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Delivering Charles Ives’ Universe Symphony
by Johnny Reinhard
Charles Ives (1875-1954) has long been America’s most prominent symphonist, his Fourth Symphony being arguably superior to all subsequent achievements of his compatriots. However, with his Universe Symphony the composer took a quantum leap. With its embodiment in this recording, the first commercial release of the Reinhard Realization, we hear many strikingly original compositional gestures. The result of extensive new research, this realization does not add any new notes to those already found in the extant sketches (as attested to by the Ives Society), nor does it presume to change the composer’s declared instrumentation. This extraordinary piece, which as we can now see was envisaged clearly by Ives, is truly shocking in its originality.
Some readers may now be confused: ‘weren’t there earlier recordings called the Universe Symphony?’ True to a point. An earlier recording bearing its name seems to me more an original work of a different composer (Larry Austin), who uses elements of Ives’s imagination as grist for his compositional mill. To be realized as Ives might have wished, the Universe Symphony demanded a curator, an arbiter who accepted Ives’ (very detailed) instructions at face value. My actual contributions to the score are far less than those implied by the wealth of information furnished by a great composer desperate to have his piece finished because he was lacking the necessary physical strength to accomplish the task, himself.
Typically, a symphony orchestra is an ensemble of paired woodwinds, brass, strings playing doubled parts, and a tight percussion unit of up to four musicians. The Universe Symphony departs dramatically from such convention. Ives described the piece more in terms of the ‘painting of Creation’ and ‘not music as such.’ This enormous piece prescribes a multitude of nine flutes (each with its own individual part), two oboes, five bassoons (two doubling contrabassoon) and three clarinets (one doubling bass clarinet), but relatively few strings: just eight violins, five violas, four celli, and three double basses. Only the brass section echoes the Romantic orchestral tradition (albeit enlarged): five trumpets, four horns, four trombones and two tubas. Keyboards include piano, organ and celesta. For the Universe Symphony’s first performance, on June 6, 1996 in Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center in New York City, fourteen percussionists were required to play the scored parts, creating a huge spectrum of percussive color.
While a symphony is usually divided into three or four movements with breaks of silence between them, the Universe is divided into three broad sections, each preceded by a prelude of varying length. The opening overture-like fragments introduce motifs of the three conceptual orchestras which comprise this full symphony orchestra ensemble - Pulse of the Cosmos, Earth Orchestra, and Heavens Orchestra – which eventually combine for a powerful 64 minutes, juxtaposing unbridled chaos with scintillatingly scrutinized and organized repose. The very structures of tradition have been turned on their metaphysical ears. A once-recognizable 4/4 compound beating of time -- marked Largo -- is subverted to a quarter note at a metronome marking of 30. Since there is no actual practical metronome marking produced that low, this is a very slow pulse indeed.
The Universe Symphony contains the ground-breaking structure of a rhythmic grid defined purely by percussion, called the Pulse of the Cosmos and based on repeating time frames equivalent to 16 seconds (called ‘Basic Units’, or BUs). Prelude #1 features percussion almost exclusively and is a full half-hour in length. As if a force of nature, it continues throughout the remainder of the piece. Astonishingly to an observer, the primary conductor’s two-second beat rarely connects visually with actual hits of percussion or with the attack of most any other instrument. That’s the virtue of prime numbers: Ives designated a different percussion instrument for each distinct subdivision of the 16-second time frame by invoking different denominators, even thirteen and 43 (see List of Percussion, below), an extraordinary device through which sections are heard coming in and out of focus as they pursue their particular rhythmic direction.
The full work contains ten cycles of percussion, sequentially augmenting with the addition of one timbre at a time which, after climax, are deleted symmetrically to wind down to a single low bell followed by the remaining silence of that BU. Ives developed his cycling percussion polyrhythms as early as 1913, to judge by his earliest jottings for the Universe Symphony. He then worked out very clearly a set of cross meters, each with its own polyrhythms, to model programmatically the growth and the intricacy of the universe. The other instruments are mapped over the undulating pulsations of the percussion.
Unusual sonorities sought by Ives include a ‘just intonation machine,’ an alternatively tuned harp, a pail to be dropped rhythmically onto a wooden box (once a second in Cycle I and rhythmically transmogrified in Cycle X), quartertonally-adjusted timpani, and a peculiar indication for a ‘marble slab,’ (which was included in the free cadenza for percussion in Cycle VII). For this recording, a guitar was adapted to play a sustained harmonic series-based chord. There are some truly distinctive performance activities: the harpist switches instruments to change tuning midway through the piece, reverting later. The low timpani raises its A to an A quarter-sharp in Cycle II, whereas the piccolo timpani lowers from an E to an E quarter-flat in Cycle III. The marble slab, making much more aural sense when amplified, provides an exciting ‘finish’ over the improvised percussion cadenza in Cycle VII.
