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The Unmixed Question:
the spatial music of Charles Ives
Charles Ives in 1909
Charles Ives at about the time he wrote "The Unanswered Question (Photo: Courtesy of the Yale Music Library)

Interactive Play The Unmixed Question (1.1Mb download, takes a while, but worth it.)

When does a composer become the "sound guy?"

Charles Ives's "Unanswered Question" of 1906 was the first piece of the 20th Century using spatial separation as a major element of the composition. He specified three groups of instruments to be placed around the concert hall, or even off-stage. One, a solo trumpet, keeps asking the eternal question; the second, increasingly irate and jabbering winds, tries to respond; and the third, a soothing background of soft strings represents the constant harmony of the universe.

This piece influnced many maverick composers, especially 90 year-old Henry Brant, who has composed over 100 spatial works and won the Pulitzer prize last year for "Ice Field" based on this concept.

Now imagine you are Charles Ives at the mixing board. Where would you place each instrumental grouping for maximum effect? How does each combination sound different? How do you bring an eternal piece to a satisfying end?


Lou Harrison
Ives was always aware of how space affects creativity. He built this shanty in 1903 to enjoy the hillside view while he composed.

How to play The Unmixed Question
This interactive is best listened to on headphones. The piece was created using binaural 3D positioning software to move the musical parts around in an imaginary hall. Just to add a little chaos, we have added some other miscellaneous Ives music you can blend in; a practice he did this often, including in the Symphony #4 with clashing bands and choruses.

Wait for the music to load and press the Start icon. Clicking "Location" will send the part to another placement in the space once the previous part is finished playing. You can also control the relative volumes of each part or fade them out all together.

This is a big file. It takes a while to load.

Patience pays off. Don't be in a hurry for the sound to change right after the buttons are touched. Just keep your ears open and the changes will follow.

Never the same sequence twice. There are 16 parts of all different lengths (four parts possible at once.) Because they are different lengths the phrases will never line up the same way twice. This makes for a slowly evolving piece without an end.

The positionings in the space are predetermined. There is no way to force the sound left, right, or to the back of the room.

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