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A Vast Simplicity: The Music of Carl Ruggles

Stephen Slottow

221 pp.

2 illustrations

ISBN: 978-1576471265

Paperback $49.95

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The American composer Carl Ruggles (1876-1971) wrote a small number of powerful, finely crafted, intensely dissonant, and utterly individual works. Although sometimes viewed as very much an isolated figure�a stubbornly reclusive �ruggedly individualist� New Englander, painstakingly creating his uncompromisingly dissonant music in the wilds of Vermont�Ruggles was in fact an integral member of a close-knit group of composers known as the �ultramoderns,� which included (among others) Charles Seeger, Ruth Crawford Seeger, Henry Cowell, Edgard Var�se, Dane Rudhyar, and Charles Ives (mainly in the role of financier). The ultramoderns were interested in creating a distinctive dissonant American music free of the cultural hegemony of European musical authority and convention. As part of this group, Ruggles formed especially strong ties with Charles Ives�each considered the other the world�s second-best composer�and with Charles Seeger, whose theory of dissonant counterpoint exerted a strong influence on Ruggles�s evolving compositional style. Ruggles�s music is highly distinctive and personal�his works are not easily mistaken for those of any other composer. An individuality so audibly recognizable points to distinctive musical characteristics and compositional procedures. This study examines these in detail, discusses their influences (especially that of Charles Seeger), and places them in the context of Ruggles�s spiritual aesthetic of the transcendent and the sublime.


Stephen Slottow:

Associate Professor of Music at the University of North Texas. He received degrees from Cleveland State University, Queens College, and City University of New York. He has taught at City College, Queens College, Temple University, and Hofstra University. A former professional fiddler and banjo player, his interests include American traditional music, the American ultramodernists, atonal theory, Schenkerian analysis, and Zen Buddhist practice and ritual. He was awarded the 2000 Emerging Scholar Award by the Music Theory Society of New York and has published in such journals as Music Theory Spectrum, Int�gral, Theory and Practice, the Journal of Schenkerian Studies, Journal of the Society for American Music, and the Journal of Music Theory Pedagogy.


March 15, 2019

A Vast Simplicity: The Music of Carl Ruggles. By Stephen P. Slottow. Dimension and Diversity: Studies in 20th-Century Music no. 8. Hillsdale, N.Y.: Pendragon, 2009. ISBN-13: 978-1-57647-126-5. Softcover. Pp. viii, 221. $48.00. A Vast Simplicity. Stephen Slottow derived the title of his book (based on his dissertation) from a letter that Carl Ruggles wrote to John Kirkpatrick on Easter Sunday of 1941. In his letter, Ruggles asked Kirkpatrick to react to some revisions he had made to his composition Portals in preparation for a concert at the University of Miami. After setting forth some examples in notation, Ruggles strove to make himself emphatically clear: Im after a vast simplicity. As I wrote you some time ago: there are too many notes in most of the Modern Music. Notes that have no time to sound. The task Slottow has set for himself, while vast, is anything but simple. The author uses all of Ruggless (admittedly small) oeuvre of published works as well as unpublished manuscript excerpts from correspondence to exemplify and explain the composers compositional framework.1 He views Ruggless work through various theoretical lenses, ultimately providing the reader with a complex matrix of information that leads to a greater understanding of this iconoclasts work. S S lottow combines theoretical opinions by Ruggless contemporaries Dane Rudhyar, Henry Cowell, Arnold Schoenberg, and Charles Seeger with somewhat more recent observations by James Tenney and, ultimately, scholars fluent in the most recent schools of atonal music theory.2 The result is a presentation of Ruggless work that at times pits opinions of the composers contemporaries against later theories of contour, pitch, interval, and set class analyses. Slottow tackles this complicated task with vigor, and the results are important for those interested in Ruggless unique approach to atonality. The use of contour segment analysis is especially helpful in illuminating the emotional power of Ruggless music. S S lottow divides his study into chapters on melody, motive, and counterpoint/ harmony. He begins with a brief summary of Ruggless place in the early twentieth century, highlighting the composers role in the ultramodern movement, and concludes with a useful chronology of Ruggless publications. In between, Slottow provides thoughtful analysis of Ruggless music. Numerous musical examples are incorporatedexamples that illuminate Ruggless works using set class and contour segment analysis in the context of all aspects of the composers compositional style. A table of Terminology and Abbreviations (p. viii) is especially helpful in informing the uninitiated. The authors chapter on melody makes judicious use of metaphor, as Slottow describes Ruggless jagged arches and switchbacks in measurable formulas. Slottow considers the composers goal of the sublime as an undercurrent in Book Reviews 383 This content downloaded from on Wed, 06 Mar 2019 17:25:54 UTC All use subject to his investigation of Ruggless use of whole tones, pitch class and interval distribution, and contour segment analysis. The chapter on motive examines echo and repetition, call and response, cardinality, fragmentation, and unfoldings. Slottow achieves a third dimension to his examination in his chapter on counterpoint and harmony. Often approached with Seegers theories of dissonant counterpoint in mind, this chapter considers elements of vertical intervals, voice exchange, canon, and dynamics in Ruggless music. Ample examination of the composers iconic use of canon is provided. A Vast Simplicity is not written for the general reader or the undergraduate student; it is a theorists book at heart. As such, the volume represents a departure from Pendragons more universally accessible Dimension and Diversity series. Slottow explains the theoretical foundation of Ruggless work in detail from various vantage points. He includes copious detailed musical examples, some reproduced more successfully than others. Duplications of previously published scores often appear blurry, and the design of some tables requires the reader to flip pages in order to compare data. The terminal sentence on page 20 remains incompleteperhaps a casualty of the complexity of material necessarily presented throughout the volume, but troublesome nonetheless. Despite these challenges in production, this book provides a valuable contribution to our understanding of an important composer in the canon of American music. Steven Slottow admirably presents the complexity of analysis necessary to fully understand the vast simplicity of Ruggless musical language, providing multiple lenses through which to view Ruggless rich and complex musical structure and giving the reader important footholds along the way. In the end, the reader is left with a healthy regard for both the inherent simplicity of Ruggless musical message and the complexity necessary for its execution. S S lottow provides a concise and insightful summary of the many ways in which Ruggles both conscribed to and broke away from traditional rules of musical composition. In these complicated and confusing times, perhaps the composers reminder that formulas should be busted can lead us to a greater understanding of the sublime.3 As the author concludes, Thus not only Ruggless compositional procedures, but also his flexible application of them, comprise the means by which he strives to leave the realm of the Known to ascend and enter the Unknown (206). Beth Christensen St. Olaf College Notes 1. Ruggles has only nine published works: Toys, Angels, Vox Clamans in Deserto, Men and Mountains, Portals, Sun-Trader, Evocations, Organum, and Exaltation. 2. S ee especially Seegers On Dissonant Counterpoint, Modern Music 7 (June-July 1930): 2531; James Tenney, The Chronological Development of Carl Ruggles Melodic Style, Perspectives in New Music 16/1 (1977): 3669. Among others, Slottow refers to the writings of Alan Forte, Michael Friedmann, David Lewin, Elizabeth W. Marvin and Paul Laprade, Robert Morris, George Perle, Heinrich Schenker, and Joseph Straus. 3. Carl Ruggles Season in the Sun, Newsweek, Feb. 7, 1966, 80 American Music, Vol. 28, No. 3

American Music

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