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Glenn Jones

This new school American Primitive guitarist is a flawless fingerpicker known for diverse open tunings and other harmonic alternatives. His recently released fifth solo album, Garden State, is an elegiac gem inspired by a son’s bittersweet ruminations on his ailing mother and New Jersey motherland. With the joint spirits of Charles Ives and John Fahey in attendance, the Fourth can’t get much more independent. With D. Charles Speer and the Helix.

Thu., July 4, 3 p.m., 2013

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SONGS FOR THE HEART

The modernist master Charles Ives died in 1954, though he had ceased composing almost 30 years before. Now, Rattlestick Playwrights Theater debuts its new Ives-centered work, Charles Ives Take Me Home. It’s not a symphony, but a drama by Jessica Dickey, in which the maestro—“a leader, a genius, one of the great innovators of our time”—appears to referee between a bickering cellist father and his jock daughter. Structured like a sonata, the play concerns Laura, a high school basketball coach, and her dad, John, fourth chair in the Queens Orchestra. Can a long-dead artist (and composer of “Things Our Fathers Loved”) help them to reconcile? Daniella Topol conducts the three-character opus.

Mondays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Starts: May 29. Continues through June 29, 2013

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Wayner Shorter Quartet and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra

The 79-year-old wunder-elder and his powerhouse trio—Danilo Pérez (piano), John Patitucci (bass), Brian Blade (drums)—join Orpheus for what should be a boundary-erasing romp through a few of the saxophonist-composer’s ambitious works for band and orchestra. In addition to Shorter’s Pegasus, Prometheus Unbound, and The Three Marias, Orpheus will also perform Beethoven’s overture Creatures of Prometheus and Charles Ives’s Symphony No. 3, The Camp Meeting.

Fri., Feb. 1, 8 p.m., 2013

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‘Charles Ives Marathon Concert’

Like modernist poet Wallace Stevens, Connecticut native Charles Ives made his money selling life insurance policies in the insurance capital of the world. Proving that double indemnity and the avant-garde aren’t mutually exclusive, the eccentric Ives got his New England rocks out composing 114 art songs inspired by pastoral Americana and its dissonant underbelly. His dense note clusters branded Ives a pariah among the establishment, but Aaron Copland and Arnold Schoenberg championed him as a visionary ahead of his time. Come to this performance of all 114 songs and get a rare glimpse into the paranoid mind of that eager-to-please State Farm guy.

Sat., Jan. 14, 4:30 p.m., 2012

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Mary Halvorson & Jessica Pavone

For this off-the-rails, freak-folk string duo, it was love at first sound when they met through mutual mentor Anthony Braxton, the inscrutable dean of din. Three albums later, they’ve emerged as an avant-garde Thelma and Louise, blazing a trail across the stylistic horizon like a 1966 Ford Thunderbird jerry-rigged from scraps of Eric Dolphy, Django Reinhardt, Appalachian gothic campfires, Charles Ives, and Hendrix-laced psychedelia. These deceptively mellow femme fatales boldly veer off the freeway logjam of cruise-control folkways and keep going over the precipice into the abyss. With Mantra Percussion and Pretty Monsters.

Thu., April 28, 8 p.m., 2011

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WITHOUT BOUNDARIES

The Ecstatic Music Festival, the name of Merkin’s 10-week series dedicated to slipstream, genre-eschewing contemporary music by youngish composers, suggests a rave, but the Bang on a Can–inspired marathon concert that kicks it off today is hardly that. It opens with a rarely heard piece by African-American composer Julius Eastman (who died of AIDS in 1990) and closes some seven hours later with a collaboration between instrument hackers Buke and Gass and composer Missy Mazzoli’s Victoire quintet. In between, composer-pianist Timo Andres plays Charles Ives and his own “Everything Is an Onion”; cellist Ashley Bathgate rocks Mike Gordon’s seminal Industry; Gabriel Kahane (“Craigslistlieder”) performs pop-perfect art songs; violist Nadia Sirota plays Grizzly Bear collaborator Nico Muhly’s Keep in Touch; monster pianist Vicky Chow cranks up the electronics for Daniel Wohl’s Aorta; and more, more, more. If nothing else, the price—free—is bliss indeed.

Mon., Jan. 17, 2 p.m., 2011

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Way Down East

Dir. D.W. Griffith (1920).
Someone once compared D.W. Griffith’s 1920 resurrection of a shameless old Victorian melodrama as a symphony fashioned from the “The Old Oaken Bucket”—and the analogy gives some idea of the movie’s Charles Ives-like combination of kitsch Americana and hypermodern editing.

