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Johnny Reinhard Talks About The Universe

Johnny Reinhard rounded out Charles Ives‘ set of symphonies when, after extensive fresh research, inspiration and perspiration into the master’s culminating work, he completed a new, definitive realization. He conducted the American Festival of Microtonal Music Orchestra in its premiere at Lincoln Center, June 6 1996.

The ‘father of American music’, Charles Ives was a tireless experimeter. This piece is the composer’s most ambitious, and his masterpiece. He begged others to finish it. Finally, Johnny Reinhard did.

Johnny was interviewed by Mike Thorne just before the Stereo Society’s release of its first published recording. At the Stereo Society, May 3 2005, nearly ten years later. Johnny reflects on the enormous task and some of the issues.

Universe Symphony album coverFor more background, see the links at the top of this page. The recording alone took four years to make. For Johnny, it was a 19-year journey.

We are proud to release the definitive, approved version of Charles Ives’ Universe Symphony. It’s ambitious, adventurous music. Like no other. Please explore it with our music-playing links around here. If you get the CD, you won’t be disappointed.

Johnny Reinhard in interview

by Mike Thorne

Mike Thorne: How much of an upstart did you feel when tackling this project?

Johnny Reinhard: Well, I didn’t feel very much different from the way I always feel, because all the work I have done in completing works which have been left insufficiently prepared for performance are on an equal level in my own mind. I guess I am aware that the outside world may have a different measuring stick in terms of what they are going to pay attention to.

My work with Mordecai Sandberg doesn’t get me the same attention as even the work I’ve done with Edgard Varèse. So with Charles Ives’ Universe Symphony, I guess the biggest surprise is the reactions that I am getting, which are powerful and from all directions. I’m grateful to have colleagues that I can work with and trust to get through the very tough periods, because this is already over a ten-year period project. I couldn’t walk away from this if I wanted to.

It’s the biggest of them all, but it’s really an extension of something you‘ve been doing for some time. How do you get into the mind of the composer in order to complete something that they’ve done?

Well, as Harry Partch used to say the orchestral player is the concert horse [in the concert ring]. We are soldiers marching to other people’s tunes. We’re trained as players, and I count myself as a player foremost, to represent as fully as possible the concepts of the composer; the aesthetic, the sentiment of the composers. There are differences, internationally and chronologically. So, with all of that going on in the player’s head, I took it as an extension to, I guess the term I like best is to ‘curate’ this piece as a certain responsibility.

Todd Vunderink of Peermusic [an Ives publisher] actually asked me once for a recording of my String Quartet, not so much for my quartet, just to make sure it didn’t sound anything like ‘my Universe Symphony‘. Well, since it’s not my ‘Universe Symphony‘ but Charles Ives’ Universe Symphony, that didn’t prove to be an issue at all.

How accurate can you think to be when you are realizing the wishes of another composer? The composers themselves might think there are different ways of solving a particular issue or concluding a situation. How accurate do you think it could be, or is this a very false word to use in any circumstance to do with music?

I do realize that there are buzz words in terms of historical performance and accuracy, with critics on all sides leveling accusations about even the appropriateness of that language. Whether it’s even something we should care about. Because we are all living in the modern age, why should we care about old instruments playing in an old vestigial style? Maybe it’s inappropriate to focus on that. So, I’m thinking, how do you balance that with months of late-night deduction of these Basic Units of Ives’ Universe Symphony, where I find myself in a place, and I was sure that I was lead to the right door, but then I didn’t know whether to make a right or a left.

Just the mental activity of the brain growing, which is apparently what happens in the heads of musicians, when we struggle with something we worked with in the past…so that we can develop the technique to follow through on what might seem ‘Herculean’ tasks, but it’s not so because that’s your profession. That’s what you do. I would come up with these answers that [demonstrated] clearly [that] I had changed metaphysical seats. And I was sitting in the seat, put there by Charles Ives. I mean, this is an open invitation – so I’m put there – to anybody.

The only attempt of this previously was a non-curated version. Lets put it that way. It ignored Ives’ designations of instruments. It disregarded his tempo choices, and avoided his aesthetics, at least in terms of click tracks, for instance. (The discussion about click tracks we can save for another time.)

What was the breakthrough in your mind, in finally seeing the large picture of what Ives had intended? What was the ‘Eureka!’ moment?

The Eureka! moment…for when…I don’t think I consciously hold a particular moment. But, on a particular page 16 of the [Universe Symphony] sketches, when I recognized that Ives had indicated a Heaven and Earth plug for a little piece that was missing. Peermusic said Ives had lost this little section, about 20 seconds of music. This is what was missing, okay, not anything else in the 74-minute work.

