Charles Ives; source:


But… What Is "the Question”?

An academic debut as a conductor can be an amazing opportunity for a music theoretician. For certain young musicians, even a real life-changer, especially when it is held in the National Conservatoire in Lyon, France. Also at venue named after Varèse, and under the supervision of Fabrice Pierre, French harpist and director who back in the days was appointed by Pierre Boulez himself as an assistant conductor of the famous Parisian Ensemble intercontemporain (founded by Boulez). The repertoire of the concert Nuit Américaine. Atelier XX-21 conducted by Pierre, focused on 20th century American compositions, among which The Unanswered Question by Charles Ives stood out.

The short program piece is actually believed to be the most frequently performed composer’s oeuvre. Before it gained its final version, Ives had revised it on several occasions. The modifications concerned various musical elements, like adding a string introduction and upgrading the dissonance level. It took forty years for the score sketches to reach their premiere. Ives’s idea implied the spatial organization of chamber orchestra. For this reason, the performance required the involvement of two conductors who were located in two separate sides of the concert hall – one with a woodwind section on stage and the other with a string ensemble off-stage[1]. That is why, Fabrice Pierre striving to faithfully maintain the tradition, needed additional conductors. As a result, it was me on the stage conducting woodwinds, Pierre in a built-up passage behind the stage with string ensemble, and another conductor for the trumpeter who was standing upstairs, behind the concert hall door.

The Unanswered Question derived from transcendental values, is divided into three independent texture layers that Ives described:

the strings representing »the silences of the Druids, who know, see and hear nothing«, the trumpet posing »the perennial question of existence«, and the woodwinds searching futilely for »the invisible answer«”[2].

Indeed, the trumpet repeats seven almost identical questions, however the woodwind quartet attempts to answer them only six times (in dissonant manner). The dialog occurs in the peaceful string background featuring tonal harmony (G major center – C major center – G major center) that has a choral character and pianissimo dynamics. One can even tell, that the whole construction resembles non-rigorous rondo-like form with QAQBQCQDQEQ’FQ format (where Q stands for questions and other sections for answers).

Interestingly enough, the piece has aleatoric features. For instance, in the score, Ives suggests the possibility of interchanging the instrumentation within the woodwinds and including additional bass line in certain circumstances. He also desynchronizes the layers in terms of time measurement and tempo (the woodwinds’ parts have a different bar-division from the rest of the voices). Besides, the composer applies polyrhythm, varying the sense of time in each texture. Long values in strings, perhaps suggesting the druids’ eternal impermanence, completely deprive of a sense of beat. The contrasting part of the woodwind quartet becomes more aggressive and faster with each section. Finally, the calm part of the trumpet rises above the undefined spacetime of the druids and above the rebelliously animated woodwinds, giving the piece a timeless dimension.

Due to innovative approach in introducing spatial solutions, extending the harmonic language with bold dissonances, as well as experiments with aleatoric elements, Ives is considered as one of the three precursors of American experimental music[3]. The composer assures freedom of score interpretation, and what’s more, his non-conventional techniques significantly influence the listener’s perception. Apart from above, Ives seems to somehow stress the number 13 in the piece. For example, The Unanswered Question begins with the 13-bar progression, questions and answers together make 13 and the piece requires 13 performers (including ten parts and three conductors).

Many struggle to solve the riddle guessing what „the question” is literally, and more so what is the answer”. Given that Ives’s worldview concentrated on transcendental movement (shaped by American literature), it seems that the instinctive response would be hidden in philosophical reflections.

Transcendentalism bases on the concept that human is the spiritual center of the universe and therein lies the key to understanding nature, history and the cosmos[4]. If the trumpet represents an individual, helplessly lost in the world, could the question be why do we exist? what is our purpose?

(At least it is not really about to be, or not to be”, understood as pre-suicide doubts). As a matter of fact, Matthew McDonald proposes rather a bitter perspective. He associates the answers” with Ives’s public who was mocking his music, following the composer’s recollections how his performances were usually ending in a fight or hiss[5]. The composer actually mentioned the flute mockery in the foreword to the score. Undoubtedly, the question motif” determines the sound material of the woodwind layer. The intervals do not always have the same size, but substance consistency is provided by similar direction in which the motifs are built, their rhythm and the distance between them. One can get the impression that, by transforming the question motif”, the woodwinds mock the poor trumpet for real!

Thomas Larson, for instance, slightly modifies the message and asks: We don’t exist? We do exist? We might exist?”[6]. It seems that (regarding transcendental values) the starting point for accepting something as the truth (both material and spiritual) is the reflection on the act of existence itself.

Another idea had Leonard Bernstein, though, who interpreted the metaphysical matter with reference to musical art. His attitude would probably suit most music-oriented insiders. Bernstein wondered whither music?” as he felt that it was another question posed by Ives, too.

He believed that more than finding the resolution, was to understand the question and redefine it. He clarified his view in following words: Even to guess at the answer to “whither music?” we must first ask whence music? what music? and whose music?[7]. In fact, could Bernstein’s perspective serve as the answer” to my title question?

Lyon’s audience is generally accustomed to the contemporary music, so the academic concert held several years ago attracted plenty of people. My debut did not turn out to be a long-term success, nevertheless, the cosmic and subtle sound of Ives’s composition created an unforgettable aesthetic experience. To quote Jan Swafford: In “The Unanswered Question” we see the elements of his [Ives’s] art in a nutshell: a work at once timeless and revolutionary, spiritual and concrete, comic and cosmic[8]. And together with the fact that it was the first 20th century composition I encountered live in concert as a little kid, that is probably why, it made such a long-lasting impact on my musical sensibility.


[1] Charles E. Ives, The Unanswered Question, musical score, (New York: Southern Music Publishing Co. Inc, 1953), 3.
[2] Paul Echols, Noel Zahler, Commentary, in Charles Ives, The Unanswered Question, music score, (New York:  Peer International Corporation, 1985), 2.
[3] Cecilia Sun, “Experimental music”, in The Grove Dictionary of American Music, edited by Charles H. Garrett, Oxford Music Online, (July 2012).
[4] Dunja Dujmić, “The Musical Transcendentalism of Charles Ives”, International Review of the Aesthetics and Sociology of Music 2, no 1 (June 1971): 91-92.
[5] Matthew McDonald, Breaking Time’s Arrow: Experiment and Expression in the Music of Charles Ives, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014), 126.
[6] Thomas Larson, “Unanswering the Question”, Perspectives of New Music 20, no. 1/2 (Autumn 1981 – Summer 1982): 378.
[7] Leonard Bernstein, The Unanswered Question: Six Talks at Harvard, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976), 5.
[8] Jan Swafford, “A Question is Better than an Answer”, Charles Ives Society, accessed March 3, 2022, [accesed 23.03.2022].

Partnerem jest Fundusz Popierania Twórczości Stowarzyszenia Autorów ZAiKS

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