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Carl Ruggles - The Complete Music of Carl Ruggles

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Artist: Carl Ruggles

Album: The Complete Music of Carl Ruggles

Label: Other Minds

Review date: Jun. 28, 2012

The San Fransisco-based Other Minds label has done American music a great service with this reissue. It’s a beautifully restored version of the two-LP Columbia album from 1980, whose guiding spirit was conductor Michael Tilson Thomas. He leads most of the recordings here, helming the Buffalo Philharmonic, and contributes a poignant reminiscence in the liner notes. I have never heard a Tilson Thomas performance that is less than committed, and this is just another instance of his long-standing commitment to American music.

I use the phrase American music with some trepidation, as Carl Ruggles (1876-1971) was an individual, even an iconoclast. Like Whitman, or Ruggles’s close friend Charles Ives, he approached music with a remarkably spiritual bent, but one tempered by an earthy, often growly and non-conformist stubbornness, as the essays in this excellently documented two-disc set attest. He was crystal clear about his dislikes, which included Brahms, whom he called a big sissy, “… always hiding behind formal resolutions, development, counterpoint — why doesn’t he just come out like a man and say what he means?” He loved Debussy, Wagner, Varese and his own music, seemingly the orchestral masterpiece “Sun-Treader” most of all. “I knew it was great, I knew it!” he enthused in a late-life interview, growling “Fine, damn fine” during a radio broadcast playback.

It is indeed fine, possibly the most fully realized of the 12 works on offer here. Ironically, the very things he uses to beat Brahms down are integral to its construction, as there’s counterpoint and thematic development a-plenty. The rhythmic and formal languages set the work apart, from American music in general and just about anything else, too. Completed in 1931, the 16-minute piece opens with a wild tympani thwack and a majestic motive that returns throughout, but despite a tight-knit structure, the piece thrives on a kind of rhapsodic abandon. There is none of the quoting you’ll find in Ives, but Ruggles does share what might be described as a universality of expression, a seeming desire to depict, in transcendental terms, the grandeur of the human spirit. Strings swell and fade with dizzying suddenness, tempo is a plaything in Ruggles’ hands, and there are gorgeously reflective silences.

Like Varese, many of Ruggles’s early works do not survive, rendering any sense of completeness illusory. From 1919’s song “Toys” to 1958’s “Exaltation,” the last piece Ruggles completed, there is no real sense of changing style. In fact, “Exaltation” has an almost Stravinskian neoclassical feel about it. Composed in memory of his long-time bride, Charlotte Snell, it is a hymn for organ, brass and chorus, an outlier in being fairly tonal. Ruggles subjected his work to countless revisions and contextual transformations, so that a career path can’t really be charted through the music. In 2005, New World released The Uncovered Ruggles, on which pianist Donald Burman plays some of the more blatantly romantic early pieces and posthumously completed works; it’s an important companion to this set.

These 12 pieces are more like cross-sections of a fully-formed compositional vision; nonetheless, as the final wordless chorus in “Exaltation” comes to an end, performed with reverence by the Greg Smith singers, there is a sense that time had passed Ruggles by. Infirmed and deprived of companionship, he wrote no more, but as he said in that late-life rest-home interview, he was always composing. “Now don’t go feeling sorry. I don’t hang around this place, you know. Hell, each day I go out and make the universe anew — all over!”

By Marc Medwin

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