CD Review: The Complete Music of Carl Ruggles

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I’d been waiting for this record to be re-released for as long as I owned a CD player. Finally, about a year and a half ago, Other Minds Records released this collection of music on CD.

Originally released by Columbia Masterworks in 1980, on two LPs, this disc contains almost everything that Ruggles composed. (There is another disc, The Uncovered Ruggles, with some bits and pieces essentially for piano; the title of this new release is, therefore, not entirely exact.) With just over 86 minutes of music on this release, and another half hour on The Uncovered Ruggles, Carl Ruggles’ influence is much greater than the amount of music he composed.

I first came across his music accidentally, stumbling on a documentary about him around 1982, broadcast on PBS. Michael Tilson-Thomas, who conducted the Columbia recordings, was in the documentary, and while I don’t remember anything about it now, the opening chords of Sun-treader, Ruggles’ longest work, at around 16 minutes, had me heading for a record store the next day. Sun-treader is to orchestral music what Ives’ Concord Sonata is to piano music, but much shorter and more concentrated. Harsh and dissonant, it is a powerful work, full of the energy of the iconoclast. Men and Mountains, at around 12 minutes in 3 movements, has a similar tone, with pounding tympani and strident brass. Portals, a 6+ minute work for string orchestra, burns with incisive chords. And Evocations, a four-movement work for orchestra (along with an earlier piano version) follow in the same vein.

Ruggles’ orchestral work is powerful and uncompromising. His piano music has that Ivesian other-worldliness. He is dissonant, contrapuntal, yet the dissonance doesn’t shock; his music is aggressive; his voice is unique, and his sound world original. It’s a shame he didn’t compose more. He did, however, create hundreds of paintings, and was apparently a mean son of a bitch, with racist and anti-semitic tendencies.

The works are presented here in chronological order, and one can hear the evolution in Ruggles’ music as his technique got denser and more ecstatic. From the early songs to later orchestral works, by way of two versions of Evocations (the original for piano, and the later orchestral arrangement), Ruggles’ limited oeuvre is breathtaking and original. Almost entirely short works – Sun-treader is 16 minutes long, and there are three works in the 6-7 1/2 minute range – this music is concentrated and uncompromising. No other composer who wrote so little music is as important as Carl Ruggles.

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