Featured Faculty

Matthew McDonald on Ives and ‘Breaking Time’s Arrow’

Matthew McDonald

We recently met with Associate Professor of Music Matthew McDonald to learn about his new book, Breaking Time’s Arrow, which examines the music and legacy of revered American composer Charles Ives. McDonald provided insight into Ives’ eccentric and groundbreaking approach to music composition and revealed how that approach inspires McDonald’s own study of music.

Tell us about your new book, Breaking Time’s Arrow.

The book, published by Indiana University Press, examines the music of Charles Ives, an early 20th-century American composer. Ives was an eccentric: He made a fortune selling life insurance and did much of his composing on evenings and weekends. His music was eccentric, too, blending idiosyncratic techniques with traditional ones. The book focuses on the novel ways in which Ives manipulated the temporal realm of music.

In particular, it looks at how his music often does not seem to proceed linearly but instead encourages us to hear connections that jump forward and backward time. This compositional strategy was an expression of Ives’s desire to transcend the present: He was a stubborn anti-modernist who both yearned for the past and looked forward to a better future. The book takes close musical analysis and contextualizes it in ways like this, taking into consideration Ives’s worldview and the world in which he lived.

How were you introduced to Charles Ives and what inspired you to write about him?

Two experiences were key. As is often the case for me, I really got to know Ives’s music as a performer. Ives wrote nearly 200 songs, and a few years ago I performed several of these as a pianist, collaborating with two different singers.

Charles Ives, circa 1913

Charles Ives, circa 1913

Working on these songs, I gained an intimacy with Ives’s music that I might not have otherwise. Right or wrong, I began to feel that I had a certain intuitive understanding of how his music works, a feeling that inspires my best work as an analyst.

The other experience goes back to my first year as an undergraduate at Carleton College, and is a great example of how formative early college experiences can be. During my first trimester, I took a seminar called “Time in Contemporary Music” with a professor who would become an important mentor for me. I don’t recall whether or not I encountered Ives’s music in this class, but what has stuck with me was the exposure to philosophical ideas about time and their application to music. This area of inquiry is a primary focus of my book, particularly Transcendentalist notions of time and eternity.

Where does the book’s title come from?

The title was inspired by a book by the musicologist Karol Berger called Bach’s Cycle, Mozart’s Arrow. His premise is that, in the 18th century, there was a crucial shift from a cyclical notion of time to a sense that time moves from past to present to future, like an arrow approaching a goal. My title suggests that Ives’s music represents the next historical stage: In his pieces, the arrow of time has multiplied and broken.

Does Ives’s work factor into what you’ll be teaching next year?

Yes. An idea I pursue in the book is the connection between the way Ives treated music, cutting it up and reordering the pieces, and the editing of shots in film. This is more than a metaphor: Ives was developing his compositional approaches at the same time as many of the editing conventions of narrative cinema were evolving. My deepened understanding of this era of filmmaking (the silent period) has greatly benefitted my core class on film music, where we study film-music practices from the silent era to the present. Another interesting connection with my research emerged last spring, when we watched a great film by Tom Tykwer, Run Lola Run (1998). The musical score features prominently Ives’s tone poem “The Unanswered Question,” alongside its polar opposite, hard-driving techno music. The film thematizes philosophical questions about time, and so it provided a perfect opportunity to bring some of my research into the classroom.

What’s next for your research?

I’ve become increasingly interested in film music, both through my teaching and my research on Ives. My current project, in the early stages, is a book on music and sound in the films of the Coen brothers. How does music, which so often provides the emotional core of a film, function within the cold fatalism of the Coens’ cinematic universe? Like the Coens, I’m from Minnesota, so I’m counting on that to give me extra credibility.

Read more about Associate Professor McDonald →