American Festival of Microtonal Music
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Universe Symphony

Charles Ives's Universe Symphony realized by Johnny Reinhard exclusively from Ives's Universe Symphony sketches; performed by the AFMM, June 6, 1996; Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, NYC

The Universe Symphony is just over an hour in length and is orchestrated for 70 musicians. Seriously worked out by 1915, Ives set out an algorithmic series of sketches asking for someone to finish the work. Beginning with a 27 minute percussion Prelude of the Cosmos, the composition is at once abstract and programmatic.



"The Ninth at one end and the 'Universe' Symphony at the other: together they enclose the trancendentalist epoch in music"
(Richard Taruskin, New York Times 10/23/94)

The work's polymicrotonal content, use of homemade instruments, improvisation, clever instrumentation, and use of an "overtone machine" place it quite in advance of later developments.

The AFMM Orchestra draws upon the very best NYC Musicians - specialists in the virtuosic world of contemporary music in general, experts in microtonal performing practices in specific.



Universe Symphony instrumentation, structure and 'Concordance between Source, Score and CD' (by Ted Coons)

The New York Times, June 2 1996

Richard 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..

The Village Voice, June 4 1996

Kyle Gann previews the premiere of Johnny Reinhard's new performing version of Charles Ives' Universe Symphony.

Master of the Universe Johnny Reinhard Solves the Puzzle of Charles Ives’ Symphony (by Kyle Gann)

Myths die hard. In the life story of Charles Ives, America’s most missionary composer and insurance executive, myths grow like weeds. Some concern his Universe Symphony, which he described as a “contemplation in tones, rather than in music as such, of the mysterious creation of the earth and firmament.” Henry Cowell wrote that Ives had never intended to finish the Universe. John Kirkpatrick called the work’s sketches “tragically fragmentary.”

Now, Manhattan’s Johnny Reinhard claims that Ives did essentially finish the work in 915, but was so pessimistic about realizing its grandiose scheme that he never admitted it. On June 6, at Alice Tully Hall, Reinhard will conduct a 71-piece orchestra in the world premiere of his 65-minute completed version of Universe Symphony, which contains not a single note that isn’t by Ives. The concert will celebrate two impressive achievements: one, the deciphering of Ives’s tortuously disordered sketches; the other, a deft end-run around the scholars keeping jealous guard over the Ives legacy.

Whoa, who is this Reinhard? The Ives mavens are asking, for if he’s right, this is a classic case of the outsider figuring out what the experts could only scratch their heads over. Reinhard is a bassoonist, a composer, a leading expert on microtonal theory and performance, and the director of the 14-yer-old American Festival of Microtonal Music, a free-floating entity that turns up in odd corners of Manhattan at irregular intervals. (This ambitious performance of the Universe Symphony constitutes the AFMM’s entire season this year.) A Brooklynite by birth, Reinhard became a specialist on Egyptian music in school and ended up in Columbia University’s doctoral ethnomusicology program. When he won an award from the musicology department, ethno threw him out on the elegant logic that if he knew so much about conventional musicology, he might not understand world musics. Reinhard takes pride in the doctorate he successfully worked at for four years, but that Columbia wouldn’t give him.

Now, he pursues his vision of making America multicultural in terms of tuning: his festival perennially ventures beyond the 12 equally spaced pitches per octave toward quarter-tones, pure tunings, and historically correct intonations. With an amazing sense of pitch, he sings me quarter-toes and equal-spaced pentatonic scales as casually as you can whistle “Dixie”.” He may be best known to the public through his “Microtonal Bach” program, a Christmas show on WKCR radio in which he plays Bach recordings in 18th-century tunings. But what are his credentials for taking on Ives’s hitherto undeciphered magnum opus?

“I’m not sure I can answer the question,” Reinhard says in his tiny Upper East Side apartment, which overflows with Ives materials. “Why did it make sense to me and not to someone else? I’ve herd mystical statements that John Kirkpatrick made about Ives entering his body when he worked. I don’t want to get close to that. But somehow, I feel like I’m following a musical floor plan—a life-insurance plan, in fact, that someone would finish Universe after he died. It’s not so strange a thought for him.” Also, this isn’t Reinhard’s first resurrection. In pursuit of alternate tunings, he’s made a specialty of works forgotten because of their impracticality. One of his most spectacular successes was a revival of Graphs and Time, a late work by Edgard Varèse that hand never before been publicly performed.

