The Complete Music of Charles Ruggles

By John von Rhein
Vox Clamans in Deserto**
Men, Men and Mountains, Sun-Treader, Portals, Evocations (orchestral version)
Angels (two versions)****
Evocations (original piano version)*****
Exaltation (for brass, chorus and organ)*******Judith Blegen (soprano), Michael Tilson Thomas (piano), **Beverly Morgan (mezzo-soprano), Speculum Musicae / Thomas, ***Buffalo Philharmonic / Michael Tilson Thomas, ****Brass ensemble / Michael Tilson Thomas, *****John Kirkpatrick, piano, ******Brass ensemble, Gregg Smith Singers, Leonard Raver (organ) / Michael Tilson Thomas.
Other Minds OM 1020/21-2 (2 CDs)

The slim output of American composer Carl Ruggles was barely known outside specialist new-music circles in 1980 when Columbia Records (now Sony Classical) issued a two-LP set of his complete works, under the direction of conductor, pianist and Ruggles champion Michael Tilson Thomas. That was nine years after Ruggles’ death, at 95.

Amazingly, it has taken until now for anyone to reissue these landmark recordings. Hats off to the composer and recording producer Charles Amirkhanian, executive and artistic director of the San Francisco new-music-advocacy company Other Minds, for doing so, and for doing the job right.

The Massachusetts-born Ruggles might have achieved at least a smidgen of the fame of his friend and fellow New England iconoclast, Charles Ives, had he been more prolific and less rigorously self-critical. And had he taken even the slightest interest in self-promotion. His entire output consists of only the dozen works presented here, although many others were planned and either remained unfinished or were systematically destroyed.

The best of Ruggles’ works, including his masterpiece, Sun-Treader, carry a granitic power and dissonant grandeur that Ives, by comparison, achieved in only a handful of works, such as the transcendental Concord Sonata. Unlike Ives, Ruggles remained a stubborn atonalist almost to the end of his creative life. (His final work, Exaltation, a 1958 hymn-tune setting for congregation and brass, written in memory of his wife, is the sole, consonant exception.) He never adopted Arnold Schoenberg’s dodecaphonic system even if his procedures were similar: indeed, he claimed never to have doubled a note in his harmony, nor to have repeated a note or its octave (either in the melody or the inner parts) until seven to nine different notes had been sounded.

But the listener need not know anything about Ruggles’ compositional procedures to appreciate the directness and tough, sinewy logic behind his orchestral works Men and Mountains (1924), Organum (1947) and Sun-Treader (1931); the peppery lyricism of his vocal-chamber essay Vox Clamans in Deserto (1923), or the concise chromatic linearity of his Evocation (1943), either in its piano version or its orchestral expansion. This is music that goes beyond quaint “rugged individualist” stereotyping. It is, as Ruggles’ fellow maverick, Henry Cowell, once observed, “rich, full-blooded, super-romantic, urgent.”

To this, one can only add the words “fiercely original.” Lily-eared listeners need not apply.

These spirited, dedicated performances do credit to one of the great free spirits of 20th-century American art music. Sun-Treadermay receive marginally more polished execution in Thomas’ 1970 recording with the Boston Symphony Orchestra (still available on DG), but the interpretations are virtually identical. (A third, live recording under MTT’s direction is due later this year on the San Francisco Symphony’s SFS Media label). The transfers are very fine, and the set includes the original cover art and liner notes by Thomas and pianist John Kirkpatrick, adding a perceptive overview by Ruggles’ late colleague, Lou Harrison, originally published in 1946 and long out of print.

Minor complaint: my copy of the 34-page booklet jumbled and duplicated several pages, and not every composition was assigned a date. (A spokeswoman for Other Minds said the page-duplication problem in the booklet has since been corrected.)

No matter. This is an important reissue – snap it up while you can.