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Length: c. 10 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, flute, oboe, clarinet (= E-flat clarinet), bassoon, trumpet, trombone, percussion, 2 pianos, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: May 9, 1997, John Adams conducting
The adventurous, maverick spirit that led Charles Ives right into the wilderness of modernity – as a prophet rather than a follower – is often measured against parallel developments by European composers. But as biographer Jan Swafford points out, Ives was not so much interested in originality for its own sake as a method to enhance musical storytelling. Central Park in the Dark is an early example of where Ives’ narrative impulse calls forth a revolutionary compositional strategy involving overlayering and collage technique.
This miniature tone poem actually forms the second part of a diptych with the more-philosophical The Unanswered Question. Ives conceived the pair (titled “Two Contemplations”) in 1906, contrasting the “cosmic drama” of the first with a “picture-in-sounds,” as Ives put it, of a hot summer night from the perspective of a bench in Central Park in the old days, “before the combustion engine and radio monopolized the earth and air.” The storytelling is impressionistic rather than linear, as memories of sonic impressions from vanished times are spliced together in a quasi-cinematic layering.
Ives’ night music of meandering string harmonies represents, like the Park itself, an oasis of nature, against which he juxtaposes an increasingly cluttered sequence of intruding urban sounds. Snatches of passing interruptions (including popular tunes) come from a nearby casino, a group of street singers, the elevated, and sleepless barflies, while a pair of pianolas beat out “a ragtime war.” Chaos ensues when a fire engine passes and a startled cab horse runs off, but eventually the darkness envelopes the scene again in contemplative serenity – “and we walk home.”