Charles Ives Featured Image

Discover: Charles Ives’s Microtonal Music and “Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke”

Eric LaRocca novella cover image

Eric LaRocca’s novella, “Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke”, is just one of the books that make a great first impression: as soon as one eyes the description’s tagline and glimpses the disturbing cover, they will most likely want to read it, if only to have an opinion on it at the end. The sort of Internet fiction that recalls both the writing of Christine Love and the weirdest side of Japanese literature, it is extremely popular on TikTok and Instagram, and we dare say it’s one of those controversial books that truly lives up to its reputation.

With a very clear, concise and unassuming prose, able to conjure up vivid, at times extremely horrifying imagery, the book is a hard one to put down once you realize what it is, and why it might be so gripping in the first place. Starting out as an exchange of emails around an ad titled “ANTIQUE APPLE PEELER WITH VIBRANT HISTORY FOR SALE“, posted on queer-list.org in 2000 by user agnes_in_wonderland_76 (in true Internet fiction-style, that site, and said ad both exist, with queer-list.org itself possibly originating from a real website claiming to be “a classified ads website for the gay community”), the novella’s first chapter sees Agnes attempting to sell the antique apple peeler in order to make rent, in the wake of her family cutting ties with her once she came out to them over the phone.

Enter Zoe Cross, a rich girl who sends Agnes 1000$ in her account, telling her to keep the apple peeler, essentially becoming her guardian angel and encouraging her to come out of her shell. But is she really an angel? What is hiding behind Zoe’s benevolent facade?

The novella starts out found-footage-style, by telling the reader that the emails and instant messages contained within are documents from an ongoing police investigation concerning Agnes and Zoe. That’s a great way to grab a reader’s attention from the start, and LaRocca makes the whole novella seem like a data leak. The word [redacted] is used to great effect in certain paragraphs, essentially hiding parts of descriptions which might affect the reader’s impartiality – that’s right: you, the reader, are judge and jury while reading “Things Have Gotten Worse”, and the slightly strange, disaffected way in which these two young women talk is just the first of the many red flags to come.

Perhaps one of the most inspired moves the novella pulls in its starting chapter is connecting the narrative to Charles Ives, referred to as “one of Connecticut’s most famous composers”. In the story, Ives is said to have used the apple peeler shortly after winning the Pulitzer Prize and is the main reason for the “vibrant history” behind it.

Born in 1874, Charles Ives was dubbed “the father of American Experimentalism” because of his many compositions using dissonance and quarter-tones. Ives was a political idealist, advocating for the abolishing of slavery and the issue of low-value war bonds. On top of that, he connected the “emancipation of dissonance” (freeing the structure of music from the familiar harmonic patterns) with the emancipation of society and humanity.

One important Ives-related topic, especially in the context of LaRocca’s novella, is that of microtonal music. Essentially able to overlap with atonal music (music without a tonal center, with every note on the scale functioning independently), microtonal music is, in layman’s terms, music that uses notes “between the keys” of our standard, twelve equally spaced notes of an octave.

The twelve notes in an octave on a piano

To understand what a “microtone” is, let’s refer to the semitone for a bit: an octave is the distance between any two notes with the same name (in the above image, between two Cs). An octave is formed of 12 semitones. Western music has essentially adopted the system of equal temperament: these semitones have the same pitch difference in the ear.

The average human does not have a perfect pitch, however.  Humans can hear anywhere from 20 to 20,000 Hz, and differentiating between some of the pitches can be extremely hard. Quoting from a recent Arts on a Brain article, “Microtones are musical notes, or music intervals,  smaller than semitones. This means anything from quarter tones and onwards. The interesting thing about microtones is that for most people when they hear it, it sounds out of tune or uncomfortable.

While that article mentions Jacob Collier’s ‘negative harmony‘, there’s also a very interesting article instructing readers on how to make their own microtonal music, and other ones on how microtonal twists of popular subgenres – like lo-fi hip-hop – have been around for quite some time. If you read about it, you can see that there are multiple ways of solving the problem (our favorite approach would be seeing it purely as a matter of pitch and the use of a MIDI instrument in any DAW, like this wonderful “Intro to Microtonal” article mentions twice, giving you all the terminology, and the software needed to be the newest microtonal sensation.)

