Thomas Buckner only interprets living composers. An expressive, theatrical baritone (and the grandson of IBM founder Thomas Watson) who's part performer, part perpetual student, part impresario and 100 percent avant-garde, he's sung the modern operas of Robert Ashley and jammed with synthesizers, electronic-music environments, computer screens, sculptures, all manner of real-time musicians and such seminal figures of the jazz vanguard as Roscoe Mitchell and Henry Threadgill. But Buckner, in town this week with pianist Joe Kubera to perform an all-Ives program at Cameron Church, makes an exception for composer Charles Ives, who died in 1954. He has his reasons.
"Ives is the fountainhead for experimental American music," Buckner notes with obvious admiration. He first encountered the Ives catalogue while still in college in the early '60s, through a single song, "Evening," that he found at the back of an art-song anthology. "My goodness, I didn't know music could be like that!" he recalls of the discovery. "I went to Schirmer's to buy more Ives music, and the young music student behind counter said to me, 'what are you wasting your time with this amateur for?' Of course, that made me more determined than ever to find more of Ives's music." And he's since sung every Ives song that fits into his vocal range.
Sadly, Buckner feels Ives is still "virtually ignored" at the turn of the millennium, overshadowed by the accomplishments of fellow twentieth-century American composer Aaron Copland, whose one-hundredth-birthday anniversary was celebrated in 2000. Ives was "the musical equivalent of a Sunday painter." A musical prodigy discouraged by the reaction of the status quo to his unusual polytonal compositions, he decided while still a student that he'd go into business rather than struggle with the financial inconsistencies of the artist's life. Crippled in a way by his own iconoclastic artistry, an extremely personal oeuvre that went against the rules of his day, Ives "never heard a performance of his own music he didn't pay for himself."
Ives had no illusions about making art. "He believed artists should get their hands dirty, that art was no ivory tower," Buckner says. And Ives's songs reflected his everyday life: Buckner describes Ann Street, a song in his all-Ives repertoire that refers to a tiny street off Wall Street where Ives walked to work each day as an insurance entrepreneur, as an example: "It's wonderful! It starts with a singer shouting 'Bro-o-adway!' and then the piano plays a huge traffic jam."
Natural and unaffected, it's the hubbub of such compositions that makes them so distinctly American in nature. And in order to express that character, Ives purposely chose the road less traveled.
Like Ives, Buckner upholds tradition even as he bucks it. His voice, he admits, will always be a work in progress, and his search for material that fits it will never veer from the cutting edge. So what's left in his freeform frontier? Well, the irons in his fire are thick and hot, though Buckner likes the organic approach -- he finds things, things find him: "You must keep open and keep looking and say no to the things that keep you off the track." And above all, he hopes the works he commissions for recital continue to blaze new trails. No retreads, please -- that's fine for someone else: "I like to do stuff that might be a contribution."