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Charles Ives’s Universe Symphony, Finally

Realized by Johnny Reinhard, AFMN Orchestra (The Stereo Society, SS007)

The premiere of Johnny Reinhard’s realization of Charles Ives’s Universe Symphony, at Alice Tully Hall on June 6, 1996, is still justly remembered as counting among the great concerts of the 1990’s. It included dozens of “downtown” performers, including flautist Andrew Bolotowsky, percussionist Slip La Plante, violinist Tom Chiu, and pianist Joshua Pierce, most of them working out of an appreciation of Reinhard’s effort to produce Ives’s final, purportedly unfinished piece.

Though Ives lived to be eighty, he had his first debilitating heart attack around the age of forty-five and thus spent decades in semi-retirement, not only from composing but from insurance retailing, at which he and his partner Julian Myrick were so successful. Legendarily, he spent decades working on a magnum opus that was simply too ambitious for an invalid to complete, especially since his earlier compositions were rarely performed until Ives was in his late fifties.

Once interest in his work grew, Ives invited younger composers to produce definitive scores of works that were scattered in his notebooks or on miscellaneous sheets of paper. Once these scores were published, Ives, by then independently wealthy, gave them to these composers in perpetuity. The composer Lou Harrison thus literally owned Ives’s Third Symphony. The premiere of his Fourth Symphony, likewise a masterpiece, occurred more than a decade after Ives died.

While a guest at Lou Harrison’s culturally fertile compound in Aptos, California, Reinhard discovered some Ives worksheets that suggested they came from the unfinished symphony. These scores became the foundation upon which he did more research, eventually producing a score whose notes were all written by Ives, Reinhard just placing himself in a distinguished tradition of younger American composers who made Ives performable.

For some years, Reinhard had a recording of the concert that he could not legally distribute, so that those of us who had received copies had something with which we could impress our friends, much like a childhood trading card that no one else has. Finally obtaining necessary clearances, he was, thanks to contemporary technology, able to re-record a few musicians one at a time, the sum of them mixed into a definitive disc that is now commercially available. Expanding his labor of love, Reinhard also produced a book-length manuscript that is available from him on a CD-ROM, exploiting the new technology to distribute a finished text that would have taken ages to get through the traditional book-publishing bottleneck.

From its beginning, the Universe Symphony is provocatively odd, opening with thirty minutes wholly of percussion, played by thirteen people—triangles, bells, a woodblock, a clay pipe, glasses, two kinds of metal pipe, a low gong, and, of course, drums of various kinds and sizes. Later there are nine flutes, each with its own part. Despite its length of over an hour, this recording is continuous sound, and this “symphony” lacks separate “movements.”

In his informative notes accompanying the disc, Reinhard testifies that, “The Universe Symphony contains the groundbreaking structure of a rhythmic grid defined purely by percussion, called the Pulse of the Cosmos and based upon repeating time frames equivalent to sixteen seconds (called ‘Basic Units,’ or BUs).” He continues, “You can hear the ‘melody’ in the changing relationships of the percussion’s pulse in different musicians.” Believe me when I say that the result has a unique signature, which is to say that particularly in its varying, almost chaotic tempo it is distinctly different from any extended percussion you or I have ever heard. The subtitles of other sections indicate the grandeur of the music: “Wide Valleys and Clouds,” “Birth of the Oceans,” “Earth and the Firmament,” “And Lo, Now It Is Night,” and “Earth Is of the Heavens.” The music Ives composed at the end of his compositional career was no less innovative than the masterpieces from its apex.

The genius of Johnny Reinhard as a conductor/impresario of contemporary music is that perhaps half of his concerts are devoted to music not heard before, as is the case with the Universe Symphony. Much of his repertoire exploits the sounds between the traditional twelve tones, as befits his founding of the annual American Festival of Microtonal Music. His performances of classics, most prominently by Johann Sebastian Bach, customarily incorporate alternative tunings, about which he customarily gives instructive prefatory lectures (in the tradition of Leonard Bernstein!).

Much like his contemporary Gertrude Stein, also born in the USA in 1874, Ives at his best thought Big and New; the greatness of Reinhard’s Unfinished Symphony comes from his realizing Big and New as well.

Richard Kostelanetz’s recent books include Intellectual Correspondence in the 21st Century (a CD-ROM, published by Archae Editions).

Charles Ives: Universe Symphony is available at


Richard Kostelanetz

RICHARD KOSTELANETZ recently completed a second book of essays on innovative music.


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2005

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