thelonious Monk, Elliott Carter and Cecil Taylor erected their sonic flags. And it’s where the music of Carl Ruggles took up its cranky residence — in a dark, seemingly abandoned house on the corner.

Dark and abandoned – no more. Charles Amirkhanian, the Berkeley record producer who gave us the mind-bending player-piano rolls of Conlon Nancarrow, has done American music another huge service by releasing for the first time on CD the complete music of Carl Ruggles.

Originally released in 1980 by CBS Masterworks, featuring conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, this set has been out of print practically since its release on LP. Throughout the CD era, it’s been one of those musical holy grails that seemed destined to remain locked away forever, moldering in the Sony vaults due to its complete lack of commercial appeal. But in what seems like a Bastille-like coup, the set has been liberated, and stands improbably before us  in a fine remastering on the Other Minds imprint.

Ruggles (1876-1971) is a composer known to very few people, and once you hear his stuff, you’ll understand why. His music isn’t exactly what you’d call soft and cuddly. These days, when “spiritual” is the new classical marketing buzz-word, Ruggles’ music remains hard and unyielding. Moreover, it seems to describe a bleak and God-less world, where one’s existential struggles are unending and even hard-won victories seem like pyrrhic ones.

Ruggles’ sound world is violent, even noir-ish. Okay, his music isn’t exactly cynical and world-weary (forthright and robust are more apt descriptors), but neither is it much given to soft, sentimental feeling. In its more brutal moments (the opening bars of “Men and Mountains”), his music can hit you as hard as a Mike Hammer sucker-punch. Even when he’s feeling relatively quiet and reflective, there’s still a sense of dread and unease lurking in the air. This is restless, wary music of the night, or better yet, a celestial music from the coldest, outer-most regions of space. Much like a black hole, Ruggles’ dense output is as massive as it is tiny, its gravitational forces concentrated to a pinpoint, the resultant tensions and forces reaching breaking points that never seem to break.

Its isolation from the rest of the musical world might just as well describe Ruggles’ own social position. Like Thoreau, he seemed to turn his back on society, to better attend to the voices in his head. A lot of this had to be temperamental, but some of it was dealt to him by historical circumstance. Like so many American composers of his generation (Ives, Cowell), Ruggles struggled mightily against the hegemony of the European classical masters and yearned for a concert music that spoke a purely American language.

As a young man, Ruggles was invited to study with Dvorak (!) but was sidetracked when his wealthy patron died. We can only guess how differently his career might have turned out had he not thrown off the yoke of European influence to cut a path of his own. Probably we’d never have heard of him.

It’s Ruggles’ intransigence that made all the difference. In photos, he looks like a classic Yankee curmudgeon. He was reportedly a racist and an anti-Semite. But he was definitely his own man. (A great Ruggles anecdote: A fellow composer spent a day listening to Ruggles pound out the same dissonant chord on the piano, hour after hour. Finally Ruggles was asked what he was doing. His reply: “I’m giving it the test of time!”)

Conceived in almost total isolation, Ruggles’ small, hand-forged canon speaks in a musical language wholly of his own invention. You could almost call it folk art in its disregard of high art traditions, except that Ruggles was actually well-schooled in classical music and conducted and taught composition for many years before deciding to throw the whole kit and kaboodle away. (Actually, there are echoes of the primitive Sacred Harp shape note singers of early America in Ruggles’ rough-hewn counterpoint, in which multiple voices soar and collide with one other, the notes chafing exuberantly to form those distinctive dissonances. He also seems to forecast the cosmic polyphony of Gyorgy Ligeti, of “2001: A Space Odyssey” fame .)

To employ one of Ruggles’ own favorite metaphors, his pieces are mountains of sonority – grand, craggy structures that rise higher and higher as multiple voices are piled atop one other, the friction and play of the dissonances subtly changing the high-altitude air, shifting the hues prismatic-ally. Climbing the peaks of Ruggles’ music, one is easily abraded by all the sharp edges, but that’s kind of the point. The music is its own self-rewarding extreme sport. Once you hoist yourself atop that pyramid-like arete, the view is pretty stunning.

