Percussion music is a contemporary transition from keyboard-influenced music to the all-sound music of the future. Any sound is acceptable to the composer of percussion music; he explores the academically forbidden ‘non-musical’ field of sound insofar as is manually possible. —John Cage, The Future of Music: Credo
To take a survey of John Cage’s percussion music is to take a survey of his music in general. All of the hallmarks we’ve come to associate with Cage are present in each step of his work for the medium: rhythmic curiosity, explorations of timbre and noise, chance, indeterminacy, graphic notation, happenings, and finally silence. These innovations are so intertwined with Cage’s constantly evolving conception of percussion as to make the two inextricable. Yet the series of pieces presented this evening forge their own path through a compositional career that was as varied as it was itinerant, at times even contradictory.
Cage’s interest in percussion makes its first appearances with his experiments in rhythm. Having learned of African drumming and Indian Carnatic music through his studies with Henry Cowell, the young Cage of the 1930s and early 1940s was primarily concerned with structures of rhythmic and metric repetition. As a result, many of his early percussion compositions weren’t really for percussion at all; they were simply rhythmic structures that could be performed using whatever instruments or materials Cage had available at the time. Such is the case with Quartet (1935), written while Cage was studying with Schoenberg at UCLA (though not premiered until 1938 during his time at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle) and consisting of repeated rhythmic patterns, presented here by red fish blue fish and Percussion Group Cincinnati on two separate sets of instruments. Though the rhythmic patterns are spelled out in precise detail, the score simply states that the parts may be played on “any percussion instruments.”
This ambivalence toward instrumentation served Cage well initially, as the fledgling composer had little means to assemble performers and instruments (it being the Great Depression). Due to his wife Xenia’s gainful employment at a local bindery, many of his first performances were staged using printing equipment from her office, or everyday objects from their home in Los Angeles. Such is the case with Living Room Music (1940), appropriately dedicated to Xenia.The work’s first movement features patterns similar to those found in Quartet played on any objects one might find in a living room. The piece continues in its second movement with a text by Gertrude Stein—again rhythmically patterned—with a melodic third movement (presented tonight in isolation) played on “any suitable instrument.” It is this combination of rhythmic ostinati, found instruments, and speech song that composer Tamzin Elliott exploits in her tribute, In Preparation for the Storm: movement III. Hey Rain (2012). Elliott’s instrumentation mirrors closely the type of set-ups found in Cage’s early work and includes tin cans, lion’s roar, shakers, wrist bells, various body sounds, and a number of more conventional percussion instruments.
Through his experimentation with found objects, Cage developed a new interest in timbre and unusual harmony. This paved the way for much more specific and nuanced performance indications of instrumentation in his music, beginning with the Third Construction (1941). A percussion quartet rivaling Edgard Varèse’s Ionisation in its sheer instrumental scope (though in a much more melodic fashion), the work makes use of an assortment of typical and exotic percussion instruments as well as found objects: rattles, drums, tin cans, claves, cowbells, lion’s roar, cymbal, ratchet, teponaxtle, quijades, cricket caller, and conch shell. At the same time, Cage’s sonic palette began to expand toward the inclusion of “electric” instruments in his Imaginary Landscape series. The earliest of his electro-acoustic works, Imaginary Landscape No. 1 (1939) is scored for muted piano, cymbals, and two turntables playing frequency recordings used by RCA to test audio equipment. Continuing the trend, Imaginary Landscape No. 2 (1942) uses an amplified coil of wire attached to the arm of a phonograph, along with a battery of percussion similar to that found in the Third Construction. Imaginary Landscape No. 3 (1942) includes both electric instruments from the previous two, with the addition of sine-tone oscillators, a buzzer, and an amplified marimbula.
