Music Professor Wins Award for Baseball Book

Release Date: January 20, 2006

BUFFALO -- Timothy Johnson has been a baseball fan all of his life, ever since he played the game as a kid growing up in New Hampshire.

But music theorists don't often get to rub elbows with luminaries in the world of baseball, so it was a true honor for Johnson, visiting Frederick and Alice Slee Professor of Music Theory at UB, to receive The Sporting News-SABR Baseball Research Award from the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR).

Johnson was recognized for his book, "Baseball and the Music of Charles Ives: A Proving Ground" (Scarecrow Press, 2004), which explores the role of the national pastime in the life of composer Charles Ives and its influence on his groundbreaking music.

The two other works that received SABR awards in 2005 were a guide for pitchers by Bob Neyer and Bill James -- an ESPN reporter and Boston Red Sox consultant, respectively -- and an encyclopedia of international baseball by Peter Bjarkman, also known as "Doctor Baseball."

"I was the only sort of professional musician who went, I'm sure," Johnson says. "It's great to be getting the same award as these great baseball scholars."

Johnson gave a speech and received the award during a banquet held during the annual SABR convention in Toronto last August. Attendees included professional ballplayers and the general manager of the Toronto Blue Jays. He also got a chance to take in a Blue Jays-Yankees game at the Rogers Centre, formerly known as SkyDome, with about 400 members of SABR -- true baseball devotees.

Johnson says the idea to explore the connection between Ives and baseball first came to him in about 1998. "It started out small," he remembers. "I wondered why no one had ever looked at Charles Ives and baseball."

What started as an article quickly grew into a book after a weekend of research at the National Baseball Library and Archive at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

Several of Ives' pieces contain handwritten notes that Johnson says reveal that the composer drew inspiration from baseball plays and players for some of the most innovative works of the 20th century.

Ives is known as one of the first composers to use cluster chords, Johnson says. In one score, an orchestra plays all but one note. As the notes fade, a trumpet comes in to supply the missing note. Ives' handwritten note in the margin of the score reads: "Hit 'em where they ain't, Willie." Johnson explains this is a reference to "Wee Willie" Keeler, a diminutive baseball player known not for the strength of his swing, but for his ability to hit the ball where the outfielders were not.

Notes on a second unfinished score reveal a musical depiction of a play between centerfielder Mike Donlin and second baseman Johnny Evers. Johnson says other works assign instruments to various "characters," such as an umpire, coach and players.

One work, entitled "All the Way Around and Back," rises toward a crescendo and then reverses to depict a runner returning to home after a long fly ball turns foul. The piece is significant because it is the first known composition written as a "complete palindrome," Johnson points out.

"Ives came up with new musical ideas based on the pictures he was trying to create," he says.

Ives also used baseball to relate his work to friends and family outside the world of music. He was better known during his lifetime as a successful insurance businessman, rather than a composer, Johnson adds.

He says his publisher was unsure at first if the book had an audience outside of musicians and music theorists. However, while some parts get fairly technical, he says, "I think baseball fans clearly are interested in it -- that's what this award says.

"I tried to be inclusive…I tried to put it into words that could be understood by a non-specialist," he adds.

Last semester, Johnson taught "Charles Ives: Compositional Techniques and Cultural Contexts" to a select group of UB graduate students. The course, which examined the influence of turn-of-the-20th-century experiences on Ives, included several weeks on baseball, he says. Other influences, such as politics, evangelical religion and war, were covered as well.

Johnson, who received his doctorate from UB, is associate professor of music theory, history and composition at Ithaca College. He continues at UB for the spring semester as the Slee Professor of Music Theory, the oldest fully endowed chair of music theory in the country.

He says one of his mentors at UB, the late John Clough, held the Slee chair for more than 20 years.

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