– A Peek at Charles Ives’s The Unanswered Question –
“What is the meaning of life?” – perhaps the most iconic of all questions, resonating constantly throughout the history of mankind, its answer/s sought throughout the spheres of religion, philosophy, sciences, art, and even the occult. Despite all efforts, the question is still upon us; on the one hand, the essence behind the answer asks for our own individual commitment and duty, whereas, on the other hand, the quest to find an answer, a viable one, has led to the creation of one of the 20th century’s most remarkable works, namely, The Unanswered Question (1906) by Charles Ives.
Ives believed in the healing power of art, for he strove to create a concept that is not pigeonholed by trifle little nouns or adjectives, such as Christian, pagan, Jewish, or angel; rather, his was a vision, higher and wider than art itself, through which he tirelessly worked to provide an answer to the eternal life’s question. Ives also believed that god’s plan envisioned for man’s spirit to evolve, accompanying nature’s one, and reach perfection. Each one of us is a part of a hero’s individual journey through adulthood and maturation, as is the discovery that the journey is a part of larger, upward quest all of mankind must follow. Ives also saw music as the key piece of the puzzle, playing an important role on this journey, no matter its genre, provided that it is honest and authentic, since he felt that the external sound was in fact an imperfect manifestation of the eternal inward spirit.
Initially, The Unanswered Question was composed as the first part of the cycle titled “Two Contemplations”, whose second part is also a well-known, popular work called “Central Park in the Dark”. As many of Ives’s other works, these compositions were relatively unknown, though they were first published in 1940. Today, both works are treated as separate compositions, and as such can be performed separately, or as one whole piece. The premiere of the orchestra version of the piece, which dates back to 1906, to be revisited by the author in the period between 1930 and 1935, took place on May 11th, 1946, performed by the Julliard’s School of Music’s Chamber Orchestra, consisting of graduate students, and conducted by Theodore Bloomfield.
For one, The Unanswered Question is the first work, in the 20th century that uses space as a key element of the composition. Ives had specified which three groups of instruments were to be placed at which spots in the concert hall, even off stage and in the proscenium area. Spatial music, though present even before this piece in Western music, starting with the antiphonal approach, as a component particular to the newer musical tendencies, appears together with the concept of Raummusik (‘space music’), in 1928 Germany. Ives’s genius is thus greater, since such an idea and concept, so closely connected to electro-acoustic music (due to the capabilities tied to new technological achievements), in his miniature, which he also called “cosmic drama”, he applies quite the revolutionary approach, but most importantly, the work marks the beginning of the end from linear, one-dimensional, one-layered musical art.
The concept of spatial and temporal multi-dimensionality, of tonal, modal, timbre multilayeredness, of collisions of blocs in collage technique, which then get to create new energy, all these seedlings of a non-liner mindset, which later on give birth to the development of different composing schools and creators of 20th century music, are crystallized in this very piece.
Built as a collage consisting of three different layers, which are only seemingly unrefined in their coordination, The Unanswered Question functions in nearly perfect and impeccable macro-rhythmic pulsation of each of the parts. The first layer acts like a phon, starting off the composition. It sounds constant; in the background, and throughout this layer, a quiet and hauntingly beautiful coral keeps on interchanging, something Ives himself called “the Silences of the Druids”. On top of this silence, the solo trumpet introduces an enigmatic phrase, one that represents ‘the eternal question plaguing existence’ (in Ives’s own words, “The Perennial Question of Existence”). This particular timbre, quite poignantly, carries the symbolism of the question, providing an extreme contrast through the color of the string orchestra. These two cannot be bound; they are unresponsive to each other, despite the fact that the trumpet, time after time, renews its phrase.
At almost every voicing of the question, Ives’s woodwind quartet, which he calls “fighting answerers”, attempts an answer. The initial attempts are emphatic to the question, both in a tonal and in an emotional sense; however, as the repetition of the same phrase becomes increasingly frustrating, so do the answers become largely more cynical, and end on a sneer. The trumpet voices the question one last time; this is answered by silence.
At the start of his career, Ives was deemed a prophetic composer, due to his ability to create his own Modernism, even before this movement has its effect on composing in general. A good deal of time had to pass before we could fully grasp the magnitude of Ives’s innovation of the musical expression, as well as be able to question if indeed he was a visionary, striving for something greater and larger in scope and essence, or if the innovations he provided were mere auditory experiments.
My own understanding is with the former camp; I believe that Ives’s work, particularly The Unanswered Question, did in fact reach out and sought something ‘other’, something greater. Through a rather simplistic dramaturgical concept, Ives strikes a philosophical point: the question is infinitely better than the answer, when positioned against the infinite nature of creation. And those who are determined to forcefully obtain an answer should in fact be prepared to appear foolish and ridiculous in the face of such infinite wisdom. In each piece, Ives presents his logic and point, set outside the world of music, which in turn do not destroy the aesthetics or the constancy of the sound, but rather deepen the meaning behind each tone, melodic line or accord. In The Unanswered Question, Ives’s unique and original approach has been sublimated, so that we can examine more closely all of the elements behind his artistic reasoning, while taking a closer look at a piece that is equally revolutionary and timeless, secular and spiritual, comic and cosmic.
During a time when the West rejects the idea of depth and essence, it is important to remind ourselves of Ives, and his steadfast belief in the moral and spiritual essence of art and music. During a time when the essential values have been demoted, when we are being offered packaging instead of content, colorful lies in place of the truth (no matter how painful it may be), artificial pleasures instead of a candid smile, it is both valuable and necessary to remind ourselves of the perennial question – What indeed is the meaning of life?
[While writing this text, notion from the essay by Jan Swafford “A Question is Better than an Answer” were used: http://www.charlesives.org/ives_essay/]
Translated by Bela Gligorova