Universe Symphony CD Reviews

All Music Guide Click to scroll Time Out New York
Chicago Sun-Times down to review Village Voice, New York
College 500 Fanfare WNYC

download a bundle of four five-minute excerpts
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c1948 photo: Clara Sipprell
courtesy Yale Music Library

All Music Guide

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Charles Ives: Universe Symphony (Realized by Johnny Reinhard)
*****
(performance)*****(recording)
published July 29 2005, reviewed by David Lewis

...this is the first recording of the Universe Symphony that seems to impart something of the flavor of the piece as Ives' described it in his non-musical writings. The sound quality of this recording is great...not beholden to the average classical producer's dictum that the sound of the hall is the most desirable frame for the music, Thorne brings a pop producer's sense of expediency to this project, with extraordinary results. Only 19 musicians cover the 77 parts in Ives' score, with the rest achieved through overdubbing, but the performance sounds integral rather than as a composite, and redistributes the various parts effectively throughout the sonic plane...

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Charles Ives postage stamp from 1997Time Out New York
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Issue 511 p158, July 14-20 2005

While there is no way to definitively complete a work left unfinished at a composer's death, a speculative stab at predicting its final design can prove valuable on a variety of levels. In such cases, success is often measured by how egolessly an arranger assumes the original creator's musical skin. But when approaching Charles Ives - who left incomplete his largest and most ambitious work, the Universe Symphony, - an interpreter has to render not only the composer's notes, but also the spirit and spirituality of the man.

Johnny Reinhard, founder of the American Festival of Microtonal Music, manages to capture the many contradictory facets of Ives in his new version of the Universe Symphony. An earlier completion by Larry Austin, available in multiple recordings, interpolated newly composed material. Reinhard's conception attempts to fulfil Ives' intentions to the letter, from its otherworldly opening bleat to a stalwart if unsettling march and final fade. No mere 'Ivesian' pastiche but a substantial realization of the composer's visionary aims, the Universe Symphony is nothing short of spectacular.

Producer Mike Thorne, a pop-music professional whose past credits include the Sex Pistols and Soft Cell, captured Reinhard's design with an ensemble of only 18 players, recorded one at a time. The resulting sound, loud yet intimate, may rattle purists. Though nontraditional, the recording makes a huge sonic splash, one wholly appropriate to Ives' cheeky spirituality and sweeping, grandiose musical gestures.

- Daniel Felsenfeld

Fanfare
complete comparative review reprinted below (not available online)
transcribed from the magazine

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IVES (realized by Johnny Reinhard)  Universe Symphony  Johnny Reinhard, cond; AFMM. STEREO SOCIETY S007 (64:43) Available for $16 at www.stereosociety.com

IVES (realized by Larry Austin) Universe Symphony. Symphony No. 2 Michael Stern, cond; Johannes Kilitzki, Michael Schmidtsdorfff, Christian Vos, asst cond; RSO Saarbrucken  COL LEGNO WWE 1CD 2O074 (74:52) Live: Saarbrucken 5/24/1998

There have been at least two “realizations” of Charles Ives’s Universe Symphony, which was an idea more than a score that he thought about for four decades (1911-1954).  At one time, Ives envisaged thousands of performers and many orchestras and choruses spread out over the hills and valleys.  Just as it took a visionary to imagine the music that could represent not only the physical universe but one of life and spirit as well, so it took visionaries to attempt the realization of such an all-embracing concept.  That both use the word realization rather than completion is suggestive:  the job was more than just deciphering sketches, putting the pieces together, and orchestrating the result. 

Both Austin and Reinhard have written extensively about their work, and lengthy excerpts serve as program notes to each disc.  They agree that this is a three-part work, although Reinhard adds a Prelude to each section.  A comparison of section titles may be helpful:

AUSTIN                                                                                                REINHARD

Life Pulse Prelude                                                       Fragment:  Earth Alone

1:  Past:  from Chaos                                                            Prelude No 1: Pulse of  the Cosmo

     Formation of the Waters and Mountains                Section A:Wide Valleys and Clouds

2:  Present:  Earth and the Firmanent,                         Prelude No 2: Birth of the Oceans

      Evolution in Nature and Humanity.                      Section B: Earth and the Firmanent

3:  Future:  Heaven,                                                     Prelude No 3:And lo Now it is Night

     and the Rise of all the Spiritual                               Section C: Earth is of the Heavens

