Analysis of ‘Central Park in the Dark’ and ‘The Unanswered Question’

I: Introduction

Charles Ives‘s Two Contemplations (1908) are his Central Park in the Dark (1906) and The Unanswered Question (1908), though Central Park in the Dark has also been grouped with his Hallowe’en and The Pond in “Three Outdoor Scenes.” Central Park in the Dark and The Unanswered Question embody many of the avant-garde musical ideas that Ives famously toyed with, independently of the European experimentation that took place often in the years following the completion of these two compositions.

In fact, Ives’s own innovations had precedent in the curious musical experimentation of his father, George Ives, who was fascinated with the clash of harmony heard in, for example, the polytonal effect of two marching bands playing completely different pieces while passing each other on the street. Young Charles picked up on his father’s then-highly-unusual open-mindedness about the different possibilities of musical expression, and he incorporated these ideas in his own compositions.

Indeed, independently of Stravinsky and Darius Milhaud, Ives made use of polytonality and polyrhythms. Before Bartók, Ives composed agonizing dissonances. Before Henry Cowell, Ives used tone clusters. Without any cognizance of such pieces as, say, Schoenberg‘s 1906-7 Chamber Symphony No. 1, Ives used quartal and quintal harmony (in Central Park in the Dark, as we’ll see). Independently of Alois Hába, Ives composed music with quarter tones. And before Stockhausen, Ives experimented with spatial effects.

The first of these two pieces I’ll be looking at was originally called A Contemplation of Nothing Serious or Central Park in the Dark in “The Good Old Summer Time”. In contrast, the second of these was originally called A Contemplation of a Serious Matter or The Unanswered Perennial Question. Ives wrote detailed notes explaining the programmatic meaning of these pieces. As to whether either of these pieces deal with matters that are or aren’t serious, I’ll give my opinion on that later.

Both pieces are scored for chamber orchestra, allowing for at least some degree of variation in the instrumentation: for example, the two pianos in Central Park in the Dark can be a player piano and a grand piano; while in The Unanswered Question, the woodwind quartet can be all flutes, or two flutes, an oboe, and a clarinet. Both pieces have string sections, each playing a repeated progression representing “silence,” a kind of static music that hovers in the background, while the other instruments (in The Unanswered Question, the four woodwinds and a solo trumpet; in Central Park in the Dark, piccolo, flute, oboe, E-flat (B-flat) clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, percussion, and the two pianos) play independently of the strings, and to a great extent at least, independently of each other, culminating in a huge chaos of dissonance.

So, though the two pieces are understood to be programmatically opposed to each other, there is actually much that is paralleled between them, suggesting (in my opinion, at least) that the opposition of “Serious” and “Nothing Serious” is a dialectical opposition.

Here is a link (with the score) to Central Park in the Dark, here is a link (also with the score) to The Unanswered Question, and here is a link to Samuel Andreyev‘s analysis of The Unanswered Question.

II: Central Park in the Dark

Ives’s programmatic notes for the piece are as follows:

“This piece purports to be a picture-in-sounds of the sounds of nature and of happenings that men would hear some thirty or so years ago (before the combustion engine and radio monopolized the earth and air), when sitting on a bench in Central Park on a hot summer night.”


“The strings represent the night sounds and silent darkness – interrupted by sounds from the Casino over the pond – of street singers coming up from the Circle singing, in spots, the tunes of those days – of some “night owls” from Healy’s whistling the latest of the Freshman March – the “occasional elevated”, a street parade, or a “break-down” in the distance – of newsboys crying “uxtries” – of pianolas having a ragtime war in the apartment house “over the garden wall”, a street car and a street band join in the chorus – a fire engine, a cab horse runs away, lands “over the fence and out”, the wayfarers shout – again the darkness is heard – an echo over the pond – and we walk home.”

As much as Ives’s notes insist that the story, if you will, of this piece is of something trifling and even pleasantly amusing, I can’t help hearing in that string arrangement, “the night sounds and silent darkness,” an eerie, foreboding quality, as if dangers are lurking in the dark. Indeed, that string arrangement is a brilliantly experimental progression using dissonant, non-triadic harmony.

