Across The Universe

Across The Universe

Ives wrote that the themes and general plan for the Universe Symphony are quite clearly indicated in the sketches he left behind. But deciphering those sketches has been one of American music’s greatest detective sagas.

Written By

Johnny Reinhard

© 2005 Johnny Reinhard
Published by NewMusicBox

Vagueness is at times an indication of nearness to a perfect truth
Charles Ives, Essays Before a Sonata

Johnny Reinhard outside Ives’s former New York residence
© 2005 Jeffrey Herman

The Birth of the Universe

Charles Edward Ives first contemplated the Universe Symphony in a cottage on a grassy meadow surrounded by pine trees, situated on a small plateau in Keene Valley in New York’s Adirondacks. It became a favorite spot for his vacations. One day while on the Dunham plateau, after admiring what must have been a particularly profound sky, he refocused on the beauty of the land. He then began to alternate between them, eventually thinking of an idea to combine both impressions in a “parallel listening” expanded to a Universe Symphony.

Ives wrote of the ear’s ability to transcend the eye through music in a paragraph intended for the Fourth Symphony but published independently of the score in the 1929 edition of the Henry Cowell publication New Music. “In the same way that an eye views the countryside, focuses on the sky, the clouds and the distant outlines and simultaneously perceives the shape and color of the objects in the foreground as well as those in the distance, the listener also has the possibility to order the rhythmical, harmonic and other components, placing them in relationship to one another in his mind. In other words, in music, the ear has the same capacity as an eye observing the countryside.”

Mrs. Rodman S. Valentine (née Christine Loring), who worked as a secretary for the Ives family in their West Redding, Connecticut residence described Ives’s great enthusiasm for this colossal project (Perlis, Ives Remembered, p. 117). “Mr. Ives mentioned his Universe Symphony to me more than once. It was to be played by at least two huge orchestras across from each other on mountaintops overlooking a valley. It was to be religious (a paean of praise, I believe he said), and it was a real and continuing interest for years. Once, after he stood looking out the picture window toward the mountains, he restlessly paced about, not conversing but as if he were thinking aloud with gestures, and humming and singing bits of music. He said, ‘If only I could have done it. It’s all there—the mountains and the fields.’ When I asked him what he wanted to do, he answered, ‘the Universe Symphony. If only I could have done it.'”

Biographer Jan Swafford suggested Ives may have been influenced by T. Carl Whitmer, a composer friend, to perform the Universe Symphony out of doors (Swafford, p. 493, footnote 16). Whitmer, a former Pittsburgh organist, had bought some land—which he called “Dramamount”—along the Hudson River to present his own compositional endeavors, and encouraged composers to do the same on his property. Ives actually did visit Dramamount, but the idea of doing the Universe Symphony outdoors was no more than a dreamy expansion of his grand symphonic plan and certainly not critical to a successful concert hall performance.

In 1915 Charles Ives revisited Keene Valley for the last time. Ives poetically wrote of his inspiration on a manuscript page identified as Neg. = q3040 in the Yale archives of his papers:

The Universe Symphony is an attempt in tones, every form – position – known or unknown (to man) as the eternities are unmeasured, as the source of universal substances are unknown, the earth, the waters, the stars, the ether, yet these elements as man can touch them with hand and microscope, & labeled as chemicals & atoms as the eternal motions, life of all things & man, their destiny.

They are not single and exclusive strands, but incessant myriads for ages, ever & always changing, growing, but for ages ever & always a permanence of their humanity, of the earth for a man’s lifetime, of life & death & future life—the only known is the unknown, the only hope of humanity is the unseen spirit— that can’t be done but what reaching out to do (as we feel like trying it) is to cast eternal history the physical universe of all humanity to cast them in a ‘Universe of Tones’.

This is attempted in music covering a space of time & in three general ages & sections: Formation & Chaos, Earth & Firmament, and Spirit.

Musicologist Philip Lambert aptly designated the Universe Symphony a “cosmology” based work. He described it as part of a tradition of musical contemplations of the cosmos, one with a long history among European composers and with close parallels to unfinished cosmic works by Alexander Nikolayevich Scriabin (Mysterium) and Arnold Schoenberg (Die Jakobsleiter). According to Lambert, Ives “had already asked the unanswered question; with the Universe Symphony he aspired to answer it.” While contemplating the cosmologies that have been produced in art, Lambert gloomily continues, “the composer who has ordained himself surrogate Creator and spiritual emissary is ultimately humbled by his own mortality. He realizes finally that his ambitious goals are in fact beyond his own comprehension” (Lambert, Ives Studies, p. 234 & p. 252).