One of the most interesting articles on microtonal music and its reemergence in the 1970s is “Staying On Key In A Microtonal World“, by Frank J. Oteri, which really make it sound like the amazing discovery it can be for the first-time listener.

Coming back to Charles Ives and “Things Have Gotten Worse”, two themes that describe both are the dissonance, and the willingness for liberation. Composers like Ives have sought to liberate music and society from archaic systems, and the two young women in LaRocca’s novella use the early World Wide Web as a place in which they can truly be themselves, for better or worse.

In the early 2000s, the WWW was seeing larger use, but it was still in its ‘Web 1.0’ days – far from the big-tech, standards and data-driven, search engine-centric, counter-culture-averse place it is now. There was a form of social media already (classmates.com, LiveJournal), but most people were just starting to learn HTML and email etiquette. There was IRC and the rise of Internet forums. Even for the people who grew up during those Wild-West days, “Things Have Gotten Worse” will still surprise in just how fast things go south, and the extremes LaRocca goes to in order to depict the “danse macabre” between its two traumatized protagonists (here is where we should list a couple of trigger warnings: there is animal abuse, child abuse, depression, sadomasochism, gaslighting and grooming – a term which the recent Amazon series, “Cruel Summer”, dutifully illustrated). But really, the dissonance provided by what the expectations are, the vaguely-defined setting and the careful, almost eerie language used by the two women compared to the flurry of disturbing imagery that follows, that is certainly the novella’s selling point. If we compare the writing to that of a musical composition, it would be a series of “false” notes expertly strung together, with the odd harmony, cadence and pause thrown in – a horrific account written in a way that feels, at the very least, extremely unsafe.

That is the reason why the book polarized the reading world – on Goodreads, it has a “perfect 3” score – some users slam it and call it “lesbian trauma-porn”, others praise the addictive elements and the overall effect, while many just say it’s a good read, but it needs work, because of there not being room for the proper exploration of the characters’ headspace, or the overall lack of nuance. Indeed, the novella is one point of escalation after another, and just invites controversy, much in the same way that the ’90s PC game Harvester did. But beyond that, there is just the feeling of utter terror after the ending of the second chapter, the one that comes with lack of sleep and extreme anxiety: a web of discrete, intimate short sentences trying to convey the protagonists finding their footing in an increasingly surreal, existential dread-inducing, disconnected world-inside-a-world of their own making. In this world, the rules are firmly set and the consequences for breaking them are dire, but the boundaries are blurry – all themes that post-WWII Japanese writers have also tackled, to great success. (The novella will probably resonate to a number of readers familiar with both Murakamis, or Osamu Dazai, Kazuo Ishiguro, Banana Yoshimoto, Hitomi Kanehara or even cult writers like Junji Ito or Project Itoh. All of them have approached disaffection, violence as a means of resisting a world perceived as being unfair, self-harm and abuse in their writing. However, LaRocca describes his work more like “a cross between JG Ballard and David Cronenberg and Dennis Cooper”, which might not entirely be that far from an apt comparison either).

At this point, seeing why listening to Charles Ives while reading the novella is almost a must: it is “companion music” for the writing in every sense of the word, sometimes the title and mood of a composition eerily matching the plot’s progress. If you haven’t clocked out by now, here’s our listening guide for when reading “Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke”:

“The Unanswered Question” (Chapter One)

One of, if not THE most famous of Ives’s works, “The Unanswered Question” is described as following: “a solo trumpet poses “The Perennial Question of Existence”, to which a woodwind quartet of “Fighting Answerers” tries vainly to provide an answer, growing more frustrated and dissonant until they give up.” This is keeping in-tune with what happens in chapter one of the book: a young woman posts an ad, asking a question, and another answers the ad, but not really the question itself. There is a huge chasm between what the question was and the resolution itself. Agnes’s life is changed, and the two characters exchange stories related to their families and strike up a valuable, but asymmetrical friendship, only foreshadowing the extreme tonal shift of the following chapter.