The string progression is, for the most part, in parallel motion, with a number of notable exceptions, some of which I’ll point out. Both the cellos and contrabasses are playing a sustained A-flat for two bars before going up to a B-flat, then the cellos tend to follow the intervallic structures of the upper strings, often moving in parallel motion with them, while the contrabasses stick to B-flat for three bars, then go down to F-sharp for three bars, then to E-flat for the final two bars of the cycle before going back to A-flat.

The first and second violins and the violas play, for the first two bars, stacks of pairs of augmented triads, starting at the bottom with a stack of D and F-sharp and B-flat, and on top of it, E, G-sharp, and C. All of these notes together, along with the A-flats in the cellos and contrabasses (enharmonic with the G-sharp), make up the whole-tone scale.

These violins and violas move up and down by minor thirds in parallel motion over the course of these first two bars, thus returning to the notes I mentioned in the previous paragraph before switching from augmented triads to stacks of perfect fourths, going from the third measure to the end of the fifth measure.

The cellos join the violins and violas in making these stacks of perfect fourths, going mostly in parallel motion until the sixth measure, when the intervals change to eerily dissonant stacks of tritones, starting with a stack of G-flat and C-natural (cellos), G and C-sharp (violas), and G-sharp and D-natural (second violins), with the first violins playing a high A. Each pair of tritones is also a minor ninth apart from the one above or below it, creating especially sharp discords.

These tritones of second violins, violas, and cellos move mostly in parallel motion, culminating in a chromatic ascension topped with the first violins of F-sharp, G, G-sharp, and A-natural that resolves to stacks of perfect fifths in the ninth bar, starting with a stack of E-flat (contrabasses), B-flat (cellos), F (violas), C-natural and G-natural (second violins), and D-natural and that A in the first violins that was tied over from the previous bar.

The perfect fifth stacks continue for the ninth and tenth bars, in mostly parallel motion without the contrabasses, which sustain the E-flat. The very last high note of the first violin pairing, a D-flat, isn’t a perfect fifth from the note under it, a B, because this D-flat must flow comfortably by a half-step to the C of the first high note of the first violins, to return us to the beginning of the cycle, with the augmented triad stacks.

So what we get in this progression in the strings is generally an expansion of intervals from augmented triads (i.e., major thirds), to perfect fourths, to tritones, and to perfect fifths, then back to the augmented triads to begin the cycle all over again. These strings–which, recall, “represent the night sounds and silent darkness,” notated ppp–in their cyclical expansion of intervals and mostly parallel motion, represent a sense of sameness underneath all the surface changes about to be heard in the woodwinds, pianos, brass, and percussion.

Just as with the stasis of the strings in The Unanswered Question, these strings would seem to represent a spiritual mystery incomprehensible to the senses, or to the noisy, dissonant winds and other instruments that fight for dominance at repeated points in the rest of the piece.

The first of these other instruments is a B-flat clarinet playing a piano melody that seems to be in G-flat major, though if that’s true, we never hear the tonic, and an A-natural, heard when the clarinet decrescendos to pianissimo, would be outside of the G-flat major scale. Therefore, if this clarinet tune is understood to be tonal, its tonality is unclear.

The same uncertainty of tonality is heard in the tune that the next woodwind, a flute, plays–coming after a second tune on the clarinet that is almost the same as the first tune, though it ends differently. As the second clarinet tune ends, the flute begins with quarter notes in C, then B, A, and B again in a quintuplet. The flute tune would seem to be in C major, but again, accidentals make its tonality unsure. The same is true of the next woodwind melody, one played pianissimo on the oboe.

What is sure about all three woodwinds, as well as the lyrical solo violin and bouncy piano parts to appear after a statement of the string progression alone (from the last bar of the perfect fourth stacks onward), is that these added parts are, for the most part, melodically, harmonically, and rhythmically independent of the strings. As we know, Ives liked having clashing, independent instrumental parts heard simultaneously.

In traditional music, the melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic reconciliation of all the different instrumental parts is meant to give coherence and unity to a composition, a sense that all of the parts are conforming to and ‘obeying,’ as it were, the rules to give a piece a single direction to be followed, a collective of tones moving to the beat and tonality of, so to speak, one master. The music of Ives, however, defies this insistence on musical conformity and uniformity, preferring to allow each part to go its own way.

In this ‘going one’s own way,’ we can perceive a kind of individualist philosophy underlying the musical experimentation of Ives. If we understand the woodwinds, brass, pianos, and percussion of Central Park in the Dark (as well as the trumpet and woodwind quartet of The Unanswered Question) to be representative of people, then their clashing independence can be heard to be telling us that we should welcome differences of opinion and habit, rather than frown on them.