Nevertheless, Lambert acknowledges that the “Universe Symphony provides a sharper lens for viewing the complete history of Ives’s quest for substance in music” (Lambert, The Music of Charles Ives, p. 206). The Universe Symphony represents “an ultimate usage of ideas drawn from experience exploring and developing previous ideas, and therefore—a true magnum opus.” More specifically, “The work he conceived would be the ultimate, ideal application of systematic methods: the Universe Symphony would be constructed from Ives’s best and most sophisticated principles of organization, and it would use these methods to communicate his deepest and most substantial spiritual beliefs” (Lambert, The Music of Charles Ives, p. 187).

Lambert is perplexed by a philosophical conflict between the “finishability” issues of this piece (regardless of possible missing pages), and leaving it to remain in limbo, unheard. According to Lambert, “Ives seems to contradict himself: he says that the essence of the universe, in all its vastness and complexity, cannot be captured by any human act, but then suggests that this is precisely what he aspires to do in the Universe Symphony.”

Musicologist Wolfgang Rathert believes that it was precisely Ives’s iconoclastic method to leave his works “unfinished.” Rathert argued that the Concord Sonata, composed just before Ives began contemplating the Universe Symphony, was left intentionally finished “unfinished.” According to Rathert, the multiple versions of the Concord and its sharing of material with other works “perfectly demonstrates the intentional instability of Ives’s formal conception” (Lambert, Ives Studies, p. 278). Rathert’s discussion of Ives’s use of vague or incomplete musical ideas to create an ambiguous, indefinable sense of musical “potentiality” signals something different about this composer.

Ives wrote in his published Memos that the themes and general plan for the Universe Symphony are “quite clearly indicated in the sketch.” Here he underscored that the purpose of this memo was to put a veritable life insurance policy in place for his “painting of creation” magnum opus. 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” (Memos, p. 108).

At Ives’s own invitation as outlined in his memo, I took up this challenge to “work out the idea.” My responsibility would be to curate the great work to life.

An Incomplete Universe

In 1986, I was visiting with composer Lou Harrison and his partner, Bill Colvig, at their home in Aptos, California. While checking under some bookshelves covered with white sheets, I discovered a dusty 11″ X 17″ folded photocopy of handwritten transcriptions of Ives’s sketches for the Universe Symphony. They had been made by conductor John Mauceri who meticulously prepared them while a young music librarian at Yale University.

Harrison retained a copy of Mauceri’s effort because he was asked in 1974 by music publisher Peer—along with David Gray Porter and Larry Austin—to write about his impressions of the Universe Symphony sketches. (Early on, Peer was designated the single publisher of the Charles Ives Universe Symphony for all possible realizations, which it has recently relinquished.) Harrison was a natural choice since he had a long and illustrious involvement with the music of Ives, which included conducting and preparing the performance materials for the world premiere of Ives’s Third Symphony on March 5, 1946. (The performance would earn Ives a Pulitzer Prize in 1947.) But once his assignment was sent off to Peer, Harrison had decided to drop the Universe Symphony completely from his mind and to wash his hands of any future reconstruction projects. He wrote: “Especially now that he is dead, however, it is not possible, I think, to do imaginative reconstructions of pages or passages, or to ‘wishfulfill’ a completed piece into existence, under his name, for the simple fact that he is not here to sign or approve the results, as he used to do on occasion” (Harrison, unpublished commentary, Peer, p. 25).

Lou Harrison, a true calligraphist—a master—may have been overwhelmed by the “low” ratio of neat readable text to sloppy puzzles, but Harrison was not the first to opt out of the Universe Symphony. After Ives’s death, pianist John Kirkpatrick, the executor of the Ives estate, pooled together all possible Universe Symphony sketches, to the best of his knowledge, and then made them available to those scholars who might be interested in studying them. Since some of the sketches are on the backs of other pieces, it was impossible to have a single folder for all Universe pertaining sketches. Many of the people most familiar with Ives scoffed at any realistic intention to complete and perform it, and a legend developed that the piece was not realizable. However, a review of the commentary on the Universe Symphony demonstrates that Ives had treated this work as unfinished, but had arranged for it to be finished by a collaborator when he doubted that he would ever again have the necessary physical ability to perform the task himself. Ives copyist, George F. Roberts, commented to oral history researcher Vivian Perlis about the piece no one would touch (Ives Remembered, p.188): “The Universe Symphony, the unfinished one, he didn’t intend to finish. He told me that anybody else could add to it if they felt like it. It was going to be something. Maybe someday they’ll do it.”

