The American composer Ives has often been associated with experimental music. Indeed, his works include polytonality, polyrhythm, tone clusters, aleatory elements and quarter tones. It is no surprise that the musician ventured into such territories, as the beginning of the 20th century was a fertile period for musical explorations and avant-gardism. As a matter of fact, his dates almost coincide perfectly with the ones of the leader of the Second Viennese School, Schoenberg.
Some of the composer’s most famous works include a symphony — A Symphony: New England Holidays — , depicting the four seasons through American holidays and celebrations, an orchestral set — Three Places in New England — and a piano sonata — the Concord Sonata — written after American writers. It is therefore no surprise that his work for chamber orchestra “Central Park in the Dark” revolves around American themes and places, and expresses some of his most forward thinking musical ideas.
“Central Park in the Dark”, composed in 1906, is considered as one of the most radical works of the 20th century. Ives describes it as “a piece purports to be a picture-in-sounds of the sounds of nature and of happenings that men would hear […] when sitting on a bench in Central Park on a hot summer night.”
The composer is well-known for his dissonances, however contrary to some other experimental musicians, with this piece it is a matter of exploration serving creativity. It is not so much a question of finding new sounds but rather accurately depicting existing ones. It is thanks to the concepts related to what would become atonal music that Ives is able to break the barriers of tonality in order to provide precision and detail.
By grouping and placing the instruments in three different and independent groups — all with their own tempi, keys and musical content — the composer creates a full sensitive picture. An under-layer is made of the strings that depict the sounds of the night, another layer of winds and percussion interrupts the tranquility through street parades, and one can even hear a ragtime piano in the apartment next door.
Descriptive — or programmatic — music in 1906 is nothing new. In fact, Vivaldi had been doing this two centuries before Ives; but it is a completely different approach that is taken by the American composer. While Vivaldi would not sacrifice traditional rules of harmony for sound accuracy, it is something that Ives not only does, but musically claims; it is how his music is built. A close study of the harmony of the piece reveals polytonality, clashing sounds and tone clusters. More than a musical work, it is a sensitive experience.
Of course, it is difficult not to relate to Messiaen too, who with his studies on birds songs would bend and rewrite the rules of music as much as needed in order to portrait the sounds that he heard.
Stravinsky said of Ives that “he quietly set about devouring the contemporary cake before the rest of us even found a seat at the same table”. Once one goes past the apparent difficulty of sonorities in the piece, one can only stand fascinated in front of this work, and its creator’s vision.