Universe Symphony: metaphorical music?

by danielgoode

July 26, 2012 4:00:26 PM EDT

Now we’re talking! It used to be called program music. I’m thinking metaphor.

Mahler wisely declined the term of program music for his symphonies. Strauss didn’t. I’m sure Ives didn’t care a fig what one called his programmatically titled orchestral works like “The Housatonic at Stockbridge.” The Universe Symphony could be called the program of Everything. Or nothing in particular. Still it’s a metaphor for Everything (or nothing in particular).

The highly committed Nashville Symphony under Giancarlo Guerrero, on May 12th at Carnegie Hall, performed Larry Austin’s 20-year project of finishing and realizing Ives’s Universe Symphony. This “program” is so all-inclusive as to be a non-program. (Most of my favorite music is in this category.) It can put us all back into the silly arguments between Hanslick (“The Beautiful in Music”) and Wagner and others. I always sided with Hanslick’s, but continued to listen to Wagner with amazement. Or with complete delight to Kleinsinger’s “Tuby the Tuba” and Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf.”

To me it’s clear that if you need to interpose a program in order to groove on the music, the music has failed. So program music as a genre cannot be taken seriously. But we’ve all taken Ives monumental conceptual symphony work very seriously, in that there are at least two realizations. (Johnny Reinhart’s is the other one I know).

As to other metaphorical music, we listen and respond to the music as music, but take the programmatic titles as handy monikers, epiphenomena if you like, to spice up our memories of the work, or simply to communicate in short-hand about it to others. The “Tragic” Overture (by Brahms). OK, I’ll give it some picture or interpretation. It might color my memory, or help my memory with some particular theme.

But Ives clearly DID mean to represent the infinity and grandeur of the universal processes we call “The Universe.” He worked on it for over forty years. That, and Larry Austin’s twenty years on it show huge commitments.

(The other two works on the Nashville Symphony evening paled and annoyed: Terry Riley’s “The Palmian Chord Ryddle for six-string electric violin (performed by Tracy Silverman) and orchestra, and Percy Grainger’s “imaginary ballet” music, “The Warriors,”)

What stands out in both Reinhart’s and Austin’s realizations of the Ives, is the opening percussion (plus piccolo) ensemble of 20 independent pulses going for a long time, and sharing a downbeat every eight seconds: “The Life Pulse.” It’s thrilling, and interesting, and does kind of feel like an aspect of infinity, or the vastness of vibration. The dense and dissonant string sound which follows is thick and impenetrable in a succulent sort of way. I don’t have a strong feeling or tactile memory of other parts of the piece, other than a generally positive one.

So the Grainger and Riley pieces were washouts. Terry can write for orchestra, but he doesn’t seem like an orchestral composer. His piece was a diffuse journey about ethnic influences: music about other music. Metaphorical. Grainger’s piece, dedicated to Delius (!) was a bombastic bomb with lots and lots of xylophonists and a big bang at the end. His “Greek heroes,” “Zulus,” “Vikings,” “lovemakers,” “fighting men” claimed not to be program music. Sagging metaphors to me. What’s a well-meaning, politically correct orchestra to do?

Thumbnail review. A review about everything and nothing in particular is a nice place to end or pause in a cycle of twenty-eight pieces.