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TREVOR HOLD has dragged
from oblivion some music
you will not know.

19. Charles Ives's Grand Metropolitan Hotel,
New York City



Most reference books state that Charles Ives gave up original composition - as opposed to tinkering around with old works - in 1916, after the completion of his 4th Symphony. But the award of the Pulitzer Prize in 1947 rekindled the ageing composer to a last burst of activity. By now, however, a new generation of radical young American composers had emerged and Ives was hard-put to keep up with their startling innovations. Nevertheless, the work under discussion bids fair to stand beside Ives's most original works, even surpassing The Unanswered Question and Three Places in New England for sheer audacity.

Inspiration came about in a peculiar fashion. The composer was staying at the Grand Metropolitan Hotel in New York for the annual gathering of the Mutual Insurance Fellowship when one evening, alone in his room, he underwent an extraordinary sonic experience. In the apartment above, someone was playing a recording of popular dance music. In the room below, the young John Cage (who happened to be in town for a Mycologists' Convention) was trying out his recently composed Music for Prepared Piano. Ives himself was listening to a radio programme of old Shaker hymns, whilst, from his open window came the assorted sounds of the New York streets. Overwhelmed by this extraordinary aural panorama, he jumped out of his chair with a mighty 'Goddam!' and snatched up pen and manuscript paper. The result: Grand Metropolitan Hotel, New York City.

The piece, in one continuous movement, is scored for four completely different groupings, to represent the four different 'musics': a 'big band', with full saxophone line-up; a large mixed chorus (Ives specifies the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in his score); a solo piano with the strings 'prepared' with nuts, bolts, screws, razor-blades, strips of rubber, sellotape, etc.; and, to represent the 'world outside', klaxons, car horns (12, each to a different pitch), metal sheets and a range of sirens: 240 players in all. Each group has its own music and its own conductor, with a 'Managing Director' in the middle of the ensemble to co-ordinate where necessary. The work is, mercifully, brief, for the ensuing cacophony could deafen even the toughest eardrum.

It was after the first (and so far, only) performance that Ives made his classic remark (on which he dined out for the rest of his life) to the conductor, Koussevitsky: 'Are my ears on wrong?'; to which the maestro replied: 'Sadly, yes'.


Copyright © 30 March 2000, Trevor Hold, Peterborough, UK


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