Friday, 17 August 2012

4'33'' and counting...

For a composer some people don't consider to be a true composer, John Cage composed some of the most beguiling pieces of the Twentieth Century. Just take a listen to the Six Melodies for violin and keyboard instrument from 1950. Ignore the technical details of how the piece was constructed and simply marvel at the freshness of Cage's melodies, harmonies and sonorities. This tranquil piece sounds like the sort of music an American folk-fiddler might improvise dreamily on a hot summer's afternoon somewhere deep in the country.

The Six Melodies and the somewhat similar String Quartet in Four Parts (with its beautifully still third movement) came at the end of the phase of Cage's music-making that produced many of his most accessible and popular pieces. The gentle, near-Debussyan In a Landscape for piano from 1948 has won itself many friends in recent years. Hints of the Indonesian gamelan in that hypnotic piece can be heard more clearly in Daughters of the Lonesome Isle from 1945 - a captivating piece written for prepared piano (a piano that has had screws, bolts, pins, wedges and the like inserted between its strings) where the solo instrument is made to sound like an entire Balinese orchestra. (You might also like to try Bacchanale from 1940). The music of this time is often modal or Eastern flavoured, touched by the influence of Satie as much as by the likes of Webern and - dare I say- quite conventional (relatively-speaking). This naturally makes it easier for audiences to fall in love with - as many do. 

Who could fail to be delighted by the Suite for Toy Piano of 1948 - a piece that makes the most of an instrument of highly limited resources and contains yet more tunes? Or the folk-like whimsy of The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs for voice and closed piano from 1942 and the lovely melody of the unaccompanied song (setting e.e.cummings) Experiences No.2 from 1948? Or the delicate music he wrote for the film Works by Calder in 1950?

The CD I fell in love with the music of John Cage to was of the complete Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano (Pts. 2,3,4,5) from 1946-48), dance-like, melodically-appealing pieces of entrancing directness (whatever the compositional techniques involved). Here the modality and the far-Eastern flavour of Cage's music of this period reaches its height. The sonatas are so called because they follow the binary structure of the sonatas of Scarlatti, with each half receiving a repeat. My favourite sonata is XII - a piece of fantasy and good humour with delightful rhythms, bell-like harmonies, ritualistic dancing, attractive melodies, lulling ostinati and, in the second, half Balinese gongs, neo-Mozartian writing and sonorous descent beneath a repeating pattern. I love it. Listen out also for the paired sonatas XIV/XV (Gemini) which are in many ways gentle precursors of Minimalism.  If you don't already know them I urge you to explore them. 

The ballet The Seasons (1947) is another delightful masterpiece from this period. If you ever get to hear it in its orchestral version I suspect you will be even more delighted. 

John Cage is generally known, however, for writing pieces of a more experimental nature. Before this period of approachable pieces he had made some of the earliest forays into electroacoustic music. 1939 saw the birth of his Imaginary Landscape No.1 for muted piano, cymbal and two variable-speed phonographs with amplifiers. This period also saw him writing landmark pieces for percussion, such as the vibrant Second Construction for four percussionists of 1940 and Imaginary Landscape No.2 from 1942 (using tin cans, conch shell, ratchet, bass drum, buzzers, water gong, metal wastebasket, lion's roar and amplified coil of wire). Uniting these two trends and anticipating the 'chance' and 'happening' style pieces to come is the entertaining Credo in Us from 1942 - a piece that pioneers what nowadays would be called 'sampling'. 

As Cage entered the 1950s, the Zen Buddhist influence became paramount and he began his attempt to rid his music of his own personality and wishes. The first steps in this direction were made in the Concerto for Prepared Piano of 1950-51. His music began (for a short period of time) to sound surprisingly like that being written by the ultra-serialist radicals of European music - the Boulezes and Stockhausens. Famously, Cage turned to the Taoist I Ching, or Book of Changes, and wrote his remarkable Music of Changes of 1951 as a result. Applying chance procedures to sounds, durations, dynamics, tempi and density he produced a substantial piece that sounded for all the world like Boulez's 'total serialist' Structures Book 1a - a work whose soundworld was rigorously determined down to the finest detail. This remarkable coincidence of soundworlds - one achieved by chance, the other achieved by the strictest possible application of rules - rather took the sails out of the European Total Serialist project. Why bother meticulously plotting every detail of a piece when something that most listeners would take to be achieved by similar means (Cage's Music of Changes) was, in fact, produced by meticulously applying the results of what (to all intents and purposes) amounts to myriad tosses of a coin?

Cage's music had certainly changed with Music of Changes. Little of what came in the years following it has much chance of achieving popularity - with one very famous exception: 4'33''. Written in 1952 (and re-written in 1960, this study in silence is meant to get the listener to savour the sounds being heard around them, relish the noises, relish the silence, be at one with the world. Many people think its a gimmick, a joke. I don't doubt that Cage was unaware that he might get a lot of publicity from the piece (and, boy, has that happened!!) but I believe his motivation was genuine. It is a pleasant experience to sit and listen to sounds going on around you and allow them to form themselves into a sort of music. I'm not so sure it works in a concert hall, however - as all you get is shuffling, breathing, the odd cough, maybe a stray mobile phone going off. There is so much more to John Cage, though, than 4'33". Once taken on board as an interesting concept, there is no need to every listen to for a second time! Performers should play it far less often and play other pieces by John Cage instead.

