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UNDER THE RADAR

Welcome to the first of our new series exploring significant works deserving major attention, yet which have somehow managed to remain Under The Radar.


Ives' Processional: Let There Be Light
Robert Reigle and Steve Koenig

The published score presents the title uncertainly. It declares PROCESSIONAL in capitals; immediately below it is "Let There Be Light" in upper and lower case, with quotation marks, but various recordings label it, um, variously. Is Processional a form of composition, like a march or an prelude, we mused, or is it a title? Is "Let There Be Light" the title of the composition, or a subtitle? We remain in the dark, although Richard Warren, Jr.'s Charles E. Ives: A Discography (Yale, 1972) does list it as Processional: "Let There Be Light," but its information is derived from the format used in Gregg Smith's Columbia album.

The score consists of two pages, written in 1901 and copyrighted by Peer International (New York) in 1955, the year after Ives' death. The structure of this two-minute piece is on the face of it simple: in two parts, the second a repeat of the first, but twice as fast. Starting in unison, the harmonies for each word of the text get progressively more complex, culminating in a massive chord using 6 of the 12 chromatic pitches, which some might call dissonant, but is so rich that it is terrifying. Then follows a brief solo organ interlude leading to the repeat, now at double speed. Following the climactic chord, the singers suddenly join together again on the unison that started the piece.

The seven pitches (c f f# g g# a b) on the word "light" are like the color white, consisting of all the colors; this chord gives way to five stacked major-sevenths in the penultimate chord.

His intention was to create the sound of distance and nearness, with distance invoked via the long durations of the first half and nearness by the rapidity of the second half. All of this gives the listeners the experience of a processional, without having to leave their seats.

We compared the three choral recordings, omitting the performances by brass quartet (another option specified by Ives; there are recordings on BIS and Hyperion brass anthologies).

Ives wrote that "Let There Be Light" can be performed by men's or mixed (male and female) chorus, four trombones, along with organ, four violins, or string orchestra. It consists of two parts:
1. Men's chorus, mixed chorus, four trombones, or four violins.
2. Organ or piano, or if part one is four violins, string orchestra.

Ives noted several options for orchestrating "Let There Be Light." In his list of works, he wrote: "for male chorus (or trombones), strings, and organ." Peer published the score in a piano version, and states that the piece is "for men's or mixed chorus or 4 trombones, organ or 4 violins and organ or string orchestra." Two of the versions we listened to used Ives' first suggestion, male chorus, while the most recent, CD recording used a mixed chorus. All three use organ.

Ives dedicated this processional "To the Choir of the Central Presbyt. Church, New York, Dec. 1901."

CHARLES IVES. Vocal Music. Berkeley Chamber Singers, Alden Gilchrist, organ and conductor. Musical Heritage Society MHS-1240, LP, 1974.

The Berkeley Chamber Singers have the right attitude, but lack some of the cohesion and confidence of the Gregg Smith Singers' first recording. Here the enunciation is more clear, each syllable sounding separate, but the vowel pronunciation can sometimes sound off-for example, "loight" instead of "light." The Swain & Kates organ of the Calvary Presbyterian Church in San Francisco sounds terrific here, with granulated bass tones at the bottom of the audible range.

CHARLES IVES. New Music of Charles Ives: Seventeen First Recordings. The Gregg Smith Singers, Gregg Smith, conductor; Columbia Chamber Ensemble; Raymond Beegle, organ. Columbia MS-7321, LP, 1969.

Among the three recordings, this earliest shines as the most exciting, capturing the spirit of Ives at his most radical, and providing the listener with a thrilling experience. The chorus achieves the unity of spirit necessary to convey Ives' translation of space and movement into sound. Here the chorus consists only of the men, and they sing with moderate vibrato, using it flexibly to expressive ends rather than as the ensemble's given style. This performance commands you to listen, whereas the others, it just goes by

This performance captures the spirit of Ives at his most radical, contrasting the excitement of new harmonies with the simplicity of unisons, all assembled with a programmatic idea that is clearly heard as sound.

The ensemble is tight, yet exhilarating. One keeps feeling that the voices will veer over the edge, that the whole piece is going out of control. But it's planned that way, through the wild harmonies chosen by Ives. The Gregg Smith Singers pull you with them to the precipice and return you to the safety of the unison C that concludes the piece. This performance reveals Processional as one of the gems of 20th century music, on a par with, for example, the miniatures of Webern.

This was recorded in Columbia Records' 30th Street Studios, New York, April 1, 1965. tpiaj

CHARLES IVES. The Young Ives: Early Choral Music of Charles Ives. The Gregg Smith Singers, Gregg Smith, conductor; Thomas Schmidt, organ. Newport Classic NPD-85677, CD, 2006.

Kudos for Gregg Smith for returning to this piece thirty years after his ground-breaking world premiere recording, and for trying different forces, as Ives himself suggested.

Unfortunately, this performance is marred by the use of a wide and slow vibrato that sounds a bit anachronistic. We can imagine a performance using female singers who use the full range of speed and depth in their vibratos. The dream team: Marni Nixon, Sheila Dhar, p'ansori singer KIM So-Hee, Diamanda Galás, Roberta Alexander, Parween Sultana, and shaman KIM Dae Rae.

This new recording uses a mixed chorus. The edge of attack of each word is admirably sharp, but throughout much of it the sopranos are hooting. (Ironically, neither Susan Narucki nor Mary Ann Hart hoot Byron's owls ["…and the answered owls are hooting…"] in their recordings of Ives' song "From the Incantation.")

The organ of St. Peter's Church in New York City has a beautifully clear mid-range, but lacks the earth-shaking low end of the San Francisco instrument. Whether this was due to the engineering or the organ itself is uncertain. The organ, however, seems as if it could have been electronic. Although we prefer the deep organ sounds of the MHS recording, perhaps the emphasis on the higher range of the organ here is more in keeping with the idea of light.



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