Along with Cage’s newfound penchant for instrumental precision came a meticulous notation of performance activity and technique, such as found in Amores (1943), a trio that uses minimal sound objects but demands maximal sound specificity. For instance, not only does Cage require specific placement of strokes on the tom tom heads—eliciting a wide range of timbres—he even specifies that the wooden block be “not Chinese.” Ryan Bridge’s tribute, Tribute I: volare (2012), bears many similarities to Amores: a highly specific instrumentation, repeated rhythmic structures, complex meters with changing tempi, periods of sustained silence, and the inclusion of prepared piano at its close.
This early period in Cage’s percussion work—marked by rhythmic patterns, intricate timbral specificity, and electroacoustic instrumentation—culminated in the mid-1940s with large-scale percussion works such as Credo in US (1942), a percussion quartet written for choreography by Merce Cunningham and Jean Erdman. As with other collaborations between Cage and Cunningham, only the metric phrasing of the dance was used in composing the music. All other relationships between sound and movement were coincidental. The instrumentation is drawn from the assemblage of objects used in both Amores and the Imaginary Landscape pieces: two performers playing assemblages with muted gongs, electric buzzers, tin cans, and tom toms, another playing prepared piano, and a fourth playing either radio or turntable. Here, however, the turntable is used not simply to sustain tones, but to play other pieces of music (Cage suggests Dvořák, Beethoven, Sibelius, or Shostakovich). One effect of this was to allow musical languages of the past to enter Cage’s sonic landscape, something previously unheard of. More importantly though, for Cage, it opened up the possibility of an ever-renewable source of potential musical relationships due to the fact that each performance would turn out differently. Since different extant music would be chosen for each performance, Credo in US could yield an infinite number of interpretations.
These discoveries began charting a path toward one of Cage’s most important compositional innovations: indeterminacy. In his lecture Composition as Process, Cage defined indeterminate music as music where “the outcome is not foreseen” by the composer. He was attracted to such indeterminacy both because it produced unique results from performance to performance, and because it was music he could not have previously imagined:
My favorite music is the music I haven't yet heard. I don't hear the music I write: I write in order to hear the music I have not yet heard.
Initially, Cage’s indeterminacy presented itself merely through the combination of unrelated yet highly specified sonic events, including his famous recording of the aptly titled Indeterminacy (1959) where he read from his lectures while pianist David Tudor performed excerpts from the Solo for Piano (1957). As with the musical cacophony of Credo in US, the combination of different and often contradictory sonic and linguistic vocabularies allowed unforeseen counterpoint to emerge. This juxtaposition of disparate activities is highlighted in Bonnie Whiting Smith’s performance entitled 51'15.657" for a Speaking Percussionist, presenting a simultaneous interpretation of 45' for a Speaker (1954) and 27'10.554" for a Percussionist (1956)—the former a collection of stories organized by chance procedures, the latter a constellation of percussion sounds organized by the same means. Both contain periods of activity and silence, allowing for two compatible but distinct solos, which elide frequently to form a carefully crafted duet.
Beyond these types of juxtaposition, Cage began expanding his use of indeterminacy in the late 1950s with the use of graphic notation. This manifested itself primarily as drawings with lines and dots, printed on transparent sheets that could be overlaid in an infinite number of configurations. Such is the case in Fontana Mix, scored for “any number of tracks of magnetic tape, or for any number of players on any kind and number of instruments.”
Percussion instruments are particularly fitting tools for the realization of graphic scores, as the dots and lines may be realized as any number of musical parameters—from timbre and duration, to variables such as gestural movement and physical space. Cage surely realized this in composing his later graphic score for Cartridge Music (1960). Originally for two performers manipulating objects that were inserted into the cartridge on a phonograph turntable arm (in place of the normal needle), Cage writes in his preface to the score that the piece may instead be performed using a cymbal with contact microphone attached, yielding a new version titled Duet for Cymbal.