Vive la différence! Ives seems to be saying.

On the other hand, the soft string parts of both pieces seem to represent that mystical, subatomic unity underneath all the differences that our senses perceive. To use Hindu concepts as metaphors for my purpose, the string progressions are Brahman, while the clashing, independent woodwind, brass, piano, and percussion parts represent the sensory illusion of Māyā.

To attain spiritual peace, Ives seems to be saying through his music, we must stop trying to force everything around us to follow any one, dominant way of doing things. We must just let things be as they are and tolerate them, like the man sitting in Central Park that summer night, listening to all those clashing, conflicting sounds, accepting the fact that contradiction is a universal reality.

[Now, speaking of contradiction, in case any of the readers of my political posts thinks I’m contradicting myself here, realize that the dominant way of doing things that we today are being forced to follow is that of capitalism/imperialism, which when completely wiped off the face of the Earth will result in the withering away of the state, because the class differences that necessitate the existence of a state (to protect the dominant class’s interests) will be eliminated. The slavish obeying of bosses, worker alienation, and addiction to wealth, social status, and material things are far more destructive to individual freedom than socialism could ever be.]

As with The Unanswered Question, in Central Park in the Dark the independent parts pop up and disappear on and off throughout the work. In both works, the instrumental groups are also to be separated spatially (in the case of The Unanswered Question, the strings are to be “off stage,” if possible, away from the trumpet and woodwinds). These spatial separations reinforce the idea that the music each group plays is to be understood as coming from different worlds (i.e., Brahman vs. illusory Māyā, nirvana vs. samsāra).

Approaching the climax of Central Park in the Dark, we hear ragtime piano tunes, flute, and oboe. We also hear the B-flat clarinet quoting Hello! Ma Baby, which will be heard again on the trumpet (One may recall that old Warner Bros. cartoon with the singing and dancing frog). Apparently, the Washington Post March is also played by the marching band group, though I can’t locate it, buried in the chaos and cacophony of everyone playing together. The climax ends with a huge, dissonant swell in the brass and woodwinds, all playing trills in fff.

We return to hearing just the soft string progression. The clarinet comes in softly soon after (piano), then the flute, both of them playing pianissimo together, then we hear the lyrical solo violin part. The winds and solo violin stop, allowing the string progression to play alone again, from the chromatic ascension at the end of the tritone-stack section to that of the perfect fifths stacks.

The piece ends with just the beginning augmented triad stack of (top to bottom) C, G-sharp, E, and B-flat, F-sharp, D. These whole notes decrescendo from pppp to silence.

III: The Unanswered Question

Now, Central Park in the Dark is supposed to be “a contemplation of nothing serious”; whereas The Unanswered Question is supposed to be “a contemplation of a serious matter.” Recall above, though, how I treated that ‘non-serious’ contemplation as actually being the one that is truly edifying in a spiritual, philosophical sense: we should welcome differences of opinion, and note that these contradictory elements are just the illusion of Māyā, deceptions of the senses that cloak the mystical, unifying reality that the strings represent.

I would argue, on the other hand, that the futility of answering “the perennial question of existence” proves how absurd the very pondering of that question is, let alone trying to answer it. Therefore, such a futile pondering is a truly trivial matter. If the question can’t be answered, why waste one’s time asking it? Put away such distractions, and as Camus would later teach us, accept the absurdity and meaninglessness of life. Like Sisyphus, be happy while rolling the stone uphill, as pointless and fruitless as the labour is. Be like the fellow in Central Park at night, hearing the conflicting musical parts: don’t try to make sense of the senseless, and just sit there, receive it all, and be.

Such an understanding is the dialectical unity of the serious vs. non-serious in these two Ives works. Instead of seeing them as opposites of each other, we should see them as paradoxical parallels of each other. Hence, both have ‘silent’ strings looming in the background (or offstage), with conflicting, independent parts clashing with each other and with the strings, these independent parts appearing, disappearing, and reappearing throughout both pieces.

The musical parallels thus reflect the philosophical parallels I described above.

