Monday, May 14, 2012

The Universe of Music

To me, the world of music is a vast universe of sound with nebulas, galaxies, solar systems, planets and comets. The Balinese monkey chant is a small musical world of its own, geographically close to but musically far from, the world of the Javanese gamelan. The blues of Robert Johnson and its flow, as a river, into the music of the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton, is another world. The galaxy that is the string quartet, devised by Joseph Haydn, throws out spiral arms in Beethoven, Brahms, Janacek, Bartok and Shostakovich.

No need to continue the metaphor: the universe of music is too vast to comprehend. Occasionally someone tries to hint at this vastness. One such was Charles Ives in the sketches for his Universe Symphony. Here is a brilliant account of the piece. It is hard to think of anything to compare it to. Perhaps Mysterium, an unfinished project of Scriabin that dates from roughly the same period, the second decade of the 20th century. Another comparison might be to Dante's Divine Comedy, a work of art that spans the whole universe of human understanding.

I'm fairly comfortable with most composers and a lot of pop music. I have a fair idea of what is going on in the music and the aesthetic value of it. But there are composers that I have not even yet attempted to come to terms with and Charles Ives is one of these. Scriabin, too, possibly. I just don't know what I think about Ives' music. But I am certainly going to have a very serious look at it. In the meantime, here is the first section of his Universe Symphony realized by Michael Stern and performed by the Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Saarbr├╝cken under his direction.

A couple of days ago another version of the piece was performed in New York by the Nashville Symphony. Here is news clip with the music director discussing how it was put together.

Five conductors? Makes sense. But poor Stockhausen! Outclassed by Ives decades before he wrote his Gruppen for three orchestras and three conductors!


Nathan Shirley said...

Ives' music is at its best when it's humorous (a strange form of dry humor in his case). The problem is that the humor starts to wear off fairly quickly.

I love Scriabin though, and not just because I'm a pianist! His music came from a different world for sure, much of which is not easily accessible. But just like listening to a complex Bach fugue from a huge pipe organ in a gigantic cathedral, with enough repetition the music will begin to come into focus. Of course whether or not you like it at that point becomes a matter of taste (especially with Scriabin).

There were quite a few Scriabin imitators, but I've found the ones who came closest to his style really lack content. They captured the sound but none of the emotion.

Bryan Townsend said...

I'm looking forward to exploring both Ives and Scriabin. I've heard a bit of both their musics and I even transcribed an Ives song for voice and guitar once, but I've never spent enough time with either of them to get a real sense of the music.