Carl Ruggles

At age 4, Charles Sprague ‘Carl’ Ruggles started learning the violin. Two years later, he built his first instrument. It was a ‘violin’ he had constructed from a cigar box. Three years later, he appeared as local prodigy in a concert given for President Cleveland. (On this occasion he used a real violin.) He went on to study at Harvard and afterwards directed the Winona Symphony Orchestra in Minnesota. He was throughout this time a reasonably successful, if unremarkable, professional musician, spending much of his time teaching.

And that’s about all we know about the young Carl Ruggles. He destroyed all the pieces he wrote at the time, which mostly consisted of trite parlour songs. But at about the age of 40, after failing to write a planned opera, he composed a little song for his son’s fourth birthday. Take a listen:

From Toys onward, Ruggles only composed this kind of dissonant, contrapuntal, modernist music. His output would total less than an hour-and-a-half’s worth of music. And let’s be honest, if he had produced twenty hours of this music instead of just one-and-a-half, it would probably be intolerable. His had one musical trick and he pretty much exhausted it.

And what was that musical trick, you say? Ruggles was minimalist of sorts. We always use the term ‘minimalist’ to refer to Steve Reich et al. But their music is extremely busy. When we use the word ‘minimalist’ to describe it, we actually mean it lacks movement, mainly harmonic movement. It is motionless music. The real, literal minimalists are the composers whose aesthetic desire was to be as austere as possible. Ruggles went by the principle that there must be absolutely no excess notes. He would therefore write each piece excruciatingly slowly, spending possibly weeks writing many iterations of a single bar.

He adapted this style to the compositional method of dissonant counterpoint (not unique to Ruggles; Ruth Crawford Seeger used it too, and her work is well worth checking out). Counterpoint is quite simply one musical line against another. Traditionally, one studies counterpoint so as to make simultaneous musical lines sound harmonious. Dissonant counterpoint is an academic exercise in doing the exact opposite. So when coupled with his ideal of simplicity (especially compared to his fellow modernists), Ruggles is, in a way, the anti-Palestrina.

The interesting thing about dissonant counterpoint, as opposed to many other 20th century musical systems, is that you are guaranteed to have some consonance, in the same way you are guaranteed to get dissonance in Bach. Ruggles’ music can actually be quite beautiful. Angels is my favourite piece. Before listening, I should also point out another main component of Ruggles’ music, that he generally avoided repeating a note until a certain number had passed. The later his works, the more severe this got. Angels is peculiar in that it partially discards the principle of no pitch class repetition. (Notice the Bb repeats in bars 2 and 4 on the second trumpet; and the C repeats in bars 5 and 7 on the first trumpet). And because he’s not using a deliberately atonal system like twelve-tone serialism, there is always the slight hint of a root note. One could argue, as composer Lou Harrison did, that Angels is in Ab major.

The last characteristic of Ruggles music is the wave-like structure, with its huge dynamic swells. The result is music that sounds massive — almost tectonic. And the pieces are even more powerful given that most have a strong pulse. Below is Men and Mountains. At the premiere, fellow composer and his good friend Charles Ives reportedly chastised a heckler, shouting ‘you God damn sissy … when you hear strong masculine music like this, get up and use your ears like man’.  The piece has another connection to Charles Ives. Listen to the violent third movement, ‘Marching Mountains’, and at the end you’ll hear the Beethoven 5 rhythmic motif on the brass. Of course, Ives was obsessed with this, what he would consider ‘masculine’ theme, making it central to his great Concord Sonata. 

Nicolas Slominsky describes ‘Marching Mountains’ as ‘growing more discordant with every bar, scaling heights, plumbing depths, proclaiming polysyllabical millennia’. The unfavourable take, as one critic described another Ruggles work, Sun-Treader, is that the music sounds like ‘bowel constrictions in an atonal Tristanesque ecstasy’. Take your pick:

There has been something of a cult of personality developed around Ruggles. He was undoubtedly a character. He would write his scores with coloured crayons on large sheets of heavy butcher’s paper spread across the floor. You’ll often see him described as stubborn, temperamental or irascible. And he was undoubtedly an unpleasant man at times, with many accounts justly describing him as anti-Semitic and racist. (Though other accounts also depict him as a charming and likeable.)

There are plenty of anecdotes about Ruggles. A particularly delightful one was told by composer Henry Cowell:

One morning when I arrived at the abandoned school house in Arlington where he [Ruggles] now lives, he was sitting at the old piano, singing a single tone at the top of his raucous composer’s voice, and banging a single chord at intervals over and over. He refused to be interrupted in this pursuit, and after an hour or so, I insisted on knowing what the idea was. “I’m trying over this damned chord,” said he, “to see whether it still sounds superb after so many hearings.” “Oh,” I said tritely, “time will surely tell whether the chord has lasting value.” “The hell with time!” Carl replied. “I’ll give this chord the test of time right now. If I find I still like it after trying it over several thousand times, it’ll stand the test of time, all right!”

Ruggles got the idea of dissonant counterpoint from Henry Cowell, who in turn got it from Ruth and Charles Seeger. There seems to have been a close relationship between American composers of the time. Ruggles, Cowell and the Seegers would even gather to sing folk songs in loft of Thomas Hart Benton.

Ruggles was good friends with Benton too, such that Benton painted a remarkable portrait of him. Titled The Sun-Treader, the portrait has to be among the best of any composer. The pouting lower lip, the curl of the eyebrows, the meditative look, the disorderly, slouching scores, the way he’s tucked away in the corner of a room, and the heaviness of his clothes’ fabrics. It’s brilliant:


Ruggles found composing painfully difficult. Throughout his life he was also a painter, and this came much more naturally to him. Nevertheless, his character was such that he felt compelled to take the harder path. When he stopped composing in the late 1940s and retired to Vermont, he spent much of his time on abstract paintings until his death in 1971. An example, Flowers:


Although he had stopped composing, he did write a little hymn, Exaltation, when his wife died in 1958. It isn’t like his other works. It’s essentially tonal but with several Ivesian wrong notes. Nor does it follow the dissonant counterpoint or ‘wave’ structure of all his other available work. It’s a nice piece, with an effective humming section at the end:


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