One can hear and see the similarities, but the differences need some explanation.  Austin’s version runs for 36 minutes, Reinhards for at least 65.  The gap lies mostly in Renhard’s “Pulse of the Cosmos,”  half an hour of pure percussion, much of it a slowly beating single drum.  In the Austin version, that music-“Life Pulse Prelude”- is overlapped at the first Earth Chord, a rough equivalent of Reinhard’s “Earth Alone,” and continues throughout the “Past” section; it is also faster, of which more below.  Both divide the score into multiple orchestras:  Austin calls then Heavens Orchestras A, B, C and D;  Life Pulse Percussion Orchestra; Rock Formation Orchestra; and Earth Chord Orchestra.  Reinhard names the Earth, Heavens, and Pulse orchestras.  Both versions of the Pulse music have complex rhythmic elements we now associate with minimalism, especially Steve Reich:  instruments in the percussion orchestra operate at different meters, coming into phase and then drifting out again.  There are also microtonal features, which can make the low brass seem badly out of tune - in both recordings – until one gets the drift of what is going on.

There are second recordings of  each realization, although that of a 1996 Reinhard live performance at New York’s Alice Tully Hall was never commercially available.  The AFMM Orchestra, as it is identified on the CD label, is the American Festival of Microtonal Music, which gave that premiere.  There are 74 parts, one player each, but this Stereo Society recording was made by 18 musicians performing in small groups and then layered into the result.  This explains why Stern needed assistant conductors for each orchestra and Reinhard did not.  Such techniques increase the importance of the producer (Mike Thorne) and the engineer (James Rosenthal), who must work even more closely with the conductor than in a normal studio recording.  Thorne has written a fascinating article about this.  As this is not the work where close ensemble of the entire performing forces needed, the result is totally successful:  it’s great-sounding disc, having far more impact than in 1996 one.  On the other hand, a piece of orchestral music that does not require ensemble playing may raise a red flag for some Serious Record Collectors to avoid the Universe Symphony.  The Stereo Society disc comes with a 32-page booklet containing two articles by Reinhard plus pictures of recording sessions and full-paragraph bios of all 18 musicians.

The Col Legno disc gives us a live performance of the Austin Realization.  The prolonged opening chord from low strings, reminiscent of Das Rheingold, is extremely quiet;  Reinhard uses low brass, at a higher dynamic level.  The percussion section that follows is bright, quick, and busy, suffused with the tinking of small bells;  Reinhard’s is more stately, with larger, heavier bells.  Austin’s orchestras are more conventional and do require ensemble playing, especially when achieving the grandiose climaxes of the “Future” section.  The Col Legno recording is complete on a single track, but a detailed chart in the booklet sorts out the formal continuity of the music and the participation of the various orchestras, measured along a time axis from zero to 36 minutes.  The live recording is natural and well balanced, but it does not achieve the detail and character of Stereo Society’s creation.  The notes include Austin’s detailed essay on his realization of Ives’s manuscripts.  This Col Legno disc is much preferable to the earlier Centaur one of the Austin realization.

Of course, there are extra-musical considerations with any work that attempts to achieve so much.  One must buy into the spiritual implications to appreciate the Universe Symphony, and the extent to which one does may suggest a choice between Reinhard and Austin.  On the surface, Austin’s version is more conventionally musical, and the longueurs of Reinhard’s 65 minutes can seem endless.  But one surrenders to the Emersonian Zeitgeist of it all, the Reinhard becomes even more deeply involving; certainly his performance is more mystical than Stern’s.  Both of these discs are musts for the Ives enthusiast.  Which realization is truer to the composer’s thoughts and sketches must remain the unanswered question.

This performance of the Second Symphony has a lot going for it; much is different from what we are used to which is what makes it interesting.  The gentler moments are tender and wise, and the Allegros brisk and light; the playing of the Saarbrucken Radio Symphony is clean as a whistle.  But some of the high spirits of the work have drained out; string-playing is always conservative, with a restricted dynamic range.  Lower strings in the particular are recessed; one keeps hoping for cellos and basses to roar forth, but they never do.  Finally, many of the 19th-century American folk tunes almost disappear; when they are in the background they don’t come through, and when up front they blend too well into the overall fabric, so that we hardly notice them.  In the final coda, the orchestra finally takes wing, and the fine studio recording allows us to hear everything in the score.  Like Michael Tilson Thomas’s Sony recording with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra, the Yankee iconic-clasts’s soaring vision becomes just another fine Germanic symphony.  Although certainly not in the class with Leonard Bernstein’s three recordings, this is a fine alternative version. 

