Taruskin previews the premiere of Johnny Reinhard's new performing version
of Charles Ives' Universe Symphony.
Out of Hibernation, Ives’s Mythical Beast
by Richard Taruskin
One fine October Day in 1915, elated by the landscape of the Keene Valley in the Adirondacks, where he was visiting relatives, Charles Ives was seized with an artistic vision to set alongside Wagner’s “Ring.” He called it the “Universe in Tones” or “Universe Symphony.”
It would be “a striving,” as he called it, trying frantically to capture his conception in words, “to present and to contemplate in tones rather than in music as such, that is—not exactly written in the general term or meaning as it is so understood – to paint the creation, the mysterious beginnings of all things, known through God to man, to trace with tonal imprints the vastness, the evolution of all life, in nature of humanity, from the great roots of life to the spiritual eternities from the great unknown to the great unknown.”
Ever since the existence of this breathtaking if inscrutable plan was first made known – by the composer Henry Cowell and his wife Sidney Robertson Cowell in their Ives biography of 9155 – the “Universe Symphony” has haunted the history of American music like a mythical beast. On Thursday at Alice Tully Hall, as the culmination of the 15th American Festival of Microtonal Music, Ives’s unicorn will sing at last, in an hour long performance by a 70-piece orchestra that will have more flutists than violinists, and more percussionists than flutes, all under the direction of the composer Johnny Reinhard, the festival’s director.
Why the long wait? It is, alas, a typical Ives story: the most typical, indeed quintessential, Ives story of them all.
In 1915, at the age of 41, Ives was in the visionary prime of his life, bursting with a fantastic creative energy that was not only finding expression in radical musical ideas but was revolutionizing the insurance business as well. (He is remembered in the insurance world as the father of estate planning, and his training manual, “The Amount to Carry,” was still in use in the mid-1980’s) Over the next decade or so, sketches for the “Universe Symphony” accumulated. But during that same period, Ives’s health suffered serious reverses, and by the end of the 1920’s, he was living as a recluse on East 74th Street in Manhattan, no longer composing.
1932, aged 58 but altogether enfeeble, Ives dashed off a poignant memo in which he tried to summarize the progress he had made on his magnum opus. There would be three orchestras, the first consisting of nothing but percussion and representing “the pulse of the universe’s life bat.” The other two would divide the remaining instruments into high and low groups. And there would be three overlapping movements: The first (“Past”) would depict the formation of the waters and mountains; the second (“Present””) would represent “Earth, evolution in nature and humanity,” and the finale (“Future”) would portray “Haven, the rise of all to the spiritual.”
At the end of the memo, mixing pathos and bathos, Ives wrote, “I am just referring to the above because, in case I don’t get to finishing this, somebody might like to try to work out the idea, and the sketch that I’ve already done would make more sense to anybody looking at it with this explanation.
Ives hung on into his 80th year, an extinct creative volcano. By the time of his death in 1954, sporadic performances of his music – notably by the pianist John Kirkpatrick and the conductors Lou Harrison and Leonard Bernstein – had mad e his name a legend, but most of his works were left inaccessible to performers, in the form of unedited (and often barely legible) manuscripts. A dedicated team of Ives devotees, headed by Kirkpatrick, set about sorting, listing, copying, editing and publishing them. The project continues to this day, spearheaded by the Charles Ives Society, a consortium of scholars and music editors working in concert with the composer’s estate and the publishing house of Peermusic.
Yet despite the composer’s own urgent invitation to complete it, the “Universe Symphony” long rested undisturbed. Kirkpatrick, who made the first attempt to catalogue Ives’s musical legacy, judged that at least half of the sketches for the work were missing. The Cowells claimed that the piece was an early, grandiose example of “conceptual art,” never meant for performance at all. Ives’s psycho-analytical biographer, Stuart Feder, thought that the work was intentionally unfinishable, so that it could function for Ives as an enduring vicarious link with his revered father, George, a bandmaster and musical tinker, whose sterile musical imaginings it perpetuated.
An earlier performance version, by the composer Larry Austin (recorded on Centaur), supplemented authentic sketch material with original interpolations and speculative interpretations, some of them involving technologies (like electronic “click tracks” for coordinating complex rhythms) that were unavailable to Ives.
Mr. Reinhard, the work’s most recent realizer, convinced that Ives had in fact finished the piece and that the sketches were intact but out of order, resolved to assemble a performable version that added nothing to what Ives had left behind. His success in this undertaking has been recognized by the Charles Ives Society, which has said Mr. Reinhard may describe his version as “realized exclusively from Ives’s ‘Universe Symphony’ sketches.”
