Review Summary: Definitely not chill, but definitely chilling.
Charles Ives was perhaps the
Modernist composer. He was both American - blending European classical tradition with church-y, folksy, and distinctly patriotic
sounds of his childhood that imbued his music with that bombastic American flair, and a pioneer - he maintained a proclivity for experimentation throughout his prolific career. Eccentricities in his compositions often suggest his feelings on humans in relation to the cosmos. To Ives, if we had the answers, we would stay complacent, completely satisfied with dull living. However, if we obsessed over the questions, the cosmos would grow as new complexities emerged, thus inspiring new exploration, making the journey never-ending. His music frequently exuded this kind of spirituality, and frequently tackled such questions.
The Unanswered Question
, originally composed in 1908, but reworked in the early- to mid-1930s, is Ives' musical conception of this idea. The working elements of this composition - the strings, trumpet, and woodwinds - are couched in soundscapes extraterrestrial. The composition starts with the strings - haunting and almost too quiet to hear, which fuel the composition, timing it and retaining equilibrium against the madness that eventually ensues. At 90 seconds, the first atonal trumpet melody appears, tepidly asking the (unanswered) question: what is the meaning of life" The woodwinds respond just as tepidly, initially un-bothered, but when the trumpet asks again, over and over, with increasing frequency, the woodwinds get agitated and angry, eventually reaching new heights of aggravation. Meanwhile, the trumpet calmly repeats its melody amidst the chaos, still seeking the answer to the question. The woodwinds, however, defeated and annoyed, retreat back to where they came from.
Ives combined message and music to great effect in The Unanswered Question
. The dichotomy between the questioning trumpet and the answering woodwinds, which conceptually clash, also contrast musically: mellow but steadfast trumpet versus easily riled but ultimately weak-kneed woodwinds. Similarly, the atonal phrasing of the trumpet contradicts the string-based chords, which persist resolutely. Start to finish, they are the only unaffected element, acting as the cosmos in which the trumpet wades, always trying to find meaning; always trying to answer the question.
New York Philharmonic: https://www.youtube.com/watch"v=vXD4tIp59L0