UCSB Department of Music assistant professor David Paul recently published Charles Ives In the Mirror, a novel exploring the reputation and influence of American composer Charles Ives.
The novel acts as an in-depth analysis of Ives’s life as the father of American classical music and a successful businessman. It includes popular stories about Ives that contribute to his role as one of the most well-known classical composers in American history.
According to Paul, Ives’s music remains unique to his time, standing as the first avant-garde pieces to be introduced to American culture.
“The music he wrote when he was a composer was very unusual — it sounds very strange, it has a lot of dissonance in it. But it also has a lot of familiar tunes in it from American culture, like folk songs, marches, fiddle tunes — all kinds of things like that,” Paul said.
In fact, this avant-garde style is one of the reasons why Ives gained such incredible popularity, according to Paul.
“Here is this composer in the U.S., a long way from Europe where avant-garde things were thought to originate, creating music that sounded just as avant-garde as the music Europeans were creating at the same time,” Paul said.
Second-year psychology major Stella Sacks, who has listened to and explored Ives’s music, said Ives’s style is unlike anything she had encountered in her musical studies.
“I had never really been exposed to Charles Ives before, but when I listened to some of his work, I was really intrigued,” Sacks said. “It is kind of a jazzy classical with some piano undertones, and is very different from what I’m used to defining as classical music.”
Paul said despite his appreciation for Ives’ music, he chose to focus more on how Ives came to be such a huge influence in the American classical music scene, rather than analyzing his work.
“I do love Ives’s music, and some pieces I like better than others, but it was less his music and more his reputation that led me to write about him,” Paul said. “I’m a Canadian in my background, and I’m sort of fascinated by American discourse about what makes America. I found a way to explore this through Ives.”
Paul said his decision to publish a book detailing Ives’s life was influenced by his interest in the link between Ives’s life and American history.
“I wrote my book to show people how his work has been represented over the last 100 years, and in some ways, it’s a bit of a plea to historians that classical music has mattered in the past,” Paul said.
According to Paul, classical music in present-day time does not occupy a wide space in American musical imagination.
“I’m trying to say is that it’s not only interesting music but it’s also music that is being used for purposes that are very tied into stories of the United States over the last hundred years,” Paul said.
Paul said Ives combined artistic originality with good business skills to achieve success in America.
“He worked at an insurance firm and made a lot of money, so in some ways he represents the ideal American — a businessman by day and also very creative,” Paul said.
Regarding new publications, Paul said he has a novel underway that will explore the 1893 Chicago World Fair and its portrayal in American popular media. According to Paul, he will start with predecessors to popular media and then move onto Broadway shows and novels, with plans to eventually write about videogames.
“There is a current video game, BioShock, that capitalizes on the Chicago World Fair and uses its architecture and some ideals that were expressed at the time,” Paul said. “The purpose will be not to just look at the World Fair, but to try to understand how popular media has used the fair to tell stories to Americans about who they are.”