Artistically, of course, such an assurance counts for little. It appeals not to the artist but to the curator that lurks, for better or worse, within the soul of every 20th-century musician and music lover. In fact, even Mr. Reinhard’s version has its speculative side. To say this, however, is far from an aspersion. It is one of the things that give “realizations” their inevitable fascinating, whether we are talking Beethoven via Barry Cooper (the “10th Symphony”), Mahler via Deryck Cooke among others (also a “10th”) or the various works by Henry Cowell, Edgard Varèse of Harry Partch that Mr. Reinhard has “realized” for his festivals in the past.
What all of Mr. Reinhard’s realizations have in common is the “microtonal” aspect to which he has devoted his career. Microtones are often perhaps over narrowly defined as intervals or pitch differences smaller than a semitone, the smallest pitch discrimination that is regarded as meaningful in most Western music theory. The commonest way of splitting this musical atom is to divide it by two, producing “quarter tones.
One of the earliest experimenters with quarter tones, it so happens, was George Ives. According to his son, the elder Ives built various microtonal contraptions (one of them a box of violin strings with weights attached) to overcome the limitations of arbitrary theory and “enjoy an original relation to the universe,” as Ralph /Waldo Emersion, an Ivesian household god, once put it. For microtones, which we hear whenever we listen to “nonmusical” sounds, exist in unlimited unordered profusion in the untheorized world of nature. A music that incorporated microtones would be, in the Ivesian view, a more natural and “universal” music than one that limited itself to the stingy fare vouchsafed by official theory. Only such a music would give access to a truly transcendental experience, in Emersonian terms.
Ives’s whole career was a quest for such a greening experience: “my father’s song,” as he put it in a poem he once set to music. His father’s mechanical experiments provided him with a technical precedent, if not exactly a practical one.
Ives’s “universe in tones” would thus unfold through a chorus of transcendentally unified microtonal tunings: “some perfectly tuned correct scales, some well-tempered little scales, a scale of overtones with the divisions as near as determinable by acousticon, scales of smaller division than a semitone, scales of uneven division greater than a whole tone, scales with no octave, some of them with no octave for several octaves,” as he put it, bewilderingly, in his word salad of 1932. And yet all those scales would find their fundamental pitch in a single “fixed tone,” like A at the lower end of the piano keyboard.
What was missing was any description of the technical mans by which these state-of-nature scales would be produced. And so Mr. Reinhard has had to devise – yes, speculatively – the “overtone machine” and the adapted instruments that would supply the “perfectly tuned correct scales” whose notes fall in the cracks between the ntoe4s recognized by traditional unnatural music theory.
His solution, besides retuning a harp according to Ives’s specifications, was to adapt an electric guitar (the latter corresponding to Ives’s “acousticon”) to produce exactly measured intervals unavailable on ordinary instruments. These are most conspicuously displayed in the second section of the symphony. The third section, the one that depicts the transcendental ascent into the realm of spirit, features full orchestral chordal harmony in quarter tones.
The “acousticon” will be played at the concert by Jon Catler, with whom Mr. Reinhard has been collaborating since 1980, when both of them placed classified ads in different local papers to find microtonal playing partners and discovered each other. Mr. Reinhard, a bassoonist, had come out of the “quarter-tone” tradition, originally through contact with pupils of the composer and recorder virtuoso Tui St. George Tucker. Mr. Catler had come out of the “just-intonation” tradition associated with Harry Partch (and with a history going back through the Renaissance to the Greeks).
Where these traditions had been practiced in the 20th century mainly by mutually suspicious purists, Mr. Reinhard and Mr. Catler take an ecumenical, eclectic (shall we call it post-modern?) view of microtonal possibilities, one that gladly takes in microtonal manifestations in all kinds of contemporary music including blues, sci-fi soundtracks, rock and rap. And commercials, too. Mr. Reinhard points out with glee: “the old Oldsmobile car horn – da-dee-da-DEEE – had a ‘neutral’ third midway between major and minor, on top,” he reminded a caller.
Indeed, that horn signal was the futuristic emblem of the General Motors pavilion at the New York World’s Fair of 1939 in their Ivesian context, the microtones link the natural past with the spiritual, if not the commercial, future. To chalk up the coincidence as another coup for the Great Anticipator might seem trivial, but it symbolizes in its way a more significant anticipation. Ives’s omnivorous “Universe,” at least as mediated by Mr. Reinhard, foreshadows today’s musical scene in all its polymorphous perversity, its rejection of stinging theorizing and its reopening to universal possibility.
Charles Ives at the Stereo Society:
To Charles Ives' Stereo Society home page
Tradition And The Universe Symphony, by Johnny Reinhard
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