The full orchestra enters with Cycle IV. Lower pitched instruments constitute the Earth Orchestra. Flutes, violins, violas, a stray clarinet, a set of pitched bells, and a celesta are placed in their own respective time zones to star in the spatially distinct Heavens Orchestra. In this special musical reality, the Universe Symphony juxtaposes these three conceptually distinct orchestras, grouped by their particular range, timbre, and unique rhythmic scheme, designed by Ives to depict together the magnitude and splendor of our physical universe. The quarter note is now equal to the metronome marking of 45. There are now three measures in the Heavens Orchestra set against the Earth Orchestra’s two.
Far-reaching musical intentions are a familiar feature of Charles Ives’s work. His Universe Symphony, which when compared with some of his other symphonic works is uncharacteristically devoid of outside musical quotes, is a large-scale, uninterrupted programmatic work that still remains curiously abstract. Ives’s other symphonic works are not numbered conventionally, as with the Holiday’s Symphony, Three Places in New England (also known as Orchestral Set #1) and Orchestral Set #2.
The finished score was devised after studying the extant Universe Symphony sketches, a task made a lot more practicable thanks to a faithful reworking of Ives’s handwritten manuscript by former Yale Music Librarian, John Mauceri, now an internationally recognized conductor. With additional conscientious collecting of sketches prepared by Todd Vunderink (Peermusic), it became possible finally to complete the working score and to extract the necessary parts for the composition’s first ever concert performance. Some of the best and brightest musicians of the New York area performed the 1996 Lincoln Center world première, for which I conducted the assembled ‘American Festival of Microtonal Music Orchestra.’
This recording is a radical solution to a radical composition, and places the creative hopes of its composer in clear perspective. There has never been any doubt that Ives desperately wanted someone to finish his piece, which had proved beyond his own physical strength. The words in his published memo on the Universe Symphony, written earlier still for inclusion in a personal scrapbook, are clear:
I took this invitation at face value. Less imaginative critics might be quick to disregard the practicality of such a venture. They could always say, ‘the piece is in ”pieces,” likely subject to its ”sketchy nature.”’ However, once gathered together and put into order in a loose-leaf fashion, specific and detailed directions clearly point the way through the considerable practical concerns into a dramatically new world, a universe of detail. For those claiming that too much material was irretrievably lost for the piece to ever be fully completed, this recording is ample contradiction. There is nothing missing. All turned out to have been providentially provided by the composer.
Although anyone encountering Ives’s world will be used to the unexpected, the general tuning scheme for the symphony is, surprisingly, not conventional 12-tone equal temperament. Ives learned early on from his father George, a Civil War bandmaster and inveterate music experimenter, that one could vary and improve upon standard musical tuning. Introduced to Hermann Helmholtz’s acoustic landmark On the Sensations of Tone (translated into English by Alexander J Ellis), Charles Ives was provided with an alternative microtonal interpretation of music notation and tuning, an attractive substitute for the conventional practice of straight equal temperament.
Orchestral intonation eventually settled on equal temperament in the twentieth century, but the road to this convention was not paved with equal sized stones. Performance evolved its own pitches. Once the Classical period threw off the continuous use of the harpsichord continuo as a foundation, the preferred tuning of an ensemble was an extended sixth-comma meantone. The enharmonic notes (or ‘chromatic pairs’), which necessarily sound identical on the keyboard, provide far more distinctive expression. C# differs from Db and music is the beneficiary. Which note was to be played higher changed and exchanged as Western European music developed.
As they listen and make their intonation on the fly, string players now tend to play sharps higher, following the tradition of the pure fifth tuning of its open strings, giving a sharper third as the result of adding four fifths and subtracting the octaves. Confusingly, brass players prefer the reverse interpretation owing to the natural overtone series basis of their instruments, which gives a smaller major third interval resulting from the distance between the fourth and fifth harmonics.
Ellis had applied the principle of the spiraling of perfect fifths as the basis for an extended Pythagorean tuning through 26 perfect fifths . Ellis successfully made the historical case that musical staff notation had been invented for both Just Intonation-based tunings (as with meantone tuning), and Pythagorean interpretations (as with modern equal temperament), with a distinct difference of meaning between sharps and flats. Notational speculations by Ellis were an invitation for the young Charles Ives to use alternative interpretations of musical notation for his original music. When we calculate the scale in ‘cents,’ the logarithmic scale for intervals invented by Ellis, there are 1200 cents to an octave. In the equal-tempered scale, each semitone is a precise multiple of 100 cents, and the ‘chromatic pair’ of Bb and A# are not distinguished from each other. The extended Pythagorean scale used in this recording can be expressed in cents (see table at right).
