Lessons for Rufus: Ives talks harmony

February 21, 2007

Dear Ralph,*

I have gone through the material that you sent me. I have to say I don’t understand why Hector thinks you are a composer. You seem like mostly a songwriter. I wrote some songs in my day, some good ones, and some really bad ones. You can find them in the collection called “144 Songs by Charles Ives.” I told my audience in the back of that collection, that some of these songs are good examples of what NOT to do. You don’t seem to have the sense to know what is good and what is not so good. But, you’re young. I’m an old curmudgeon, and I know it. (You’ll have to excuse me if I’m direct, but that’s the way I am.)

Your parents taught you about folk music. My father encouraged me to break outside the mold–nothing was wrong, and tradition was suspect. You rebelled against your parents’ music by embracing opera. I rebelled against my hopelessly old-fashioned teacher at Yale, Horatio Parker. He was the epitome of what was wrong with so-called “modern” music. When I studied with him, I did what he wanted, but I built up such a resistance to his teaching method that I spent the rest of my career rebelling against him.

I’m not going to give you assignments. I don’t have the patience to “correct” your work. I’ll give you some advice which I think you should take.

First of all, you need to expand your tonal resources. Your use of pre-fab guitar chords in songs will keep you rooted in folk music. If that’s what you want, then fine. If you want to become a REAL composer, your chords need a hell of a lot more pepper. Sometimes your chords are so goddam pretty I wanna upchuck. I have to say, I found one chord in your song “Poses” that I want to steal. I have to say that it’s one of the best chords I’ve heard in the last 100 years:


You need to discover the power of having two keys happening at the same time. My Dad used to have us sing rounds after dinner, but everyone had to be in different keys.

Try this: you know the Christmas song “Silent Night,” sit down at the piano and play the accompaniment with the left hand in C major, and the simply harmonized melody in the right hand in D major.

Now I want you to sit at the piano playing one chord with your left hand (3 notes at least), and another with your right hand. Nowadays they are calling them “polychords.” I just call it “one chord in one hand and another in the other.”

Finally, listen to the world around you. There are always simulataneous realities that can be heard and followed. Now, I’m hearing a plane fly over, I’m hearing a child cry next door, the sound of my keyboard, and I’m hearing myself talk the words to you as I type them. That is a sound world that is entirely natural. Find a way to put it in your music.

I will contact you in a few days via instant messaging to have a real time lesson.

Get to work lad.


*Ives insisted that Rufus change his name to Ralph.

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