Here I find on page 16, where there’s no page 15, or 14, or 13, which is like a word processing trick, where you make a very high number page so you know its the end. So everyone who looks at it knows, ‘this has to be the end.’ And on this page, with this plug, and the Heaven and Earth, it was just made clear where it goes. In that section of Heaven and Earth, it made it clear that there were some formal implications. There’s no better time for a Eureka! than when the form has finally been determined.

It would have to be, I guess, when I saw these phrases by Ives in his writing, that said, “maybe we should hear the earth separate from the percussion, which then should be separate from the Heavens orchestra, before we hear everything put together at the same time.’ And I thought, ‘yes, indeed! What a great idea.’ Because the alternative that Ives had come up with was insufficient. And that was to listen to the whole piece played twice through, with a mental refocusing, first on the Earth, then on the Heaven.

Talk about wishful thinking, considering that the accomplishment of the piece wasn’t in a condition to be effected in his lifetime! How could he imagine, way before CDs existed, that you could even listen twice through such a long piece. Of course, there is The Ring by [Richard] Wagner which he was familiar with. But without text, an abstract work, with this mental strictness, is probably beyond anyone he ever knew.

The result of this noticing of these formal implications allows for a little bit of foreshadowing, almost in an overture-like way, the separate orchestras within an orchestra. Once I read that and I understood it, I reached a new level, I think, with the piece.

Many people have tried, both at Ives’ invitation and over and above Ives’ invitation. Why you?

I don’t think many people have tried, actually. There have been very few who have tried. Some were scared off by his handwriting, which is abysmal. And some by the virtuosity. Some scared off probably by Ives’ personality, because he had sort of a ‘hyper’ impression on people. I’ve never met him, of course. By reputation, he might have been bi-polar. He might have been explosive, he might have been a cranky Yankee. He might have been an old man with a cane that leered in and made people uncomfortable.

And there is the fact that no one could truly say that they understood his music while he was standing there. I doubt there is somebody who wants to stand forward, including myself, and say such a thing. I am being very careful in working with what is really new here, which is the Universe Symphony. To some degree it filters to some of his other piece. Since you know, that’s my work, I produce the work of many different composers, not just Ives. It’s only natural that we do works of Ives besides the Universe Symphony.

It’s a colossal undertaking. Would you have started if you had realized how long it was going to take? We’re now at over ten years, aren’t we?

Well, I guess I feel I should be candid and say, as a musician, I was more interested in making a difference than I was in making money, strange as that could sound to a modern. I had no idea how long it would take, nor did I expect the challenges that lay ahead. I might have hoped that it came together quicker. There are family members who told me I shouldn’t have done it, even after the fact. So that makes you realize that you should. That was confirming, actually. It kind of takes you over. It took me over (that’s the best way to way to put it). I was obsessed by it. And because I was able to make a living in a freelance world – whether it was music or corporate – I was able to pull it off, I guess.

The radical music had a radical method of recording which finally came through, and finally delivered something which reflects the power of the music. Do you think there is anything lacking in the layered recording approach to it that could have been achieved in the concert hall? Or do you think that the layered approach took the music much further than it could have done in a conventional recording situation?

I’ve come to the conclusion that people listen differently, and I certainly don’t listen the way other people do. I don’t put myself in a concert hall listening to my own music in the same place as I watch other composers and where they sit.

I don’t get the same information that other people do. In fact, I usually get a lot more. In a concert hall, one group [or section] can knock out another group’s playing. And the Alice Tully Hall, where we performed, is notorious for this. You can watch the violins playing and not hear a single one if the right combination of winds and brass are playing.

The experience following the live performance of all the players being in such different places (about where they were), in terms of how together it sounded, or didn’t; what the piece was intended to mean, or didn’t, how successful it was according to my score, or wasn’t, was off the wall. I was just stunned by the 180 degree opinion differences of the critics. Okay, I had a wonderful standing ovation. I felt good for doing it. I think the whole thing came out to $36,000 in cost. We actually got it paid up within two years. So, no debt still from there, so I have no real regrets. There was a big challenge at one time with the musician’s union, but we worked out something together. Everything was pretty good except for the miserableness of not having a commercial release.

Until now.

I’ve been a fan of layering since I first experienced Igor Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring.” Having been frustrated by the visual “dissonance” of player confusion in the premiere performance – as well as alternating “deer in the road” reactions from the other two conductors in the concert – I relished the idea of the high level of control I could have over the project. My live experiences conducting the score gave me a valuable physical memory imprint of the important conducting choreography needed for a studio dance.

Perhaps the most controversial issue for me was the level of added reverb demanded. Having accepted that this largely counterpuntal work would have impeccable separation, I believed the harmonic lock of the extended Pythagorean tuning of cycling pure fifths would resonate more powerfully, if in a different way, with minimal added reverb. We added and subtracted reverb innumerable times until we could reach agreement, and I’m sure the music is the better for it. One may hope there will be other mixes in this composition’s future. After all, it has always been about perspective: it’s what the piece is all about.