Charles Ives: The Unanswered Question

Wow! Wow! And Wow again. I just listened to this piece for the first time tonight and was completely blown away. How did I miss this gem? Starting out stately with a sense of inexorable direction, every so often, its sonority and solemnity is periodically punctured, at first by a questioning horn, but increasingly by little explosions of woodwinds.

Written in 1906, “The Unanswered Question” serves as a kind of gateway between the traditional classical era and the flood of modernism that would soon sweep through the world. 1906. Think about it–7 years before Rites of Spring. My late best friend David Hendrickson told me 35 years ago about the wonders of Charles Ives, but I completely ignored him. Now I see I have a lot of catching up to do. Ain’t it wonderful?

Erik Satie. Parade

For today’s piece, I have chosen Erik Satie’s Parade. Satie supposedly started as a bar room pianist whose work caught the attention and was championed by Debussy. His earlier compositions were stripped down and economical, which style was a reaction agains the overblown works of Wagner. Though sparse, his works were in no way simplistic and reflected the complex tonal qualities of the impressionists like Debussy. Some of his pieces, like the famous Gymnopedies are strikingly haunting and affecting.

But Satie knew he was under-educated, and in his 40s, he began studying composition under d’Indy and Roussel. From this period comes today’s piece, the music for the Cubist ballet, Parade. The mere description of this piece makes my head swoon–music by Satie, sets and scenario by Pablo Picasso and Jean Cocteau, and staged by Sergei Diaghilev, the empresario of the Ballet Russes. The piece is designed to tweak the bourgeois sensibility of the day and its love for the overblown Romanticism of Wagner. Parade is a kind of sound portrait of an actual parade, which incorporates the sounds of “found” objects like a pistol, a siren, and a typewriter.

Even today, nearly a century after its premier, it stands the test of time and still sounds daring and fresh.

Parading Through France

The first three months of 1977 in Paris proved cold and damp.  By March, a number of us living at Shakespeare and Company in Paris thought we might head South to warm our bones.  We chose Spain because we’d met some Basque girls, who one night cooked us paella. Ingeborg, the German girl I had a crush on, wanted to go to Barcelona and hop a ferry to Majorca. Chris, the guy she was doting on, was up for it.

Barcelona appealed to me as well because I knew it to be the native city of the Spanish Art Nouveau architect, Antonio Gaudi. His church, the Sagrada Familia, had caught my attention in some art book and I thought it would great to explore some of the other apartment buildings he had designed in the city. One had appeared in an Antonioni film called The Passenger which I had seen the semester before.

To prep myself, I read Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Looking back now, that was a good choice since the main character was the third wheel in a menage a trois, which is how I was feeling about Chris and Ingeborg.

We decided to hitchhike. For an American, that was a bit worrisome, but Chris and Ingeborg, who’d hitchhiked all over Europe, assured me it would be safe. Especially if the three of us went together. I remembered Thom Klem once telling me how he had hitched a ride with a truck driver in Germany. When he climbed in, he was treated to the music of Mozart, whom the truck driver loved. So I agreed.

We took the subway to the Gare du Sud and stood near the street that led out of town. It was pissing down rain, but soon we had a ride that took us to the start of the main superhighway heading south. There we stuck our thumbs out and after a short while, a big truck pulled up. In it was a friendly man, who said he had room for the three of us. We spent the day with him tooling along Seine past the towns of Sens, Auxerre, Dijon.

At Dijon we followed the Soane River south toward Lyons. I was surprised at the lush green countryside. Surprised too to see how canals ran parallel to the main routes and that they remained a viable means of freight transport. I was disappointed at one point when the driver pulled over to a roadside inn to get a bite to eat. Since it was early afternoon, it was completely empty, not like the 24-hour roadside nightmares along our own interstate system. Inside, we managed to summon up a drowsy patron, who said it was too early to get the espresso machine going for us. Our driver ordered what I heard as “deca.” I didn’t know what he meant. The proprietor pulled out a jar of decaffeinated instant Nescafé, put a teaspoon into a cup and poured some hot water in. It was vile. I think we bought some mass produced madeleines and we piled back in the truck.