Three Quarter-Tone Pieces (Chapter Two)

At this point, the relationship between Agnes and Zoe is still in its early stages, but odd topics are already making their way in, such as witnessing one’s own burial, or the tagline “what have you done today to deserve your eyes”? It would be swell to have Ives’s microtonal “Three pieces” hang over the story like a thin veil – “Largo” prefiguring the shift in power balance, “Allegro” piercing the veil with its sudden strikes of dissonant piano, and the ending of “Chorale” matching the reader’s incredulity: are you really hearing this? Are you really reading this?

Concord – 1. Emerson (Chapter Three, first half)

“Concord” is another of Ives’s most famous works, and Emerson concerns the theme of transcendentalism. Transcendentalism was “a movement of writers and philosophers in New England who were loosely bound together by adherence to an idealistic system of thought based on a belief in the essential unity of all creation, the innate goodness of humanity, and the supremacy of insight over logic and experience for the revelation of the deepest truths.” We believe this is the best fit for the start of chapter three, where the relationship between Agnes is Zoe is defined by the newly agreed-upon bond between them, with Agnes perceiving Zoe as a savior and ready to accept assignments from her. Those assignments start out as blend of the spiritual (spirituality was a major theme of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s works) and the profane, concoted by Zoe in order to instill a permanent change in Agnes, to “liberate” her. As we get a glimpse of Zoe’s real darkness, it becomes clear that she might not be anything more than a predator who has found her perfect prey.

Central Park In The Dark (Chapter Three, last half)

Again, one of Ives’s famous works is an excellent match for the moral dilemma Agnes finds herself pondering at the end of Chapter Three, “Salamander in the Park”. With night approaching, she debates whether she should take a life in order to please Zoe, and Ives puts the listener in a special place, alternating spectral strings and quiet with a panic-inducing last half consisting of piano stabs that grow in frightful intensity. This is simply unlike anything you’ve heard before, and the point of the book where Ballard’s brand of hallucinatory madness starts to creep in.

Universe Symphony (Chapters Four and Five)

By now, you’re right where LaRocca wants you to be, so there is nothing that could match the terrifying feel of the writing and the presentation other than “Universe Symphony“, an unfinished work that has been posthumously reconstructed and performed both by L. Austin and Johnny Reinhard. The version we recommend is Reinhard’s, a truly apocalyptic composition that will maximize your reading enjoyment of the tension-filled final two chapters, with reviews citing that “it manages to capture the many contradictory facets of Ives“.

Some descriptions also say that “from its otherworldly opening bleat to a stalwart if unsettling march and final fade (…) a substantial realization of the composer’s visionary aims, the Universe Symphony is nothing short of spectacular“, call it “loud yet intimate, (…) nontraditional, a huge sonic splash, grandiose“, and its reach “endless“. We feel that that is exactly what LaRocca aimed at while writing the novella’s final chapters – while the whole novella might be described as “microtonal”, with words and especially meanings “residing between usual words”, whether he succeeded or not at delivering a great finale is left entirely to the reader’s opinion.

Our job is done: we’ll leave you with “Universe Symphony” and those final chapters, and LaRocca’s novella might prove to be one of the finest horror movies in the near future, if one decides to incorporate Charles Ives’s music in order to enrich the story – one of the most unsettling explorations of the darkness inside the human soul – and provide a sonic soundscape that can rival those created by David Lynch, Peter Strickland, Robert Eggers or John Carpenter.

“Beauty in music is too often confused with something that lets the ear lie back in an easy chair. Many sounds that we are used to do not bother us, and for that reason we are inclined to call them beautiful. Frequently—possibly almost invariably—analytical and impersonal test will show that when a new or unfamiliar work is accepted as beautiful on its first hearing, its fundamental quality is one that tends to put the mind to sleep.” – Charles Ives

Featured Image is “Cognitive Dissonance” by Angelina Tamez.

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