The American composer Charles Ives’ father, George Ives, is a curious case. He is not known for pieces that he composed. Nor is he recognized as a preeminent performer.

Rather, he is known for his musical experiments.

In one case, also as a local band leader, Ives made two marching bands go from opposite ends of town and walk towards each other. The catch was that each band was playing different music. Another moment had Ives having Charles sing a song in one key while he played the accompaniment in a key distant to what Charles was singing in. Ives also tried to make out the chord that the local church bell was sounding.

Taken further, this is musician as tinkerer; as close to a kid with a chemistry set as you are going to get. The goal is taking things apart, seeing how they work, proposing what if’s, and testing out hypotheses and ideas. This process does not produce a body of work like that of composers and performers. That can seem disconcerting. What is there to show for?

The fact of the matter is that George’s experiments profoundly influenced his son. Much of what is lauded as unique and forward thinking in Charles Ives’ work is from watching his dad tinker with music. These experiments and ideas perpetuate a wonder and curiosity with sound. It is no wonder, then, that his son took heed to them.

Perhaps we should too, lest we forget of value of the tinkerer.


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