Thu., May 13, 8 p.m., 2010

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The San Francisco Symphony

Director Michael Tilson Thomas has been marketing the San Francisco Symphony as one would a pop star: He’s wooed critics, promoted records, and even secured placement in a Visa commercial. But selling out has its merits; the orchestra won three Grammys last year and pushed more than 100,000 CDs, thus securing creative flexibility for years to come. This week’s guest stint will be a grab bag of crowd-pleasers and eccentric works, including Ravel’s sweeping redux of Schubert’s Valses Sentimentales and the New York premiere of SFS commission Post Scriptum, Victor Kissine’s response to Charles Ives’ enigmatic Unanswered Question. The answer, by the way, is another question.

Thu., March 25, 8 p.m.; Fri., March 26, 8 p.m., 2010

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‘Wordless Music Presents the Books & Timothy Andres’

The newest installation from the Wordless Music folks, the savvy curators trying to stick classical music’s square pegs into indie rock’s round holes (or vice versa, depending on the accent of your inner geek), bring you a collusion between pianist Timothy Andres and nerd-a-licous sound splicers the Books. Expect works by the great classical synthesizers—Charles Ives and his patriotic weirdness, Dmitri Shostakovich’s meandering and rhythmic sharp contrasts—performed via cello (Paul de Jong of the Books) and ivories (Andres). Hopefully the Books will conclude with a set of their own, but it is unclear at press time.

Thu., April 9, 8 p.m., 2009

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Reconstructing the Universe

In his 1954 biography of Charles Ives, Henry Cowell told the world that Ives’s largest score, his Universe Symphony, was an incomplete and unfinishable torso. In 1986, bassoonist and founder-director of the American Festival of Microtonal Music Johnny Reinhard ran across the sketches for the Universe at composer Lou Harrison’s house and got a hunch that Cowell was wrong. Poring over them, he discerned a key to the work. It took him eight years to create his own version, two more to get it performed (at a 1996 concert I reviewed in these pages), and another nine to come out with a recording, which has just appeared on the Stereo Society label (stereosociety.com). Like the widow-suppressed third act of Alban Berg’s opera Lulu, one of the mythical monuments of modern music has materialized before our ears. But how authentic is it?

The story Reinhard confronted held that the diabetic, nervously ill Ives was still adding to the piece in bits as late as 1951—but the sketches were mostly dated 1915, well before Ives’s health problems started, when he was at the peak of his creative powers. Parts of the piece were scattered over unrelated-looking pages, but Reinhard noticed a set of curious notations, little circle, dot, and triangle symbols, which, when linked, seemed to draw the fragments into plausible order. He thinks Ives thought the piece too ambitious, possibly even too unmusical, to be performed and thus didn’t admit that it was basically finished. Besides, who’s Johnny Reinhard? Certainly an outsider in the world of Ives musicology—but then, sometimes outsiders notice things the insiders miss.

It’s up to the recording to convince us that the key fits. The signal virtue of Reinhard’s Universe is its conceptual consistency. Ives created a basic pulsation heard in a low bell every 16 seconds, which other percussion instruments divide up by playing two notes per measure (cymbal), three per measure (gong), four (bass drum), five (timpani), and so on up to 43 (small steel bars). This variously thickening and thinning “Pulse of the Cosmos” underlies the entire work. Over it run thick nets of melody, uniformly craggy and dissonant. To circumvent the difficulties of such daunting rhythmic complexity, Reinhard produced an overdubbed recording, using only 19 musicians to create the 74 parts needed (for instance, Ives calls for nine flutes, five bassoons, five trumpets, and 27 percussionists). As a result, it’s not the most musical performance one could imagine, but the notes are all there for the hearing, often in a very dense texture.

The music doesn’t sound like Ives—it’s
too abstract, with no quotations or clear melodies—but the
concept
sure does. Think of his Unanswered Question, with its strings symbolizing the universe, the woodwinds the frivolous masses, and then multiply those resources by 30 or so. With its relentless dissonance and half-hour buildup of competing pulses, Reinhard’s Universe seems a crazy cross between Steve Reich and Carl Ruggles. To the extent that this is Ives circa 1915, it is certainly visionary. Can we be convinced it is what Ives was thinking?

The musicological community is not, as yet. Ives scholar Peter Burkholder responds, “I certainly do not subscribe to the idea that Reinhard has achieved a restoration of ‘what Ives wrote’; his version is a realization.” Given Reinhard’s renegade status and roundabout methods, he and the academics haven’t seen eye to eye. The latter are sticking for now to previous Universes: one by Larry Austin, recorded on Centaur with much new material composed by Austin, and one by David Porter, soon to be recorded, that is only one section of the piece. But Reinhard’s is alone among them in its claim to be both complete and 100 percent Ives, and a showdown at the Musicology Corral is inevitable. Stay tuned.