Henry Cowell wrote in his Ives biography about Ives’s descriptions of the piece, “several different orchestras, with huge conclaves of singing men and women placed about in valleys, on hillsides, and on mountaintops, doomed from the beginning to silence” (Henry & Sidney Cowell, Charles Ives and His Music, 1955, p. 201). Since some sketches are supposed to have been lost, some people think that Cowell may have held on to a sketch or two. I do not think so.

Ives, no doubt frustrated by his inability to finish the piece on his own, began to inflate the legend of a gargantuan work. Cowell claimed that the Universe Symphony was intended for two orchestras on two hills, with a valley between them. Beautiful idea that this is, it relegated the composition to a legendary “idea piece” for many Americans. Even throughout his so-called non-composing years, Cowell says Ives never abandoned this composition entirely, “for on rare occasions he will add a few notes to his Universe Symphony, a work that he has planned from the beginning to leave unfinished” (Cowell, p. 26). But Cowell misinterpreted Ives’s intentions. He wrote: “This is the last large work that Charles Ives had worked on. It is unfinished and intentionally so, as it is the culminating expression of his ‘music of the Idea,’ so gigantic, so inclusive, and so exalted that he feels no one man could ever complete it; anyone else may add to it if he cares to do so, and the collaboration of more than one composer friend, the writer among them, has been invited. That such collaboration has not yet seemed possible is not a disappointment, for the full expression of the universe in sound is something sure to come about when growth and freedom have created men able to encompass it” (p. 203).

Composer Larry Austin provided a new take on the Cowell legend. Cowell’s wife, Sydney, was quoted as saying, “At one time the chief subject of conversation was the Universe Symphony, which Ives hoped my husband would collaborate on. They held energetic discussions about the advisability of adding this note or that and about the consequences each note might have as the music developed its meaning. Mr. Cowell appreciated the concept of the Universe Symphony, which Ives hoped would express aspects of the Idea so various and so lofty that no single man could ever complete it, but as for himself Henry found he simply could not compose in tandem. So he began what was to be a complete movement, as his contribution to the piece. But he was dissatisfied with it and left it unfinished. The two composers were never able to decide just how their respective contributions were to be combined, though they found it stimulating to ponder the possibilities” (Austin, Ives Studies, Lambert, ed., p. 215). In a footnote, Austin added that Cowell and his wife subsequently “perpetuated a view that the US was not meant to be completed. Nowhere did Ives write this, nor is there any record that this was the case. But with the Cowells’ published declaration, the myth was created: the US was ‘music of the Idea,’ never intended to be finished. I say that only Henry Cowell decided not to realize and complete the piece, and that he and his wife invented and held to the myth that, in any event, it could not be done” (p. 215, footnote 22).

In the 1980s, Austin made his own realizations for a completion of the Universe Symphony, which is his fourth in a series of fantasies on Ivesian materials. It was subsequently released on CD by Centaur. Austin has been at the receiving end of stinging criticism for the liberties he took and for his disregard of Ives’s specifications. Swafford spoke for many on this subject: “The surviving sketches have been fascinatingly fleshed out in various versions by composer Larry Austin, but they inevitably contain more Austin than Ives” (Swafford, p. 496).

After examining Austin’s score, I also recognized little that was Ives. Besides the poor sound quality of the CD, the transcendental quality was marred by over-indulgent use of a flex-o-tone (which Ives never mentions) and military drum patterns that interrupt the flow of the Basic Unit divisions. A powerful grand pause is used to dramatic effect in his version, but ultimately it is Mr. Austin’s effect. Even the tempo was denied by Austin, who doubled it.

Ives Society musicologist David G. Porter is quite clear in his unpublished 1975 “Commentary” written for Peer. “As copies of the sketches were obtained over the year, a picture of an unfinished, but certainly not an intentionally unfinished, piece had been begun by Ives, and Ives originally had every intention of finishing it.” Soon after, Porter cogently stated, “The writer wishes to remind the reader that the piece described by Ives in his Memos is not the piece hinted at by Cowell, unfinishable and unknowable, and unrealizable.”

