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Chronicle of the NonPop Revolution

The Essay
Show #460
The Unanswerable Question
David Gunn

In March of 1906, Charles Ives was formulating risk management systems for Ives & Myrick, the insurance company he co-founded, when he realized that some of the questions that arose from his actuarial theory were patently unanswerable. No matter how he phrased the queries, a rational response simply was not possible. He introduced Boolean variables to liability; he turned his firm's triple indemnity clause into a trifecta; he even went so far as to throw syntax out the window, where it crashed through the Nassau Street sidewalk and ruptured the water main below. New York Mayor McClellan, who was one of Ives' clients, rushed scores of city workers to the scene to repair the damage. The pandemonium that ensued right under Ives' office window proved to be serendipitous, for it conjured a hodgepodge of musical altercations and set him on the path to composing his own "Unanswered Question." What sounded like a racket to his co-workers was music to Ives' ears. The more tumultuous the street noise became, the more confidently Ives scribbled into his musical notebook. But after three weeks, the water main was repaired and the work ceased. As did the noise. As did Ives' muse. The ink was barely dry on the dazzling ukulele cadenza that ended the piece's fifth recapitulation when he realized that he didn't know what question it was that the music wasn't answering. And until he did, he couldn't write another note. So he put both his insurance business and his compositional career on hold, booked passage on a tramp steamer, and sailed off on a quest that took him from Boston to Bangkok, Peking to Peoria, always searching for an answer to his as yet unanswerable question.

In early April, the vessel docked in Why, Arizona, a prodigious feat, indeed, considering the village was landlocked and the nearest waterway, the Colorado River, was 90 miles away. But so great was the magnitude of Ives' quest that it overcame that obstacle. The village was populated mostly by philosophers, logicians and theorists who tried to solve the eternal question of Why? A simple tacit greeting between two passersby sometimes erupted into a passionate argument that raged for days. So when Ives responded with an innocent "Why not?", inadvertently introducing the concept of logical positivism, the village quickly deteriorated into chaos. In fact, a good one-third of the populace simply up and left, moving 1,400 miles east to found the antithetical burg of Whynot, Mississippi.

Nearly six months passed before the ship arrived in Whenwhen, a one-horse town on the east coast of Korea. Ives figured that any place so inquisitive that it had to ask a question twice should have two times as many answers. Unfortunately, the answer to the initial "Where is everybody?" query was plainly "not here," for a weathered tablet under what might have been an artist's conception of a horse revealed that the village had been deserted every since a Mongol horde overran it in 1380.

Undeterred, Ives pressed onward. The place-name of Wattegama in central Ceylon offered enough of a querying quality that he persuaded the ship's pilot to brave previously uncharted mountainous terrain to take him there. But again, the place failed to live up to its anglicized name, for in the native Singhalese language, the word meant "property-casualty." The mere mention of the words, even in an accent that hinted of answers to never-posed questions, was like an anaphylactic shock to the erstwhile insurance guru. Abruptly, Ives' sworn duty to his clients nullified his quest for an answer to his unanswerable question, and he forthwith resolved to return to his business with all due haste. It took another month for the ship to negotiate the narrow footpath that wound back down the Polgahawela Massif, but at last it, its cargo and crew reached the Indian Ocean. Soon thereafter, the East River hove into view. Nassau Street was just around the corner.

Numerous while-you-were-out slips littered Ives' typically tidy desk, and it took weeks for him to respond to them all. In the process, the concept of insurable pure risk switched on a light bulb in the compositional part of his brain. Yes!, he would risk having no answer to his question! With a sudden determination that so frightened Myrick that he leapt out the window--causing a second water main rupture and another two weeks of noisy city repair crews--Ives substituted a mournful trumpet motif for the ukulele cadenza, added a foursome of squabbly flutes, then sat back and waited forty years till members of the Juilliard School would risk playing it.

Not long after Ives finished his unanswered orchestral question, he was able to solve the previously unanswerable actuarial theory queries. Unfortunately, a record of the questions no longer exists; however, the answers were (1) kayak, (2) kasha, (3) kapok, and (4) kakistocracy. A fifth answer, Kaslov, is particularly relevant to today's 460th episode of Kalvos & Damian's New Music Bazaar, because a reshuffling of only half of the letters intriguingly spells Kalvos.