8669032-33 • 730099903271
• Best Classical Contemporary Composition • Best Engineered Classical Album
8559678 • 636943967829
• Best Classical Instrumental Solo
C e l e b r a t i n g Pa s t N a xo s Amer i c a n C l a s s i c s G r ammy Awa r d W i n n e r s :
8559362 636943936221 SoUndS of AmeriCA
was to be realised through the grandest of means. But unlike Mahler’s efforts at musical cosmology, which remained fundamentally connected to the central-European musical inheritance of the 19th century, Ives’s Universe Symphony transcended any regnant definition of music. It would be ‘a presentation and contemplation in tones, rather than in music (as such)’, the composer wrote, as if he was imagining the orchestra as a kind of metaphysical photographic paper, or X-ray film, capturing ‘with tonal imprints the vastness, the evolution of all life’.
There won’t be 4500 musicians when Guerrero brings his Nashville forces to Carnegie, nor will there be any performing from mountain tops. Realisations of the Universe Symphony (there are at least three, in various states of completion) are all about making the mystical manageable. ‘This was mostly a concept of what Ives was trying to achieve,’ says Guerrero of the more grandiose descriptions in Ives’s sketches. ‘Ives also knew that, because of his dream, it would be impossible. It would be a nice ideal and it is wonderful to dream that big. We want to think big and get as close as possible to that effect. But he obviously never finished the piece.’
That’s where Austin comes in. A student of Milhaud and Imbrie, the Texas-based composer is a longtime practitioner of electroacoustic and computer music. Like most US composers, Austin has Ives in his blood, and with the centenary of Ives’s birth in 1974 he found himself thinking a lot about the pioneer of American experimental music. He was also thinking about a commission from the American Brass Quintet. Among the elements Ives hoped to fuse together in the Universe Symphony is what Austin calls ‘a stratum of brass’. The quintet commission became a means to grapple with Ives’s sketches, a preoccupation that lasted from 1974 until Austin finished a full realisation of the symphony in 1993.
‘In case I don’t get to finishing this, somebody might like to try to work out the idea’ – Charles Ives
Austin’s skill with computer music helped him solve one of the thorniest challenges called for among Ives’s notes: the fiendishly complex polyrhythms that form the musical material of the work’s prelude, and then continue as a kind of rhythmic ground bass throughout the next three movements. This ‘life pulse’ prelude elaborated on polyrhythmic ideas found in works such as All the Way Around and Back (1906), which built up and then dismantled layers of rhythmic ratios in prime-number patterns (1, 2, 3, 5, 7, 11) in a dizzying musical palindrome. But the complexity called for in the Universe Symphony was beyond anything in any previous Ives work, and arguably beyond any hope of actual realisation in performance. It was, perhaps, ‘meant to be imagined, not performed’, scholar Stuart Feder has written.
Austin has used click tracks (a tape recording of metronome beats) to help percussionists manage the 20 separate musical lines. Ives might well have approved of this technological solution to his almost inhuman challenge. ‘He knew about electric metronomes,’ says Austin, referring to a device called the Rhythmicon invented by Henry Cowell (who wrote some of the best accounts of Ives and his efforts to complete the Universe Symphony). But the Rhythmicon didn’t have 20 different channels, and even with the use of Austin’s click tracks it takes multiple conductors to manage the piece in performance; to this end, Guerrero will be joined by four others at Carnegie Hall to help manage the various subsections of the orchestra.
For Guerrero, the click tracks make the work practicable, but they also limit the impact of the conductor on the performance. ‘I have no control over the tempo,’ he says. ‘This is not a piece about rubatos. The conductor is there almost as a mechanical part of the piece.’ But he isn’t just a hi-tech traffic cop. ‘The things that I can shape are the balances and the textures; I can bring out the things that I believe are telling the stories of the individual moments, and that has been a lot of fun.’
The experience for the musicians is no less disorienting. Sam Bacco, principal percussionist of the Nashville Symphony, has hired 18 extra percussionists to fill out the orchestra’s ranks. He’s lucky to have veterans of Nashville’s country music and pop studios to call on, as well as the city’s ample complement of universities. Working with click tracks, however, creates a very unusual performance environment. ‘Part of the challenge is to ignore everyone else, yet pay attention at the same time,’ he says. He recommends that his players tune in and out of the click track, to keep a sense of the bigger musical picture around them.
Despite the enormous amount of scholarly attention and musical efforts to bring the piece alive, the Universe Symphony remains as elusive as the Higgs boson, more a source of questions and speculation than certainty. Ives said, ‘In case I don’t get to finishing this, somebody might like to try to work out the idea.’ But did he mean work out the specifics of his ideas, the musical formula and the meaning of the scattered material contained in the 49 pages of sketches; or the general concept of the piece? The two most frequently used realisations of the piece, Austin’s and one created by Johnny Reinhard in 1996, differ greatly, including in the basic understanding of how fast the ‘life pulse’ is meant to be. And while there’s extensive information about the prelude and the first section of the score, the details get progressively sketchier, so that ‘realisations’ of the last two movements are essentially inspired guesswork.
But the biggest question may be about the role that this piece played in Ives’s creative life. Was it the summation of everything he had hoped to achieve as a composer? Or was it perhaps an idea so ethereal and unmanageable that it essentially reduced the composer to silence? There are scattered accounts of Ives’s attempts to expand the work over the long years after he retreated from making music publicly. ‘On rare occasions he would add a few notes to his Universe Symphony, a work he had planned from the beginning to leave unfinished,’ wrote Cowell. And so it takes on the character of a Borgesian fable: a black hole of creative energies, ever more dense, never finished, and perhaps never meant to be. The Nashville Symphony give the New York premiere of Ives’s Universe Symphony, realised by Larry Austin, at Carnegie Hall on Saturday May 12 at 7.30pm; for more information, visit carnegiehall.org
Austin’s universe symphony: recommended listening
Ives: Universe Symphony (realised Austin) cincinnati Po; ccM Percussion Ensemble; ccM chamber choir / Gerhard Samuel Centaur Records F CRC2205
Ives: Universe Symphony (realised Austin) Saarbrücken Radio So / Michael Stern Col Legno F WWE1CD20074
Ives: Universe Symphony (realised Reinhard) American Festival of Microtonal Music orchestra / Johnny Reinhard Stereo Society S D SS007
‘An American Diary’ Mike Mainieri perc et al Includes Mainieri’s percussion fantasy, In the Universe of Ives, based on Ives’s ideas NYC Records B NYC6105-2
GRAMOPHONE APRIL 2012 III