Saturday, May 22, 2010

Ives v. Pythagoras

Charles Ives wrote his String Quartet No. 2 between 1907 and 1913 in reaction to what he called the “weak, trite, and effeminate” quartet playing to which he had been subjected in the concert halls of his time. “After one of those Kniesel Quartet concerts in the old Mendelssoll,” he wrote in his autobiographical Memos, “I started a string quartet score, half mad, half in fun, and half to try out, practice, and have some fun with making these men fiddlers get up and do something like men.” That makes three halves, but there’s also a fourth: the composer’s drive toward spirituality, which emerges in an unforgettable finale. (In time, Ives reworked this section into the last movement of his Fourth Symphony, his definitive answer to the question of existence.) The quartet’s three movement are titled “Discussion,” “Arguments,” and “The Call of Mountains,” and the program Ives scrawled on the manuscript refers to “four men — who converse, argue … fight, shake hands, shut up — then walk up the mountainside to view the firmament.” He called the quartet “one of the best things I have,” and so it is.

It has been recorded several times by the likes of the Juilliard, Cleveland, Concord, Leipzig, Emerson and Kohon quartets. While most of the performances are excellent, they all have one thing in common: they rely on equal temperament, the system of tuning that has dominated Western music since at least the middle of the 19th century. It never occurred to me that Ives might have had another system of tuning in mind when he composed his Second Quartet, but this week, I finally acquired a recording that proceeds precisely from this heretical idea. The CD, entitled simply Chamber, was issued in 2004 by the American Festival of Microtonal Music is still available online. It also includes microtonal works by Xanakis, Harry Partch, and Lou Harrison.

The booklet notes on the Ives quartet are brief and deserve to be quoted nearly in full:

While Ives’ music can be very dissonant in equal temperament, it was discovered by Johnny Reinhard that there was a different intent by the composer, ideally, in producing the intonation. This performance by the flux quartet makes use of extended Pythagorean tuning, giving 21 specific notes [per octave?]. The intonation change dramatically increases the powerful impact the music has on a listener …”

I would have liked some more detail — much more detail, really— on Johnny Reinhard’s discovery. Ives’s notes on the quartet are sketchy, consisting of the few sentences in his Memos quoted above and some manuscript marginalia. As for the observation that Ives’ music “can be very dissonant in equal temperament,” that’s sort of the point of much of it. And, as things turn out, the music is no less dissonant with the Pythagorean tuning, and in some places quite a bit more.

As the notes promise, the impact on the listener — on this listener, at least — does indeed increase the power of the music, especially in the first movement, which in performance can be the weakest of the three. The change in tuning results in a deliciously dense sound, but the playing, by the dreadfully named Flux Quartet, lacks the attention to phrasing and articulation that makes the more conventional recordings so memorable. The middle movement, “Arguments,” retains all of Ives’s aggressiveness — and then some — but none of his wit. The music just isn’t funny anymore. And the finale is transformed from a testament of inner peace into an extended mad scene. The high, squeaking violins are hard to listen to. They hurt my teeth.

As a comparison, I listened again to the fine recording by the Blair Quartet on the Naxos label. I often think of Naxos recordings as the ones you buy when you’re low on funds and nothing better is available, but Blair gives a beautifully thought out performance that captures all anger, fun and the grandeur Ives put into the score. (Compare the timings, too: The Blair plays the last movement in 11 minutes and 49 seconds. The Flux takes just 9:27. Performers need to let this music breathe.)

Who knows but that Ives would have approved of and enjoyed the Flux Quartet recording? He very well might have. It was a worthwhile experiment, but hardly definitive, and I do hope it doesn’t become the norm.

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