It’s About Time

At the turn of the century, concert music in America was dominated by European works. American composers like Edward MacDowell, George W. Chadwick, Daniel Gregory Mason and Horatio Parker, trained in European theory and practice, created music that was, for the most part, metrically regular and harmonically unadventurous. In 1909, a critic for the weekly, American publication Musical Courier wrote, “We are on the eve of new things through the Straus [sic], Reger, Debussy, Ravel innovations. Where are our English and American composers? Wake up! Wake up!” By that year, Charles Ives was certainly awake. He had already completed such works as the First Piano Sonata, The Unanswered Question, the Set for Theater Orchestra, and the four Ragtime Dances and many smaller “laboratory” or formalistic pieces (“wall paper design music”). The techniques and confidence he was procuring would eventually be incorporated into the works of his full maturity (Take-off #3: Rube Trying to Walk 2 to 3! extended into Over the Pavements for example). However, during his highly productive years from 1902 to about 1917, Ives led a reclusive life detached from the hindrances of the public and the musical establishment. This may account for the development of his unique language and use of techniques that predated those of his European contemporaries.


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William Russell
School March:
32 seconds

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Ives’s unequaled use of rhythm arose from his wanting to use music to evoke nonmusical events in a kind of musical and social collision. By around 1906, with the Two Contemplations (The Unanswered Question and Central Park in the Dark), Ives possessed the technique to keep unprecedented and precisely notated rhythmic and polyphonic devices under control. Describing what led him to write one of his most rhythmically challenging works, Over the Pavements (1906-13), Ives wrote: “In the early morning, the sounds of people going to and fro, all different steps, and sometimes all the same…an occasional trolley throwing all the rhythm out …then back again. I was struck with how many different and changing kinds of beats, time, rhythm, etc. went on together – but quite naturally, or at least not unnaturally when you get used to it.” This aspect of plurality of voices fascinated Ives and was essential to most of his work culminating with the Fourth Symphony. His collage of independent musical quotations or styles and nonmusical events resulted in a complicated polyrhythmic, polymetric, and spatial web. Ives attempted an even more rigorous approach to polyrhythms in the opening movement of his never completed Universe Symphony, scored exclusively for percussion instruments.


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Ruth Crawford Seeger
Piano Study in Mixed Accents:
30 seconds

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By the early 1930s, several Americans had created entire works for percussion ensembles, dropping melody and harmony altogether to focus exclusively on rhythm. The most famous example of this is Ionisation by French émigré Edgard Varèse, but there were many others including works by Henry Cowell, the young John Cage, Lou Harrison, and William Russell, who only wrote music for percussion. Despite the history books claiming Ives to be the fountainhead of American experimental music, by the late 1920s there was already an emerging American musical sentience with no knowledge of Ives’s works; his importance was discovered in reverse. His period of public recognition followed that of other American experimental composers such as Cowell, Dane Rudhyar, George Antheil, Carl Ruggles, and Ruth Crawford, as well as the more traditional Roger Sessions and Aaron Copland who respected Ives, although reservedly.

Cowell began his studies with Charles Seeger in 1914 having already composed the tone-cluster piece The Tides of Manaunaun (1912), and Seeger encouraged him to take a more systematic approach to composition. By 1923, he had composed the Quartet Romantic (1917), the Quartet Euphometric (1919), and The Banshee (1923) and completed the theoretical treatise New Musical Resources (1919 though revised and not published until 1930). It was not until 1923, about five years after Ives had stopped composing (except for a small handful of works) that Cowell had heard of Ives, the older composer having recently self-published and distributed his Concord Sonata (with the Essay) and 114 Songs.


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Henry Cowell
Quartet Euphometric:
27 seconds

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In his New Musical Resources, Cowell developed a system that involved a “physical relationship between rhythm and harmony.” Intervals and rhythms can be reduced to simple mathematical ratios and therefore the latter can be derived from former. The Quartet Romantic develops the rhythmic content from the ratios of a pre-composed harmony. For example: taking C as the fundamental (equaling a whole note or 1) a C major triad (from C4 to E4 whose harmonic ratios to the fundamental are 4, 5, and 6) produces rhythmic values of the same ratio (4:5:6). Of course, this is the most basic example and only resembles the first three measures of the quartet. When dealing with other ratios it proves enormously problematic and Cowell spent much time developing a series of geometric note-head shapes to realize these complex rhythms. His system, however, makes limited appearances in the quartet and the piano piece Fabric (1920). In the one-movement Quartet Euphometric, Cowell produces a metrical structure rather than a rhythmic structure derived from the fundamental harmonic theme: using the C major triad, the harmonic ratios (4:5:6) produce complete measures of 4 against 5 against 6. Again, the problems of developing a metric structure derived from one chord were vast and to overcome this dilemma, Cowell began a new polymetric set before the previous cycle was completed. Recognizing the dangers, Cowell never fully applied his theories, the few exceptions being Fabric, Rythmicana (1938), and the Concerto for Rythmicon and Orchestra (1931). The latter was written for a mechanical percussive instrument invented by Leon Theremin whom Cowell asked to develop to play complex polyrhythms.


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Conlon Nancarrow
Study #36 for Player Piano:
33 seconds

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Although New Musical Resources is a remarkable book, Cowell’s theories are only partially realized in his compositions. In his music, like Ruth Crawford’s later pieces, it is difficult to be aware of the underlying foundation that the music derives from when one can only hear the independent lines played simultaneously. This brings to mind the Arguments movement of Ives’s Second String Quartet as well as the music of Elliott Carter. Cowell’s methods of generating complex rhythmic relationships by pre-determined systems resemble the approaches used by John Cage in the 30′s and 40′s and by American serial composers in the 50s. Cowell’s work predates by some thirty years Messiaen‘s Mode de valeurs et d’intensités whose structural rigor sparked European serialism.

Cowell’s rhythmic theories were especially influential to the young Conlon Nancarrow. Before the advent of the electronic medium, Cowell suggested in New Music Resources that the player piano could be used to effectively accomplish complex rhythms. Taking this cue, Nancarrow revived a somewhat obsolete instrument and composed some of the most radically elaborate pieces for it. The defining characteristics of Nancarrow’s work is his rhythmic procedure: changing tempos and meters to simultaneously different tempos and meters; structured mensuration canons layering individual rhythmic strands at ratios like 17/18/19/20 (Study #36) or other irrational ratios like √2/2; or combined voices that accelerate or decelerate in an “unfixed”, non-metrical manner (a rubato effect although accurately punched on the piano roll). Add to this the occasional “boogie-woogie” bass line, swing-eight blues, ragtime, and jazz and the resultant effect is a polyphonic texture of immense complexity. His Studies, like Carter’s music are indeed complicated and they are meant to sound complicated. However, where as Carter affiliates opposing layers of rhythm, meter, and tempo with conflicting dramatic roles, Nancarrow views his rhythmic process as mathematical. Both these views differ from American and European integral-serialists whose intricacies and processes are concealed (the resultant effect, however, sounding random and aimless). Unconcealed complex metrical procedures are once again in vogue in the music of the so-called “totalists.”

From It’s About Time
by Matthew Tierney
© 2000 NewMusicBox