Quotation: “Photos” in a Sonic Album
It is the barely audible C major piano sound, despite a little mediocre, that unnoticeably sets off a sonic journey at the very beginning of Ives’s song The Things Our Father Loved. This C major chord not only serves to prepare the incoming of the singer’s weak, and nearly murmured utterance, but also to offer an imagined space for the listener to contemplate, to experience. The prologue of the song is somewhat anticipatory, seeming to call you to wait for what is to come next. Music, in this sense, is an adventure – it advances, it arrives. But what will be followed after the opening C major sonority? It is a three-note melodic figure 3^ – 2^ – 1^ , singing the lyrical words “I think,” which is also confirmed by the piano C major triad once again. This is the right time for both Ives, the composer, and us, the listeners, to think what are these “things” that “our father” loved.
The familiar quoted tune, My Old Kentucky Home, albeit with different text setting, is one of the fruits from such process of thinking. The occurrence of quotation here is a privileged moment in unfolding that juxtaposes different moments of past experiences. On the one hand, to Ives, it could be a moment to mediate and also to seek his nostalgic restlessness and the never fulfilled sense of childhood loss. Just as David Metzer has commented, “quotation becomes the means by which the composer participated in that cultural scene. Through the gesture, he could represent the figure of the lost child and the growing gap between past and present in which that figure was caught.” On the other hand, it could be a moment that all senses of childhood loss could be redeemed. Larry Starr has once showed his agreement to this view by warning against the common “widespread misconception of Ives as a nostalgic composer.” Also, Burkholder has concluded in the discussion of The Things Our Father Loved with a saying that, “……this is not an exercise in nostalgia for the songs and scenes of the past.” Doubtless for both scholars, Ives has not mourned the past with quotations. On the contrary, he did prize the past as a trove of values that need to be, and can be, reclaimed by himself. All the quoted tunes in this song, including My Old Kentucky Home, are all “things” that represent all values – the natural beauty of Ives’s homeland, the religious faith, the patriotism, the group feeling and the hope for a future reunion with those he loved, in Heaven if not on earth. As such, this particular moment could probably be the beginning of Ives’s search for his “liberty,” in which all things of value in the past that his father, or whom he loved could be contained. Ives is extolling the past and its values through the use of quotations.
For listeners, the recognized tune of Stephen Foster’s My Old Kentucky Home could be a retrospective moment that invites a search for what happened, and what was there. Unlike any other parts of the music, a quotation occurred in a particular moment is not merely a rendering, an imitation or an interpretation of its subject, but actually a trace, like a footprint or a death mask. Simply put, it works like a private photo-album containing many precious, memorable photos. From this sense, Ives here is the collector while we, the listeners, are the viewers. When displaying a private photo-album before our eyes, the collector is inviting us to share with his/her past experiences. Similarly, the first sonic photo of Stephen Foster’s quoted tune is just a trace, a footprint in this particular moment. The moment the quotes are heard is the moment we are invited to search for what was there. But whether listeners can identify the borrowed songs or think of their words is not crucial; what is most important is the character or the style of the songs, each of which represents a type of song that played a distinctive role in our experiences and is endowed with a particular emotional resonance.
While some listeners are conjured up with the similar emotion of Ives’ nostalgic loss when hearing the rather slow and sustained, even distorted appearance of the quoted tune, others, perhaps, can sense the “liberty” values that the tune represented. However, to audiences who cannot recognize the quotation, perhaps, a scene of idyll and lyricism may be evoked. The folk-like melody of Foster’s song is not difficult to express such pastoral aura of a typical American small town in countryside. However, if we remember the text of the first phrase of My Old Kentucky Home, “the sun shines bright in the old Kentucky home,” our experience of Ives’ “old home” may link to an imagined “place in the soul” that contains “all made of tunes.” This “home” is definitely a bright and sunny lovely place, which comes from our private experiences, our imaginiation, not very much from Ives. We, in fact, experience Ives’ experiences in terms of our experiences.
 David Metzer, Quotation and Cultural Meaning in 20th Century, 16.
 Larry Starr, A Union of Diversities: Style in the Music of Charles Ives (New York: G. Schirmer, 1992), 52.
 Burkholder, All Made of Tunes, 311.
 The subtitle of this song is “and the greatest of these was Liberty.”
 The text of the first phrase of The Things Our Father Loved is, “ I think there must be a place in the soul all made of tunes.”
David Leung (theorydavid)