The strings, which open The Unanswered Question playing a G-major chord, ppp and con sordino, represent “the silence of the Druids–who Know, See and Hear Nothing,” according to the text Ives wrote to explain the meaning of the work. The Druids never recorded their knowledge in written form; we know of it only through the writings of others. I can’t say for sure what Ives meant by the Druids ‘knowing, seeing, and hearing nothing,’ but perhaps the point is that even the Druids, for all their wisdom, had the humility to admit to themselves that in that wisdom, “all is vanity,” hence their refusal to write it down.

So the ever-so-softly played, muted strings represent the ‘silent’ Druids’ reticence, their wise reluctance to describe the ineffable reality of life, a reality too fluid to be captured in the ossification of words, words that would distort our perception of that reality too much to be effective. Each string part is also spaced widely apart from the others, giving them all a hovering, ethereal effect. As Ives further describes the strings, they are “like the eternal music of the spheres“; or as I described them (and those of Central Park in the Dark) above, they represent Brahman, nirvana.

The string progression, to simplify, goes from a G-major chord to a B-minor chord, then to a C-major chord (at first, with a suspension second [D] before the second violins do a retardation to the third [E]). Then we have an A-minor chord, which ultimately resolves back to G-major. This, essentially, is the string progression for the whole piece (with some variations later): I, III, VI (a six-four chord), IV, I (with an added 6th), II, I. Note the conspicuous lack of a dominant (V) chord–e.g., no D-dominant seventh chord. The lack of a V chord reinforces the progression’s sense of stasis, which is fitting, since the strings represent that sense of the eternal–unchanging, unaffected by impermanence of the material world.

Still, there are fools among us who aspire to wisdom, to intellectual preeminence, and must ask the question: “What is the meaning of life? Why are we here? What is God’s plan for us?” This question is represented by the trumpet (or English horn, or oboe, or clarinet, according to the score). The tune it plays is without a discernible tonal centre: B-flat, C-sharp, E-natural, E-flat, and C-natural (this last note alternating with B-natural in each reiteration of the tune). Actually, they’re (pretty much) all notes from the octatonic scale.

This lack of a tonal centre is fitting, given the absurdity of trying to receive an understanding of the infinite complexity of life through a straightforward answer, given presumably in the form of a brief sentence. The question itself is pointless, since it can’t be answered.

There are folks out there who aspire to such a stratospheric level of wisdom. Yet as it says in the Tao Te Ching, 56, “He who knows does not speak. He who speaks does not know.” And as Touchstone observed in As You Like It, “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.” (V, i)

Speaking of such talkative fools, the woodwinds (as I said above, either four flutes, or two flutes, an oboe, and a clarinet) attempt an answer to the perennial question. We shouldn’t be surprised to hear how dissonant and atonal their answer is, for after all, which two people will have the same, or even harmonious, answers to such an absurd question? They can only fight with each other for dominance, as religions have done throughout history.

The first of these woodwind answers, marked adagio and piano, is a tentative, cautious, timid attempt, yet ultimately failing. We have mostly tied, held notes, rather than a flurry of them. With each successive attempt, though, the notes are played a bit faster, a bit louder, and with slightly shorter rhythmic values.

Indeed, as the piece carries on, these woodwind answers get more and more frustrated and desperate to get it right, though of course always getting it wrong. By the time of the final attempt at an answer, the woodwinds are frantic, marked molto agitato, con fuoco–a flurry of frenetic notes that botch the answer so badly, they end in a piercing tone cluster.

In the end, the woodwinds give up. The trumpet asks the question one last time, without getting another attempt at an answer. The piece concludes with just the strings holding the G-major chord in whole notes tied over several bars, in a decrescendo to ppp, then to pppp.

IV: Conclusion

So, as we can see, which contemplation is “a serious matter,” and which is “nothing serious,” is at the least a matter of opinion, and at the most the dialectical reverse of each other. Is sitting in a park listening to conflicting tunes “nothing serious,” and is wanting an answer to the meaning of life “a serious matter,” or is it the other way around?

You know my answer; and just for the sake of clarity, my articles on The Three Unities aren’t an attempt to answer “the perennial question,” or to provide life with meaning. Rather, they’re an attempt to provide a sense of organization to the cosmos. Nonetheless, these attempts of mine, too, are more than likely horribly wrong–just more flatulent flutes being dissonant windbags, blowing out fetid, intellectual nonsense.

In sum: don’t take life too seriously. We aren’t getting out of it alive, anyway.

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