The term ‘extended’ refers to the generation of a higher number of perfect fifths necessary to satisfy Ives’s desire for a sound palette with more chromatic relationships. Chromaticism achieved through extended Pythagorean tuning offers listeners both greater consonance and richer dissonance when compared with conventional 12-tone equal temperament. Ironically, this more harmonious tuning contradicts the old Ivesian image of a jealous composer gleefully adding ever greater levels of dissonance in order to appear more of a musical pioneer than was true. His tonal approach to the Universe is curiously easy on the ear, as we found when working long hours in the studio.
Treating Ives’s notation as implying extended Pythagorean tuning results in twenty-one distinct pitches. By simply connecting pure perfect fifths (at 702 cents, rather than that of the pedestrian equal-tempered fifth of 700 cents), one moves from a closed and fixed set of 12 notes to an infinite spiraling which produces a different value for each spiral and, consequently, its corresponding note’s pitch. The aural results truly reward the care taken to get to the heart of Ives’s intonational aim.
Ives was forever annoyed with editors for taking liberties with his notation spellings, and there are several examples in the historical record. The discussion of an Ives acoustic plan is prominent in a 1944 letter written (in his wife’s hand) about a planned publication of his Violin Sonata #3. Poor Charles was by this time unable to draw even a simple straight line as a result of compounding health problems. Addressing music editors Sol Babitz and Ingolf Dahl, Harmony Ives diplomatically tried to ensure that the final music notation remained as the composer had indicated, particularly chromatic spellings. Editors wanting to change Ives’s intended notation is a recurrent irritation in his life. As stated clearly in the letter:
Ever the idealist, Ives strongly insisted that notated sharps were to be heard higher in pitch when compared with their respective flat counterparts for a majority of his later music. In the idealized situation, there is about an eighthtone distance between a notated C# and a Db.
Another clue dropped by Ives about his optimal tuning preference is the instruction that an Fb should be interpreted as an eighthtone flatter than the nearest E natural. This is indeed the case with Pythagorean tuning. Although Ives does not appear to have ever used the term ‘Pythagorean’ itself, based on an examination of his writings he does indeed cover all the requisite criteria for intending a Pythagorean tuning model.
Recent American Festival of Microtonal Music performances of Ives’ compositions The Unanswered Question, String Quartet #2 and this release of the Universe Symphony provide an interesting backdrop to the composer’s chiding encouragement to get past the piano’s practical resignation of only 12 repeatable notes:
In order to play such pieces, woodwind players must develop and use different fingerings, or ‘grippings,’ to achieve accurate results. Brass players make embouchure adjustments and find ways to alter their instruments’ tube lengths. Obviously, strings can adjust most easily. The piano and the organ tuning in this recording use this same tuning model, as does the primary harp.
Having met the challenges of conducting a Lincoln Center première of great musical complexity, the more recent call to conduct and manage this mamm0oth work in a pioneering studio situation was a dream come true. Facing the limitations of a small space, which could allow only a few people to record at a time, I conducted an initial core of only four players: viola, cello, trombone and a Javanese gongageng for Ives’s requisite low bell (which is struck throughout all ten cycles on the downbeat of each BU). The initial core group performance was recorded in synchronized video and audio formats. Sessions followed to add further instruments, always synchronized with the original video Players heard relevant previously-recorded tracks through headphones.
In the live performance, a second conductor directed a separate ensemble, taking cues from the first. In the recording, a second video camera was synchronized with the first, the appropriate sequence then being played to guide each small recording ensemble. Over 120 layered tracks were eventually combined in the blended stereo mix that is this recording. Each instrumentalist played all of that instrument’s parts. Only 19 musicians perform the entirety of the Universe Symphony, which in real time requires 74 musicians and three conductors..
In the Universe Symphony, Ives explored a transcendental experience he could trace to one of his summer vacations in the Adirondack Mountains, seeking a musical representation of his visualizations on the Keene Valley plateau. He could be said to explore parallel processing, juxtaposing the sky and the ensuing heavens with the ground in the same gaze.. Ives transmuted this plateau experience into the Universe Symphony. A symphony worthy of the name ‘Universe’ would open the door to:
A full explanation of the piecing together of the Universe Symphony cannot be given justice in this (necessarily restricted) notes format, but is available from the author as a book, The Ives Universe.
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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