In his program note for the brief and atmospheric 1906 tone poem, Central Park in the Dark, Charles Ives wrote,
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.
Originally titled, A Contemplation of Nothing Serious, Central Park in the Dark unfolds as a haunting sonic collage. In a blurring of the senses, it evokes sultry summer air and mysterious nocturnal shadows as much as the literal sounds of a burgeoning metropolis. For New Yorkers, the green canopy of Central Park has long served as an oasis and a refuge from what would otherwise be oppressive and monotonously ordered masonry canyons. During the same year that he composed Central Park in the Dark, Charles Ives lived in Manhattan and founded the insurance company, Ives & Myrick. This is the music of Ives the transcendentalist who, from his park bench, must have delighted in the counterpoint between nature and humanity which, in all of its apparent disorder, ultimately arrives at a kind of primal harmony. In his Essays Before a Sonata, Ives urged us to listen in a way in which we are not “thinking about,” but rather “thinking in music.” This is the kind of deep, attentive, meditative listening that Central Park in the Dark requires.
Arriving at the dawn of the twentieth century without precedent, this music still sounds shockingly adventurous and “new.” We become aware of the long arc of time while being drawn, simultaneously, into the moment. Emerging out of the stillness of a hazy night come the exuberant strains of “pianolas having a ragtime war” with the 1899 Tin Pan Alley tune, “Hello! Ma Baby.” Then, cacophony erupts with shouts, the clang of a fire engine, and a street parade, which brings an almost indistinguishable quote of Sousa’s Washington Post March. When these sounds fade away, we are left with lamenting ghosts.
- Ives: Central Park in the Dark, Ludovic Morlot, Seattle Symphony Amazon
Featured Image: “Central Park, soir,” Jean-Baptiste Sécheret