Self-publishing on the Internet newsgroup on January 21, 1997, Porter sought to “dispel rumors that have built up since 1955” as a result of Cowell’s book on Ives. He wrote that Kirkpatrick had told him in 1987 that Mrs. Cowell “was withholding some pages for the Universe Symphony, and in 1990 when Sidney R. Cowell told me that she felt that Kirkpatrick had tried to diminish Henry Cowell’s contribution to Charles Ives’s music so much that it had become a Cowell ‘family joke.'” To emphasize his position in the posting, Porter used capital letters for exclamatory purposes. “[READERS!: ARE YOU GETTING THE DRIFT OF THIS NOW??? IT’S POLITICAL!!!] And there’s not so much ‘lost as was NEVER COMPOSED!” Porter wrote to the newsgroup on January 15, 1997, that “many Ives pieces were left in an ‘uncoordinated’ state due to Ives’s failing health and general lack of interest in music of the ’30s & ’40s. Ives took pains when composing to leave complete instructions for eventual realization.”

Strangely, Kirkpatrick also dismissed any chance that a collaborator might have a shot at finishing the piece. “This would be true if all the sketch pages Ives wrote toward the Universe Symphony had survived. But so many are missing that what he would like to pass on to a collaborator is tragically fragmentary” (footnote, Memos, p. 108). Kirkpatrick actually stated in the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians: “He worked at it off and on until 1928, but never finished it; half the sketches are now missing” (“Charles Ives” entry by Kirkpatrick, New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Sadie, ed., Vol. 9: p. 419). Kirkpatrick was certainly nonplussed by the state of disarray the manuscript pages were in after he offered to list and organize Ives’s scores. “In each drawer (and there were ten) was a pile of manuscripts lying flat. There was every evidence that he’d rummaged for things in an unsystematic way, pulling out a batch from below and leafing through it and then that became the top layer—and then pulling out another batch from below and then that would become the top again, and the whole thing had been shuffled and reshuffled many times, so that different leaves of manuscripts would show up at different levels of different drawers.” The latest edition of the New Grove has replaced the earlier Kirkpatrick essay on Ives with a new overview. There is no longer mention of missing material:

Around the same time [1923] he returned to his ambitious Universe Symphony (begun c1915), the capstone of his exploration of systematic methods of composition, which features over 20 wholly independent musical strands, each moving in its own subdivision of a metric unit of eight seconds in length. This too would remain unfinished, finally appearing in three separate realizations in the 1990s (Ives: Sinclair, New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, p. 693).

But sadly, even Jan Swafford, in his otherwise excellent Ives biography, stirred up the old rumors of a dearth of lost material. “Some of the Universe sketches may have disappeared into the possession of Henry and Sidney Cowell. John Kirkpatrick was never able to find out what happened to them, and access to the Cowell papers has been denied” (Swafford, Charles Ives, p. 496). Swafford clearly did not have the opportunity, or inclination, to study the actual Universe Symphony sketches in depth. If he had, he might never have written, “Ives’s incompleted Universe Symphony carried the independence of musical groups to the point of visionary impossibility in a work that proposed to set multiple choruses and orchestras playing from valleys and mountaintops, a kind of transcendent camp meeting” (p. 93). Swafford later asserted the thesis that the Universe Symphony was “unfinishable in this world” for the Peer website dedicated to Ives. “Only pages of sketches remain of the Universe; more may have been lost.” He reduces the entire collection of Universe Symphony sketches to “a fascinating fragment.”

Charles Ives recognized for himself that no “mollycoddle mind” could “like it, play it, or make any sense out of it—there’s too much sense in it for that.” (Memos, p. 101).

Untangling the Universe

Lou Harrison advised me that, if I was serious about pursuing a future concert performance, I should contact Todd Vunderink, director of concert music at Peer, about receiving sketch material. After I sent an initial inquiry asking to make a score, I was referred to Ellis Freedman, Esq., the legal representative of the copyright holder of the sketches, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and someone familiar with my work. Freedman replied by letter that there was no performable edition available. I was confused since I was interested in making just such a performable score. The situation remained dormant for another two years after which I re-inquired. This time I focused on my intention to construct a performance score and to arrange for its first performance. Now approving, Peer sent me an 11″ x 17″ spiral-bound photocopy set of all the extant sketches in Mauceri’s transcription project. Photocopies of the actual manuscript sketches in Ives’s hand came still later, after a further request on my part.

