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 Varèse, 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.
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, Intégral, Theory and Practice, the Journal of Schenkerian Studies, Journal of the Society for American Music, and the Journal of Music Theory Pedagogy.