5 Questions: Charles Ives on “Charles Ives Take Me Home”

Striking chords: Kate Nowlin, Henry Stram and Drew McVety in "Charles Ives Take Me Home." Photo by Sandra Coudert.
Striking chords: Kate Nowlin, Henry Stram and Drew McVety in "Charles Ives Take Me Home." Photo by Sandra Coudert.
Shooting hoops, striking chords: Kate Nowlin, Henry Stram and Drew McVety in Jessica Dickey’s “Charles Ives Take Me Home.” Photo by Sandra Coudert.

Traditionally, a deus ex machina arrives (or more likely descends or crashes or plops) in the middle of a play or nearer to its end, not its beginning. But playwright Jessica Dickey has another idea: she plants a real person, the quintessentially enigmatic and idiosyncratic and very dead (since 1954) composer Charles Ives front and center at the top of her new play, Charles Ives Takes Me Home, running through June 29 at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, and allows him to serve as the mediating force in the dramatic proceedings that follow.

What’s equally remarkable about this idea is that the dramatic proceedings in question are, some might argue, slightly on the side of cliche. There’s a father who is a musician and passionate about it and has managed to make a life working in music by surviving the financial sacrifices that come along with it — jumping through the hoops of a life in the arts, if you will. Trouble is, the father’s daughter is nonplussed, to say the least, about a life in the arts; rather than jump through such hoops she’d rather shoot basketballs through them — or at least hector the team she manages into doing just that. It’s cruel for the father, whose own parentage was the furthest thing from music-friendly, and it’s cruel for the daughter, whose father can’t fathom a passion that isn’t aligned with his own. Enter the iconic Ives, a man who spent his entire career laboring in a kind of studied obscurity, an erstwhile amateur athlete who spent his last 30 years alive never writing another note of glorious original music.

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Well, the reviews of Charles Ives Take Me Home, which is directed by Daniella Topol and stars Drew McVety, Kate Nowlin and Henry Stram, have certainly been positive and encouraging; even the criticisms have been of the sort that leads to more productions and grants and the arousal of the theatre industry at large. So we reached out to the PR for the production and asked what, to our minds, is a very understandable question: Since Ives so vividly appears in the play, would he consent to an interview with the Clyde Fitch Report.

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He said yes!

And now, 5 questions Charles Ives has never been asked:

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1) What’s the most perceptive question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
There is no such thing as a perceptive question about my work (or any work for that matter). The work is a statement in and of itself, and to inquire further is a testament to the work’s dumbness or the inquirer’s deafness!

We must remember that the purpose of art is not to hear oneself talk (though many exceptions do pollute our culture)! That art has become about talking to the artist seems to me to minimize the work to a person, a tiny being, whereas a great work of art is straining to encompass so much more than that…

Art is certainly meant to engender conversation, don’t get me wrong, but art is also meant to cut through conversation. We live in a time when we are afraid to really experience a work of art, to step into whatever foreign landscape it lays before us — we don’t trust our own inner compass to lead us through, and so we wait for the artist to tell us what we should experience; we wait for critics to tell us what has merit.

Don’t ask an artist about their work. Respond to an artist about their work from your own good heart. The exchange will flow from there.

2) What’s the most idiotic question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
It may not surprise you that I’m going to pass on this question.

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But I will tell you that one time a little girl approached me and asked if I could be of any use in convincing her mother that she should play trombone and not the piano. When I leaned down and told her I doubted very much I could, she promptly pulled on my beard and told me to go jump in the lake.

I thought that was pretty wonderful!

3) What’s the weirdest question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
One time I had a dream wherein my jawbone came off in my mouth like a piece of crumbling concrete. This was when I was working on a sonata of mine. Then in the dream my teeth starting gently exploding in my mouth, sort of like throwing up but teeth. I was completely panicked and didn’t understand what was happening to me. I was standing over a large black trashcan trying to catch my jaw and teeth in my dumb hands. It was awful.

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Dreams are really a question spoken in the language of images.

I woke myself up with a start, my hands trembling, my mouth filled with invisible ghosts. Then after five minutes of being awake I farted and a little bit of shit came out.

I bet you’re sorry you asked.

4) In Charles Ives Take Me Home, you play the “perfect referee” between a father and daughter. Of course, your dynamics with your own father (also a composer) and own daughter (adopted) were both complex and enriching. Forgetting for a moment Jessica Dickey’s script, what advice would you most like to give to the characters you’re interacting with?
Oh, you know…the idea of “advice” makes me feel a little like I’m offering the soiled underwear of the aforementioned bad dream! But I have boundless energy for the rich, dark soil of family. What a mine! What a wilderness! When I look at people on the street, I see an intricate hive of creatures who are in varying stages of flight or entrapment or return to their family of origin. Their Home. This struggle is beautiful to me. Even the hardest of family legacies is an incredible gift. To be without the narrative our parents instilled in us about ourselves, be it hearty or dysfunctional or loving or constricting (our parents themselves daily battling their own parents’ narrative) would be a great sadness. And it is a worthy pursuit — to daily engage the internalized voices of the strangers we call our parents — is wonderful, for it is how we suss out who we truly are, who and what we are from, and most importantly who we are becoming.

5) “In today’s music — that is, both popular and symphonic — whose work do you find most interesting? Who is most overrated and why?
When I listen to a piece of music, I want to hear the strange, clanging majesty of your heart. I want to feel provoked and understood. Music, like a complex smell, should defy words. When I hear music I want to think of the long line of humanity yawning and complaining and yearning and needing their way to their own quiet grave. I want to be surprised. I want my attention commanded, and yet I want to be set free to my imagination. In this pursuit, obedience is the enemy.<

Music is like death. And death is a stripping away of all that is not you.

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Not that there’s anything wrong with a nice jig.

But you get my meaning– ultimately we are in the business of a something very vast.

Bonus question:

6) In retrospect, what was really behind the fact that you stopped composing for nearly 30 years before you died? Was the reason purely physical, emotional, somewhere in between? If you had to live your life (especially as an artist) over again, what would you do differently?
Oh, I suppose I’d love to sit my young self on my old self’s lap and give him as much candy and good hugs and cheer as I possibly could. There I’d sit, with my freckles and smelly hair, my fretting smile and all my dirty fingernails. I would give a stern “shoo” to the old ghosts of self-loathing and bitterness and imagined wrongs (who have attended me with fervor all my life), smile upon my young self, so small and bony on my lap, wide-eyed at the grape lollipop I produce from my old pocket, and I would say “There, there now — you’re fine. Just fine.”

I don’t wonder about my work. The music came to me and I did my best not to wreck it between my inner ear and the page! When I find myself ruing the years of silence that followed that music, I tell myself to get up and go on a goddamn walk. And besides, who’s to say that in the long symphony of my flawed life, the last 30 years weren’t measures of terrible, pulsing silence? Who’s to say the next symphony’s opening note isn’t upon me at any moment — in response to the next bad dream? — or around the bend of the old butcher’s shop in town?

My only regret from this wonderful pageant of ache and confusion that has been life is that I could never meet myself fully. I could never see myself across the beach or at the piano and exclaim, “There! There is a beautiful mystery of the Universe, just as he is!”