Freedman admitted he could not make an artistic decision about the professional quality of my work on his own accord because, as he explained, he was not a musician. Accordingly, he asked conductor James Sinclair, now executive editor of the Ives Society, to make an artistic appraisal of my work. I presented the first third of my realization of the score for his review in a meeting at the Yale University Music Library. After three months, he authorized the green light allowing me to continue. But even before a final decision could be announced, Sinclair drove home the point that since Austin had begun 16 years earlier to complete the piece, I was to wait until after Austin’s release before announcing my own version. I halted all work at the advice of counsel. With Sinclair’s eventual approval, I wrote still again to Ellis Freedman asking for “permission to complete the project.” On March 22, 1994, he wrote back in the affirmative. “In view of James Sinclair’s endorsement, you may take this letter as permission on behalf of the American Academy of Arts and Letters to continue and complete your Universe Symphony project.”

Lou Harrison diagnosed two major problems in making a performing edition. The first problem he saw concerned the need for an accurate tempo to apply to this phantasmagoria of instrumental forces. I make the case that Ives is clear that the “Basic Unit” is correctly measurable at 16 seconds, flexible to the spirit of the music. Percussionists are assigned recurring particular divisions matched by specific instruments. The tempo is actually commensurate with the tempo of the Fourth Symphony. The second problem concerned the impossibility of confirming the alignment of the forces. But, after having now worked through the materials, including in performance, I have complete confidence that this has been successfully accomplished.

There is a curious mention in the sketches of a “2500 chorus” on a brainstorming page in the sketches (Neg. = q3021), but there is neither music nor text for anyone to sing. Harrison later called the mention of the chorus “visionary,” and added, “He asks for an absurdly large chorus of 2500, the sort of chorus that couldn’t keep its place anyway because of the line of sight and acoustic problems. And a special chorus of 500. In short, I think this page is mostly visionary and the fact that the whole page was crossed out in his manuscript gives us some clue” (unpublished commentary, Peer). Harrison’s conclusion makes sense, as does his evaluation of this phase of Ives’s thinking. That Ives crossed out this page (Neg. = q3021) attests in the long run to his ongoing, practical view of this work as able to be completed. Also, Ives’s original conception could not have included a chorus, the use of the human voice, at a time in the piece’s cosmic chronology when there were no humans in existence.

Then there is the whole question of Ives’s tuning. Ives’s sketches feature extensive use of quartertones. He also includes a part in the orchestra for an instrument he calls a “just intonation machine” and a just intonation-tuned harp. Significantly, his frequent use of different spellings for pitches that would be heard as identical in equal temperament throughout these sketches, and in many other compositions, are evidence that Ives intended subtler pitch distinctions. [Ed. Note: Johnny Reinhard’s detailed explanation of Ives’s tuning system will appear in NewMusicBox later this year.]

In September 1995, after first completing a fully notated score, I physically handled the actual original sketches for the first time, which are located in the Ives Collection room at the Yale Music Library. After examining every appropriate piece of writing during one long day, American Festival of Microtonal Music board president Ted Coons and I caught up to 45 errors in the Mauceri transcription. They were challenging to detect for all the same reasons that Lou Harrison jokingly noted in his unpublished commentary to Peer in 1974: “I cannot refrain from remarking, in view of the many congested pages of this manuscript, that to the casual observer it might seem that Mr. Ives early in his career purchased an amount of music paper and was thereafter unable to locate any more, so congested and re-used is each page.”

Each of the many other decisions I had to make to realize the score is similarly explainable in light of Ives’s clear indications. By puzzling out the composer’s directives, often late into the night, and patch by patch, I gradually steered into a final realization. (As it turns out, Ives is reputed to have worked late at night as well.)