If there is a hidden program in Ruggles, it is perhaps about arriving at that same metaphysical place that Ives describes in the conclusion of his second string quartet, when the men cease their argumentation in order to view the firmament together. Maybe, maybe not. I don’t necessarily hear that transcendent quality in Ruggles, but maybe that’s just me. Or maybe Ives sees the heavens from afar, whereas Ruggles sits right in the middle of its contending forces

Still, a funny thing happens after you immerse yourself in his music for awhile: your ear begins to pick up the various shades and hues of consonance shifting within the parameters of his dissonance. After you’ve become acclimated, Ruggles’ language begins to make sense on its own terms, as a drama not unlike the victory of the tonic that is the preoccupation of classical sonata form. His cadences, no matter how thorny, begin to sound like the arrivals and departures they are;  his music moves from relative episodes of repose to those of crisis and conflict, then back again. In other words, it begins to behave a lot like normal music.

In fact, by the time we get to the last movement of “Men and Mountains,” we hear Ruggles struggling towards a tonal resolution, dragging us crab-wise to a cadence that ends on a major chord so defiant, it’s as though Ruggles were defying even himself.

But in Ruggles’s musical universe, such moments of finality are mostly conspicuous by their absence. Most of the time, Ruggles is just being Ruggles, which is to say that the music begins and ends in some greater or lesser degree of crisis. That’s just the way his music sounds, like sour apples. To his great credit, this distinctly dyspeptic and unmistakably personal style was his and his alone. Like Sibelius before him, Ruggles imagined into being an alternate universe of sonority, logic and meaning, a harsh but beautiful Bizzaro-world of sounds that live by their own rules.

Of course, the problem with sounding so much like yourself is that it can begin to obscure the very real differences that can exist between your own statements – the same way your friends begin tuning you out when you start on what might sound like a familiar rant, even if you have something new to say. This is less a problem with Mozart, who always sounds like Mozart yet somehow hardly ever seems to repeat himself, but in the case of poor Ruggles, the music suffers from what might be called Vivaldi syndrome, which is to say it often seems Carl is writing the same piece over and over again.

But what a piece.

That would be “Sun-Treader,” Ruggles’ magnum opus, which first became known to us through MTT’s recording with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, released in 1971 by Deutsche Grammophon. That recording was and is staggering, and remains unsurpassed. It has a couple things going for it – one, the acoustics of Symphony Hall in Boston, which are dewy and suggestive, with a warm shadow detail one step removed from murk; and two, the opulence of the Boston strings, who invest Ruggles’ potentially dry and abstract lines with sinewy purpose and expressive trajectories that suggest a kind of stoic romanticism – noir romanticism, the kind that doesn’t admit it’s being romantic. What emerges is music that in its quieter moments suggests the loneliness and abandonment of an Edward Hopper street scene, and in its loud parts sounds like a cage-rattling barbaric yawp, a protest against the heavenly injustice of having been born.

The stunning impact of the opening bars – throbbing tympani pedal points and anguished dissonances that recall the beginning of Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 – made a permanent impression, and established Ruggles as a genuine, unique American Expressionist visionary. The Boston recording was a brilliant teaser that kept us waiting a decade for the rest of Ruggles’s music to be disinterred.

Thomas’ Buffalo recordings, on the other hand, are recorded in the drier, brighter acoustic of Kleinhans Music Hall and, perhaps befitting the first complete survey of the composer’s works, seem more straight-forward and objective, even a touch clinical. There is less purposeful swooning in the strings, less mystery in the shadows. Recounting the sessions many years later (this, and a set of Gershwin Broadway overtures, are the only recorded mementos of his tenure in Buffalo) Thomas characterized the Ruggles set as being recorded under “heroic” conditions, which I take to mean there was no budget for retakes.

In the case of “Portals,” a short essay for string orchestra, a retake might have been a good idea. But most everywhere else, the Buffalo orchestra rises to the considerable occasion, playing with a fierce commitment and focused attention. It’s harder than you think to play dissonant music (ie., music that sounds like mistakes) – you have to be even more precisely in tune for the harmonies to register. And gratifyingly, those great Ruggles moments emerge in bold relief. When the composer crowns a huge pile of dissonances with one final note, a gleaming diadem balancing atop shards of crystal, and the whole concert hall goes KERRANG, it’s a very fine moment, indeed.

Michael Tilson Thomas and the Buffalo Philharmonic, back in the day

I used to play these LPs on my stereo and grit my teeth whenever the needle got closer to the label and the dreaded inner groove distortion would set in. Just as Ruggles was getting his yawp on, the stylus would begin carving out vinyl in protest. In its reincarnation on CD, this is no problem, and you can let the music rip with abandon. It’s great to have these recordings back. We owe Amirkhanian and his Other Minds label a debt of gratitude for giving this lease-breaker of an album a brand new – and hopefully permanent – lease on life

Click here to buy the Complete Music of Carl Ruggles




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