Friday 11 July 2014

The Unanswered Question

Back in 1970 or ’71, my mother gave me an LP she thought I might like.  I’m not sure why she did that, since she had no conception of the sort of music I played.  She herself listened to very little other than Austrian popular music from the ‘40s and ‘50s.  Anyway, maybe because they were seriously cheap, she came home with two LPs, one of which was “Classical Heads”, a peculiar album released on the prog rock Charisma label.

Classical Heads was a mild re-working of mostly mainstream classical music, dominated by Berlioz.  The ‘progressive’ element comprised playing with the phasing effects slider here and there, and occasional over-dubbing with spoken word.  It was not a good album at all, but for whatever reason (maybe because I didn’t actually own many other records) I found myself playing it quite a lot.  And I still have it.  It is sitting at my side as I type this.

But Classical Heads did contain one work which lodged in my consciousness, a track titled ‘The Unanswered Question”.  I rather liked it a lot and imagined it might have been the work of a contemporary prog rock band - sort of Moody Blues meets Pink Floyd.  It was ascribed to a certain “Ives” whose name was unfamiliar to me.  In those days, of course, there was no Internet.  In my youthful naïveté I assumed it was some contemporary piece chosen to fill out the album, but regardless, it became the one track that I wanted most to hear when I took the album out to play it.

Many years later I came across the piece again, this time performed more professionally, and learned that “The Unanswered Question” was in fact a major piece written by the American composer Charles Ives, back in 1908.  In fact, it is considered to be in many ways Ives’ most notable work, despite being very short - typically something like seven minutes in duration.  Despite being hardly demanding on the performing requirements, it is a piece that does not command appropriate prominence in the major classical repertoire.  Both performances and recordings are sparse and hard to come by.

I wanted to write an analysis of the piece, but I find that its Wikipedia page does such a good job that I feel it would be pointless for me to elaborate upon it.  But, in brief, it comprises three components: a slow and quiet shimmering string chorale which forms a permanent backdrop and evolves at the pace of a lava lamp; a solo trumpet which poses an atonal question several times; and a discordant wind quartet which attempts unsuccessfully to answer each question, getting progressively more distraught with each failure.  The final question is, as you might imagine, left unanswered.  Read the Wikipedia page I linked to.

It is a haunting piece, short enough not to require you to invest too much of your time in it, accessible enough to hold your attention, intriguing enough to draw you back again for more.

I have two performances on LP and one on CD.  The CD version is by far and away the best.  It is by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas, on Sony Classical from 1990.  If you look around you can still find it.

I hate to recommend something that can be a swine to find, but sometimes the thrill of the hunt is half the fun!