But there was another hitch. Before the Ives Society would agree to give final approval for a performance, they insisted on having David G. Porter, their resident musicologist, review my full score and the “codebook” I concocted to outline the score construction. I flinched when Todd Vunderink told me that Sinclair would accept no other musicologist than Porter. My concern was that Porter would be so invested in his own opinions that at best he would find it at variance with his observations. (Having had the opportunity to inspect Porter’s material, I had found him at variance with my observations.) The Pulse of the Cosmos prelude is for Porter a full 10-cycles long thickening and thinning of polyrhythms, with no other instruments but percussion, and unnamed at that. It would require an evening unto itself due its length and is, I believe, a complete misunderstanding on his part. The commencing of the full orchestra in Section A would then follow on the next evening in Porter’s perfect world.

Thankfully Porter, despite our differences, encouraged the Ives Society to endorse an eventual premiere of my realization. However, I was never provided a proper forum by the Ives Society to respond to possible controversies or simply to explain why the sketches actually do work together as a piece. As it turned out, there never seemed to be any interest in an explanation of my work, except years later by Philip Lambert. H. Wiley Hitchcock, Ives Society vice-president when I was seeking an opportunity to share my progress, explained to me by e-mail that there was no time available at Ives Society meetings to devote to this matter. Others were more focused most on how I would describe my realization (J. Peter Burkholder, Todd Vunderink). Some appear to have admired what I accomplished, at least in some regard (James Sinclair, Philip Lambert). Inscrutably, Ives editor and conductor Sinclair has insisted on the new Ives Society website that there is much missing material in Sections B and C (as with Kirkpatrick and Swafford).

J. Peter Burkholder, president of the Ives Society at the time, analyzed the score and found it to include nothing additional to the sketches themselves. My method was to sequence cut-out patches of the sketches and paste them into a loose-leaf notebook. The beginning of each sketch corresponds precisely with a particular O.U. (or orchestral unit) measure number from the orchestral score. The O.U. is equal to half the length of a B.U. (basic unit). My additions to the sketches only include some rhythmic values (often implied by the composer), instrumental appointments (usually obvious from which instruments were not playing), and the ordered patching together of the sketches.

The final hurdle was in the wording to describe my “project.” It was impressed upon me by Peer not to use the word “completion” for my realization. It had been determined by the Ives Society that the term “completion” would imply that new material was composed for lost or missing material. I have been steadfast in maintaining that there was no new material added and they advised this as best for all concerned. A year after the concert premiere, Burkholder indicated that a subvention from the Ives Society for $1,000 would be made available to me provided I use the language “realized exclusively from Ives’s Universe Symphony sketches.” I agreed. Amazingly, the final contract from the copyright holder, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, called the work a “completion.”

In the end, Peer publisher Todd Vunderink sent me the following fax: “Given the complexities, unknowns, and the sheer number of observations in this case by Porter, we don’t want anyone to claim the version of the Universe in full realization.” But in fact, this was indeed the Universe Symphony hatched inside the mind of America’s foremost composer.

Revealing the Universe

On June 6, 1996, I had the unique opportunity to conduct an orchestra that I contracted from among the best musicians in the greater New York City area. Only days before the concert, eminent musicologist Richard Taruskin placed the issues squarely on the table. He succinctly wrote in a Sunday edition feature of The New York Times, “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'” (June 2, 1996).

After considerable rehearsal, the concert took place in Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center thanks to contributor Stuart Pivar. The audience was robust at about 900 attendees. The 71-member orchestra was arrayed over every inch of an enlarged Alice Tully Hall stage into three large groupings: Earth, Heavens, and Pulse of the Cosmos. Ives’s regard for special seating arrangements is clear in this caution for the Fourth Symphony: “If the players are put as usual, grouped together on the same stage, the effect of the sound will not give the full meaning of the music” (Ives, Memos, p. 67).

The “Earth” orchestra sat stage right. With the principal player of each instrument on the outer edge of the stage, there were four celli, then five bassoons, followed by four horns, four trombones, and finally three double basses. In the center of the stage, just in front of the conductor, sat three clarinets and two oboes. Behind the clarinets were the remaining trumpets and tubas. Farthest back, against the wall, was the organ.

Assisting conductor Charles Zachery Bornstein periodically directed a distinct “Heavens” orchestra in its own idiosyncratic tempo. Nine flutes sat stage left, as in a first violin section. Beside them sat eight violins and five violas. Behind them sat the harps. Above them were the piano and the “just intonation machine,” which was accomplished by a sustaining electric guitar generating harmonics through an E-bow.

