In his recollection of conducting a work by Charles Ives, “Three Places in New England,” the encyclopedic musicological figure Nicolas Slonimsky discusses the manner in which he accomplished Ives’ vision. The work requires an orchestra to imitate two marching bands playing different pieces of music simultaneously. As Slonimsky describes it, he taught himself to keep pace for one “band” with one hand, and the second “band” with his other. The orchestra, he reports, had no difficulty with the work, which he conducted at least three times. As for the audience, he allowed, “The reaction varied from spellbound enthusiasm to speculation as to what the chambers of commerce in New England would say of this dissonant portrayal of its natural attractions.”
The irony inherent in the reception of much so-called avant-garde music is that it seeks no more or less than presumably conventional music to illuminate the everyday. The forward-looking nature of Ives’ adventurous composition can be exaggerated, when we make the mistake of thinking too little of the world in which he came of age (he lived from 1874 to 1954).
Case in point, the intersection of two bands is no long since faded incident of a halcyon era. Just today, Mark Rushton, a prolific sound artist who lives in Iowa, posted a field recording that could very much be an Ives performance, were it not in fact real life captured in a microphone. As Rushton describes it:
Recorded on Monday, March 28, 2011 – a field recording – while waiting for my daughter to finish school band practice, I realized that another band of older students was practicing nearby. This is the overlap, plus some hallway sounds.