Reinhard ran across the sketches of Universe in 1986 at the California home of Lou Harrison, a seminal microtonal composer and an early restorer of Ives’s music. After writing to Ives’s publisher, Peermusic, Reinhard received a curt note to the effect there was no performable score. He dropped the idea for two years but late became convinced he could finish the work. He approached the Charles Ives Society and got reduced Xeroxes of the sketches, plus a painstaking transcription of Ives’s scratchy handwriting by John Mauceri. Even then there were delays, for composer Larry Austin was also working on a completed version of the Universe, filled in with materials he composed himself. “I had an attorney tell me, ‘You don’t own it, you don’t have the right, stop work.’ Which I did for six months. I felt I was asked to wait until Larry Austin came out with his version.”

Austin’s Universe appeared in 1994. Stiff and conceptualist, emphasizing Ives’s clocklike polyrhythms, it’s intriguing but not emotional enough to satisfy the true Ives fan. The mistake Austin made, says Reinhard, is that “he didn’t believe Ives knew what he was doing. Ives wrote a tempo making of 30 beats a minute, and Larry didn’t think he could possibly mean for it to be that slow. But he did.” One myth says that Ives continued adding to the Universe until 1951, long after diabetes, heart attacks, and nervous disorders had clouded his judgment. The sketches, however, are almost all dated 1915, a year in which he was at the height of his creative posers. It was also the year he completed his Fourth Symphony, a work he assumed would never see the light of day because of its monumental complexity. The Universe is considerably more ambitious. Ives, already ridiculed in the press for such innovations as giant tone clusters, may have feared no one would take the work seriously.

Like Bach and so many others, Ives often combined unrelated sketches on the same page, so Reinhard began cutting out each and marking its length in beats. He found little symbols Ives drew—a triangle with an inscribed circle, concentric circles with a dot—and started linking them as keys to the continuity. Where Ives marked one isolated passage “sky” and another “rainbow,” Reinhard reasoned that the sky must come before the rainbow. Everything was then correlated to what Ives called Basic Units, 16-second periods that run through the work, each divided by the percussion into fro two to 43 equal beats. “You don’t want anyone to hear that this is a digital piece, put together algorithmically. We’re all dealing with the inside brain of Ives. This is a brain, left and right. Two hemispheres, earth and heaven, with the pulse of the cosmos going throughout. It’s a paradigm for a brain.” Reinhard also found three clearly marked sections, each with a prelude. Austin’s version consisted mostly of the prelude to Section A, called “Pulse of the Cosmos.”

How much did Reinhard fiddle with Ives’s notes? In the prelude to Section C, there is a series of quarter-tone chords that Ives left unscored; Reinhard orchestrated them. In another place, Ives had a flute line with chords underneath the first six notes; each chord is marked with a letter, A through F, and the letters continue, suggesting that the chords needed to be filled in according to a pattern, which Reinhard has done. In response to a vague comment in Ives’s scrawly handwriting, Reinhard has added a fragment of “Earth” material before the first prelude. Ives calls at one point for an “overtone machine” to play for five and a half minutes; Reinhard will have microtonal rocker Jon Catler play the overtones on 13-limit just-intonation electric guitar. One fascinating aspect of the work is its exploration of different microtonal systems: it contains quarter-tones, an indication for a note vaguely marked “between A and A-sharp,” even a harp in just intonation.

While there are undeniably gaps in Ives’s plan for the Universe, Reinhard has me convinced that his arrangements are all backed by common sense, and that the moments that seem most surprising for Ives (at one pint the harpist is told to improvise) are clearly spelled out in the sketches. He seems to have also impressed, if not convinced, the Ives Society, which has authorized this performance, though still insisting that he call the work his “version.” Carol Baron, a musicologist who is writing a book on Ives, has been sitting in on rehearsals and tells me, “It is definitely Ives. It sounds like no one else but Ives. Only Ives would have created sounds that are so pictorially expressive of the ides he’s trying to get across. This is a culmination of his work, like the Fourth Symphony.”


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