The “Pulse of the Cosmos” percussion ensemble eventually called for 13 players who filled the entire back area of the stage. “Signaler” Kory Grossman indicated entrances and departures to the percussionists. Complex polyrhythms gyrate in 10 major cyclings, which run the length of the piece once it begins.

Ives once arranged for a session making complex polyrhythms with eight different musicians, with encouraging results: “In the Universe Symphony I tried, for the percussion orchestra (Earth’s motion and pulse), about a dozen different kinds—as Drums (8), Snare (2), Bells (11), Gongs (4), Pipes (2), Cymbals (3), Xylophones (2), Blocks of wood—all I could think of—it sounded (with eight players) better than I thought). Various other rhythms can be held in the mind in this way, and after a while they become as natural as it is for Toscanini to beat down-left-right-up as evenly as a metronome for two hours steadily, and do it nice, with the ladies all tapping time with their feet” (Memos, p. 125).

Ives was excited by the value of his rhythmic scheme, although polyrhythms traditionally appear daunting to musical minds. He must have realized how difficult, if not impossible, it would be to direct even the most facile musicians of his day to play the demandingly complex polyrhythms. “But if the different meters are each played by groups of different sounding units, the effect is valuable, and I believe will be gradually found an important element in deepening and enriching all of the depths of music, including the emotional and spiritual” (Memos, p. 125). Ironically, the angularity of the rhythms of the Universe Symphony made for a more natural and realistic musical universe.

Though composed to his own imagined time frames, Austin had relied on click tracks through headphones to keep time in his “realization,” even though his argument for preferring a faster tempo than Ives’s stated tempo was so the players could keep more perfect time. Austin thought that Ives was wrong. Critic Alex Ross reported in The New York Times my performance tempo as “gruelingly slow” and recommended that I, too, consider using click tracks in future performances instead of conducting to assist the percussionists with regulating the polyrhythms. Ironically, this seems to me complete anathema to the Ives aesthetic, and unnecessary, certainly, once the work is permitted to enter standard repertoire. It is about time that a mammoth work of our time required professional musicians to stretch both their minds and techniques. For Ives, “Rhythm is a bigger thing than a nice little ticking watch” (Memos, p. 188).

Writing for the Village Voice, Kyle Gann recognized early on that my intention to go “human” was non-negotiable. A full year before the concert premiere he wrote, “And Reinhard plans to perform the work without click tracks, which may impart more humanity to the pulse at the expense of rhythmic accuracy” (April 5-11, 1995).

Audience members at the premiere likely heard “collapsed” sound in the sense that the hall was not big enough to fairly represent the full sound of the musical forces involved, blurring its intricacies. Ives’s details are buried in the timbres of the pitches and rhythms. I don’t suppose the players had any real chance to appreciate the work aesthetically since they were much too busy playing their parts. Besides, their instrumental groupings orbit with the others only on occasion. In the audience, the proximity of the seats to the stage actually determined whether one heard too much low end or too much high end sound. The center of the center balcony was reputed to have had the most blended and balanced sound in Alice Tully Hall that evening. The Stereo Society recording produced by Mike Thorne transcends the problems presented by the concert hall.

Unbelievably, this, the most profound and original symphony by any American, is still way ahead of its time, even 93 years after it was first put to manuscript paper. The piece may not fit easily within the expectations of some prominent self-proclaimed Charles Ives fans. Somehow, there is only a vague notion that the work fits the “classical” category, probably stemming from the fact that Ives, himself, described it as “not music as such.” It is too dissimilar from the composer’s earlier works and must be taken on its own merits, following its own rules, although there are definite connections to be made. His Universe is ever deep to our probes, yet yielding more and more of its secrets upon repetition. However, if one invests the requisite two listenings and more, allowing for maximal “parallel listenings” to set in, rewards are distinctly renewable.


Johnny Reinhard is the director and founder of the American Festival of Microtonal Music (established 1981). He has been responsible for premieres of major works by Lou Harrison, Harry Partch, Edgard Varèse, and Charles Ives, among many others, as well as the first modern-day performances of works by Johann Sebastian Bach, John Dowland, Gesualdo, Telemann, Beethoven, and Mendelssohn in their original tunings. As an internationally-travelled conductor, composer, publisher, and bassoon soloist, Reinhard has explored a myriad of tunings. This past year, Reinhard has also become a record producer of a new line of compact discs featuring a wide variety of microtonal music on the PITCH label.