Friday, March 28, 2014

Central Park in the Dark

   New Yorkers are scared of the dark. We are used to the bright lights and the big city. Not every block burns as bright as Times Square, but even quiet streets are bathed in the sickly orange glow of the city's sodium-vapor lamps. In the countryside, residents complain about light pollution and spend evenings gazing at the stars. But in the city, the darkness seems counter to the natural order of things. The shadows don't feel right. Perhaps that's why Central Park, even today can still feel unsettling after dark. Central Park is in fact extremely safe. Crime is nearly unheard of in the park today. So why should it still feel slightly menacing? Maybe it's just the stories from the 70s and 80s when the newspapers were awash with headlines of Central Park muggings and assaults. Maybe it's just the quiet hush of the park and the shadows dancing in the limbs of the grand trees. Whatever the reason, the park at night can still be quiet and eerie.
   It is that strange, unsettled feeling that is evoked in Charles Ives' Central Park in the Dark. Ives is one of the most independent and unique musicians on my list. He was born in Danbury, Connecticut, the son of a bandleader. Charles' father George would be the most important musical influence in his life. George was no ordinary bandleader, he experimented with polytonal composition, alternative tunings, and other musical experimentation. Charles even recalled an instance where his father had two bands play a different song on opposite sides of the town square and then march towards each other to create a blending of two unrelatred pieces. Charles would also play organ in churches around Connecticut, and in his days at Yale he would compose popular marches while at the same time being a standout athlete.

Ives in 1909, shortly after composing Central Park.

   After graduating Yale, Ives got a job in New York as an insurance actuary. After 5 years in the field he would start his own company with a partner and would become rich and successful in the insurance business by structuring life insurance for wealthy clients. Frankly, his life seems like a rather typical story of yankee-blue blooded success. But while his public life may have been one of a successful New York businessman, in private he was composing some of the most experimental music in American history.
   Like many geniuses, Ives' work was only discovered and appreciated decades after it was written. Ives put up performances of his music, but the audience was small and the music didn't catch the public eye. Ives remembered the first performance of Central Park in the Dark as having been played between acts at a downtown New York theater in 1907 and that the piano player was so frustrated in rehearsals he stopped in the middle of the piece and angrily kicked a bass drum. It would be 40 years before the piece was performed again properly, by the Julliard Graduate School students in 1946. Even Ives' most popular works wouldn't be performed until the 30s, almost two decades after they were written. Towards the end of his life, Ives would receive the praise of luminaries like Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein. Bernstein would perform Ives' works with the New York Philharmonic many times. But at the time of their creation, Ives' music was unknown. So Ives exists not as part of some larger movement or genre in classical music, but instead as an actor who toiled apart from trends, creating unique pieces of music unlike anything else in the American canon.
   Central Park in the Dark is considered the first mature piece of Ives' career and it exhibits all of the defining aspects of his music. The piece is meant to transport the listener to a place. Ives' described the piece as the sounds that the listener might hear sitting on a bench in Central Park on a hot summer's night. That is why other songs make an appearance in Central Park. The ragtime favorite Hello! My Baby that listeners recognize from Warner Brothers cartoons today, is played over the crescendo of the piece. It is the haunting beginning that evokes the mystical nights of the park best however. The strings and woodwinds are quiet. They create a mood that is suspenseful and full of mystery. Tiny snippets of melody will emerge out of the fog but while they are familiar, they don't seem comforting. They have been distorted by the night and the heat. And the melodies jar with the rhythm and chords of the strings so that the overlapping sounds are discordant and polytonal. Until finally the ragtime music grows louder and crashes into a dissonant final chord, leaving only the hushed strings hauntingly playing on in the summer haze. In just the same way Central Park's paths and trees are familiar but menacing at night, Ives' music takes the most popular music of his day and twists it into an unsettling mood. It is incredible to find a 100 year old piece of music that still sounds experimental and modern. But Ives' was so far ahead of his time that his music stands out today as a singular genius.

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