In our ongoing series about maverick composers by Andrew Byrne—Carnegie Hall's manager of festivals and special projects—we turn our attention to Massachusetts native Carl Ruggles.
"In all works there should be the quality we call mysticism. All the great composers have it." —Carl Ruggles
Described by Henry Cowell as "irascible, lovable, honest, sturdy, original, slow-thinking, deeply emotional, self-assured, and intelligent," Carl Ruggles was a complex and uncompromising figure—a true Yankee original who never deviated from his singular vision even in the face of widespread ridicule and incomprehension. Famously reclusive, he spent the last five decades of his life in a former schoolhouse in the Vermont countryside, railing against the mainstream musical community and composing a small but highly original body of work.
Born in Massachusetts in 1876, Ruggles managed to cobble together a living as a violinist, teacher, and conductor in his early years. After stints teaching in Florida and Minnesota, as well as living in New York in the early part of the century (where he befriended such leading avant-garde figures as Charles Ives, Henry Cowell, and Edgard Varèse), Ruggles retreated to his Vermont sanctuary in 1924. There, he was to remain in isolation for the rest of his life, obsessively composing and revising a small number of compositions over and over again.
One striking fact about Ruggles is that in his 95 years, he composed only about 84 minutes of music. As Michael Tilson Thomas recalls on visiting Ruggles's Vermont cottage in 1970, "he would play every sonority, every chord, on the piano: once, twice, 10, 20, 50, perhaps hundreds of times, as loud as he could, because as he said to me, 'I thought that if I could still stand the sound of that damn thing after a hundred times or so it would sound pretty good a couple of hundred years from now!'" Tilson Thomas leads the San Francisco Symphony in a performance of Sun-treader at Carnegie Hall on March 28.
Of his eight published works, Sun-treader is widely regarded as his masterpiece. With its craggy melodic lines, its granite-like chords, its surging waves of sound that swell and then spiral downwards, the music evokes a panoramic sweep of the austere and wild New England landscape.
San Francisco Symphony Carl Ruggles Sun-treader Listening Room >Carl Ruggles on ubu.com Carl Ruggles Christmas Breakfast 1963—excerpt from a short film by Carolee Schneemann that presents an abstracted portrait of the American composer Ruggles. In the full piece, Ruggles is seen enjoying pie a la mode and ruminating on subjects that range from Christmas to his incomplete opera The Sunken Bell.
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