Perhaps we could hear more pieces from this period like Music for Carillon I, which continues to demonstrate the composer's love for percussion instruments, or more chance-procedures generated piano works - like the Music For Piano for any number of pianos.

Cage's electronic music also grew far more radical in this period, as you can here from the remarkable Williams Mix of 1952. I always associate this kind of piece with the mid 1950s, where a lot of works can sound rather like it. It's very intriguing that Cage was at the forefront of the style so early. (A later example, Fontana Mix, from 1958 shows this style developing even further).

These pieces show that in the 1950s the music of John Cage sounded close to the European avant-garde. Just listen to the astonishing Piano Concerto of 1957 and compare it with the delights of the piano music of the 1940s to see how far he had moved. His Aria of 1958, which calls for ten vocal styles from the singer (ranging from baby-talk to Sprechgesang to Marlene Dietrich), might remind you of similar pieces by the likes of Berio and Ligeti (and many imitators). 

His application of chance methods and his urge to purge his music of intention grew ever more intense and he gave up writing music in conventional ways in 1958, putting unusual notations and graphs before performers instead and allowing them to interpret them as they chose. The results (as with the Piano Concerto) have an experimental quality that can make them sound rather like electronic music - as with Variations II from 1961. This is the sort of music that is meant to sound like noise - and is noise. Whether you can, as a listener, enjoy it as music is a matter of personal taste. Collage was also becoming a significant interest of the composer's - as can be heard in Rozart Mix for tape loops (which I would urge you, if you can, to listen to through headphones to get the full effect) and which Cage could adapt to the spirit of the time, as in  HPSCHD - a piece that definitely sounds as if it sounds from around 1969! A multi-media event, with slides, films, light effects (etc), HPSCHD is a chaotic-sounding mix of live harpsichords and taped performances of pieces for harpsichord by the old Classical masters.  

As the 1970s arrived Cage returned to writing down his music. The harbinger of this was Cheap Imitation from 1969, a gentle and simple-sounding solo piano piece based on Satie's Socrate. (For those of you who are hating his avant-garde pieces this might come as a relief!) 

Not everything that followed marked a return to relative simplicity and approachability, nor was chance thrown out of the window. A huge set of piano pieces called Etudes australes was written in 1974-75 deriving its individual notes and chords from star charts of the Australian skies. As might be expected, the resulting music is generally pointillistic and harks back to the sort of piano writing of the early 1950s - both Cage's own and that of his European contemporaries in the Avant-Garde. (For an earlier orchestral take on the same inspiration, please try Atlas Eclipticalis (1961-2)). Other etudes of similar difficulty (for performer and listener alike) followed - Freeman Etudes for solo violin and Etudes Boreales for cello or piano, both from the late 1970s.

The elements of tape-looping (as found in Rozart Mix) and minimalism (in Cheap Imitation) suggest points of connection between Cage and the newly-born Minimalist movement in America and, as we arrive at the late pieces, we find this minimalist strand growing in importance in Cage's output. Perhaps the work to start with here is Litany for the Whale from 1980 - a meditative 25-minute piece for two voices, each singing chant-like melodies based on just five notes (echoing the five letters of the word 'whale' apparently). It sounds decidedly monkish. This simple-sounding, rather beautiful and hypnotic piece of 'Holy Minimalism' might have come as a surprise to those who grew up on the avant-garde Cage of the 1950s and 1960s. Sometimes this side of his late style could take on a surprisingly conventional sound, as in the clearly-structured Souvenirs for organ from 1984 - another work based on a recurring theme suggestive of plainchant which might very well appeal to those listeners who like Arvo Pärt (though there are one or two disruptive surprises along the way). For an attractive example of tape-looping - or the inspiration of tape-looping as the piece can be played by several live pianists - combined with his old technique of creating a collage from snatches of existing melodies, I suspect you'll be intrigued to hear The Beatles 1962-1970 from 1990. 

Another strand in late Cage is the return of obvious oriental elements, as in Ryoanji from 1985 - a piece evoking a Zen garden in a temple in Kyoto which bends its melodic lines microtonally in ways strongly suggestive of Japanese music - and the easier-on-the-ear Haikai for flute and a metal instrument called a zoomoozophone of 1984.

Towards the end of his life this minimalism manifested itself again in his 'Number Pieces' - a long line of pieces named after the number of players performing the pieces - as very slow-moving meditations on sustained sounds. You can hear this at its most beguiling in Four2, a piece from 1990 written for four-part choir (SATB) and the sort of thing that might make you think of the music of the spheres. You are hearing single notes evolving over long durations, interacting (very slowly) with other single notes. A nearly-as-harmonious piece for instruments is Thirteen from 1992 and, expanding the forces to orchestral proportion, Seventy Four  from 1992 provides another example of just how easy-to-listen-to late Cage can be. (More music of the spheres.) You can hear the style developing if you hear one of the earlier 'Number Pieces', Twenty-Three from 1988. I can easily imagine that many of these late pieces could become immensely popular which New Age types. Though not a New Age type myself, I am fond of several of them. (I can imagine some of you will find them tedious).

There is a lot of Cage to explore and I hope this post inspires you to give him a try. I suspect you will dislike some of it but hopefully find some very pleasant discoveries too. In general terms (as you may have guessed) I like a lot of early and quite a bit of late Cage. It's the highly avant-garde stuff in the middle that I find hardest to warm to. Each to their own of course.

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