- James H. North

WNYC
click here to go to show page with audio interview streaming (the full show - Johnny's interview is about halfway through) and mp3 download

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WNYC's Soundcheck.
June 6 2005
Soundcheck, hosted by John Schaefer, is WNYC’s daily talk show about music. Covering all musical genres, Soundcheck celebrates the musical passions of performers, composers, and critics as well as the public radio audience. John Schaefer interviews Johnny Reinhard and Mike Thorne about the making of the Universe Symphony.

The College 500

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Ives' Fifth Symphony

published July 29 2005

Two extensive and very informative reviews by Edward Sackett and Michael Berest, doubling as a thoughtful introduction to the Universe Symphony and its place in Ives' work. Very broad in approach, even mentioning Led Zeppelin in passing.

Also featured are seven streaming videos from an interview with Johnny Reinhard, discussing the project and its progress. They use Windows Media Player. See our Audio On The Web help page if you need background or to download.
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Chicago Sun-Times
complete review reprinted below

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Spin Control
July 17, 2005

For hundreds of years, composers have struggled to evoke the cosmos in their music. Scriabin dreamed of a massive work titled Mysterium that would last for seven days and be performed on instruments, including bells suspended from clouds. Mahler and Bruckner evoked the earthly world and farthest heavens in their sprawling symphonies.

From 1915 until he died in 1954, American composer Charles Ives struggled to get down on paper the sounds of a stupendous Universe Symphony that filled his head. The iconoclastic composer aimed for nothing less than [tracing] with tonal imprints the vastness, the evolution of all life. All he managed to achieve, however, were reams of notes, diagrams and charts, only 39 pages of which have survived. He acknowledged defeat but hoped that someone else would complete the work.

A few composers have tried, the most recent being Johnny Reinhard, a New York-based bassoonist, teacher and founder of the American Festival of Microtonal Music. Working from Ives' notes, he created a 64-minute work for 74 musicians, 14 of them percussionists, that had its world premiere in New York in 1996. This month the Stereo Society has released a CD of the piece performed by the AFMM Orchestra, conducted by Reinhard.

Musicologists will ultimately decide whether Reinhard's realization achieves Ives' vision, but the Universe Symphony has all the evanescent sweep and delicately wrought dissonance of Ives' finest pieces. His beloved hymn tunes, marches and sentimental songs are conspicuously absent, and the symphony's sepulchral drums and spectral gongs can turn numbingly ponderous. But there is also something exalted about the music's underlying pulse: a steady, dry clang like the sound of heavy rope slapping against metal sailboat masts in a wind-ruffled harbor at midnight. Perhaps, as the second movement's title would have it, that truly is the Pulse of the Cosmos.

- Wynne Delacoma

Charles Ives postage stamp from 1997The Village Voice, New York
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Reconstructing the Universe
A new recording puts Johnny Reinhard's reconstituted
Ives score to the test, and touches on the controversy ignited in academic circles.

September 9 2005

....the story Reinhard confronted held that the diabetic, nervously ill Ives was still adding to the piece in bits as late as 1951—but the sketches were mostly dated 1915, well before Ives's health problems started, when he was at the peak of his creative powers. Parts of the piece were scattered over unrelated-looking pages, but Reinhard noticed a set of curious notations, little circle, dot, and triangle symbols, which, when linked, seemed to draw the fragments into plausible order. He thinks Ives thought the piece too ambitious, possibly even too unmusical, to be performed and thus didn't admit that it was basically finished. Besides, who's Johnny Reinhard? Certainly an outsider in the world of Ives musicology—but then, sometimes outsiders notice things the insiders miss.....
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- Kyle Gann

Ives Primer 1: His Life
Ives Primer 2: His Significance
Ives Primer 3: His Universe Symphony
Ives: Short Biography
Ives Downloads and Resources

Symphonic Tradition And The Universe Symphony, by Johnny Reinhard
Of Pitch And Time: Delivering The Universe Symphony, by Johnny Reinhard
Interview (2005) with Johnny Reinhard about the Universe Symphony

Performers of the Universe Symphony
Recording the Universe Symphony: the producer's note
Recording the Universe Symphony: the sound engineer's note

Thumbnail links to selected Ives site illustrations

Premiere Previews and Reviews:
New York Times June 2 1996
(Richard Taruskin)
New York Times June 8 1996
(Alex Ross)
Village Voice April 5 1995 (Kyle Gann)
Village Voice June 4 1996
(Kyle Gann)
Village Voice June 25 1996
(Kyle Gann)

Johnny Reinhard: A Short Biography 2005
To Johnny Reinhard's home at the Stereo Society