By nightfall we reached the outskirts of Lyons, which was only about half way to the southern coast. Our plan was to call up an acquaintance named Olivier, whom I knew from my student days in the French house at Bloomington, Indiana. He had been living in Paris when I first arrived, and he had been very hospitable to me. He invited me over to dinner one night and we had a nice chat. Shortly after that, he got a job in Lyons and told me to call him up if I ever got down there. I took that as a standing invitation.

Olivier’s cordiality had surprised me a bit. My first semester at the French House, he had been our resident assistant, a job for a more responsible graduate student who acted a bit like a chaperone. Since most of the people in the French House were juniors or seniors, fairly intellectual students, and rarely prone to the binge drinking one found in a lot of undergraduate dorms, this was a kind of sinecure for Olivier. He pretty much left us alone and I never even thought he knew I existed. Or if he was aware of me, I thought he disdained me because of an incident I participated in.

Olivier was an opinionated and lugubrious type. If he participated in discussions at the French-speaking table at the dorm cafeteria, he usually made some pronouncement or caustic remark-usually about crass Americans and our lack of culture. He was majoring in business. Olivier cut an imposing figure–he was tall, thin, and had a shock of thick unruly hair. Unfortunately he wore one of those beards without a moustache, the kind that just follows your jaw line. He looked a bit like a cross between Abraham Lincoln and Big Bird.

No one hated Olivier. As I said, he left most people alone. One night however, we played a prank on him. On sleepless nights, I used to sneak into the boiler room, flip on the light switch, and watch the myriads of cockroaches scurry into the nooks and crannies. Sometimes, if I were feeling mean, I’d take a broom with me and see how many I could smash to a pulp. One time, I discovered a big box full of Christmas decorations. On the night of our prank, I mentioned the box to the artsy-campy clique I used to hang around with. Someone seized upon the idea of decorating the door to Olivier’s room with the contents. There was nothing mean in this. It was a practical joke.

We got the box and crept down the hall to Olivier’s door. We encircled the doorframe with a string of blinking lights, draped a fake pine garland over the lintel, and stuck a tin foil and red and green paper cut out of Santa Claus on the door. We knocked on the door and then all ran back to our rooms.

Suddenly we heard a huge uproar in the hall. I cracked open my door to see what it was. Olivier was standing in the hall in his pajamas. He spat out curses as he violently ripped the decorations from his door.

“Goddamn it!” he yelled. “Why do you do this to me? I know. It is because I am the goddamned foreigner. Well, I hate you all, too!!”

We were all surprised at the vehemence with which Olivier reacted. After that, it became kind of a joke among our clique. We used to walk around saying, “Chust beecuz I am zee goddam foureeener!” Olivier moved out of the dorm at the end of the semester and then he moved back to Paris. My friend Thom Klem, who didn’t live in the French house, remained friends with him and then corresponded with him after Olivier returned to France. Thom had sent a letter of introduction to Olivier and that was why he had acted so nice when I got to Paris.

Now when Inge, Chris and I arrived in Lyons, it was already dark and I told them not to worry. I’d call Olivier. He had told me to call when I got to Lyons, and I was sure he would put us up. The phone rang several times. Finally Olivier answered. When I told him who it was, there was a silence.

“You know, Kurt. In France it is very rude to call people after 10:00 p.m. Most people go to bed very early.

I apologized profusely and felt kind of blind-sided. I thought he would have invited us to stay. I stammered and asked if he knew of any pensions or hostels where we could stay. I think he might have given us a number and then just hung up.

I cannot remember where we ended up staying. I believe we had to split up, Inge going to a pension and me and Chris maybe even staying up all night talking in a doorway by the side of the road. In the morning we reassembled, and fortunately the second day turned out rather nicely. We found a Frenchman whose hospitality was diametrically opposed to Olivier’s. And fortunately, it is on that behavior and not Olivier’s that I base my opinion of the French, which is very fond indeed. But I’ll save that story for my next entry.

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