This highlights another important aspect of Cage’s work from the 1960s and 1970s: the re-use of previous compositional material in new works. Sometimes this manifested itself as self-quotation, as in Fontana Mix’s use of notation from the Solo for Piano. Other times, it allowed for two or more pieces to be played by themselves or simultaneously, like Cartridge Music and the Solo for Voice No. 2 (1960). Either way, this allowed Cage to continue his compositional output at a rapid pace even as his speaking and teaching engagements grew. “I’ve tried to have ways of working slowly and ways of working quickly. Now,” he said in an interview, “when I travel all the time, I can only use the ways of working quickly, because I don’t have much time.” Cage’s scores, therefore, became shockingly brief. For example, the scores to Child of Tree (1975), Branches (1976), and Inlets (1977) each consist of a single page with only vague suggestions for instrumentation (plant material, conch shells, pine cones on fire) and overall duration of the performance.
This efficient, streamlined approach is also present in Variations II (1961), the score for which contains only twelve transparencies—six with one line each, another six with one dot each, all may be overlaid with the result read as a score. No indications of sound resource are given, though the piece was originally realized by David Tudor on amplified piano with electronic sounds. Tonight's performance features two realizations: Dustin Donahue pairs it simultaneously with Variations IV (1963) in his Quartet for Snare Drums (2012), and William Brent has created an electroacoustic interpretation allowing for audience interaction. Brent describes the workings of his installation (available in the Katzen Center Gallery) as follows:
Visitors draw their own point/line sketch with a touch interface. It calculates all the distances [between the dots and lines] and uses that information to play from a bank of over 700 percussive samples with no randomness: everything is determined from the sketches. Points and sketches are displayed in sync with corresponding sonic events as they occur.
Such multimedia work is clearly in keeping with Cage’s aesthetic, as indicated on this evening’s program by the presence WGBH-TV for Nam June Paik (1971). Dedicated to video pioneer Nam June Paik, the piece was commissioned by the Caledonia Women’s Club as part of a fundraising auction for special needs children in 1971. Cage received a letter from the club requesting a manuscript to sell at the auction. He faxed back a “score” to the club’s partnered television station, WGBH-TV in Boston, with simple instructions (written on an envelope) for making a film. Tonight’s realization uses footage of composer Roger Reynolds at his drafting table to satisfy Cage’s request for shots of a composer working, with a sound element comprised solely of amplified handwriting.
The 1980s, however, see a turn away from indeterminacy, at least with respect to time and pitch. Perhaps influenced by his time at Crown Point Press, spent quietly making etching and paintings from a single and repeated drawing process, Cage’s late scores mark a return to the meticulously notated durations of the 1930s and 1940s. Now however, the rhythm and meter of those early works is replaced by a simple indication of clock time, marking in brackets the beginnings and endings of performance activity. These periods of time were derived (in typical fashion) by chance operations, as with But what about the noise of crumpling paper… (1985) which presents a handful of percussionists playing slightly resonant but unspecified instruments along with water, paper, and other found materials. Finally, in Cage’s last “number” pieces these periods of activity are replaced by single sounds surrounded by vast expanses of silence. The two such pieces performed here, Music for Four (by Two) (1984) and Six (1991), round off a decades-long journey from extreme specificity to virtual sonic freedom. No mention of instrumentation is made. The only indications for the player are suggestions that the longer tones be played quietly using a tremolo or brushing motion, and that shorter tones “may be louder, but not necessarily so.” Each tone then returns to restful silence.
It was this intricate relationship between silence and listening that encouraged percussionist Fritz Hauser to seek out Cage, eventually resulting in One4 (1990). In an early performance in Italy, Hauser assembled a version with a long silence between the sound of a drum and the sound of a cymbal. Hauser’s impulse—in this outdoor performance filled with environmental sounds that threatened its dramatic tension—was to truncate the silences. He resisted this urge and, to his delight, after striking the drum and meticulously counting the twenty-three seconds he’d planned, church bells rang precisely at the moment his stick made contact with the cymbal. It is a fitting end to Cage’s work, this serendipitous relationship between musical sound and noise in all its guises—whether it be part of a painstakingly crafted rhythmic pattern, emanating from a radio, as part of a speech, or surrounded by silence. In his 1937 entitled The Future of Music: Credo, Cage addressed the future of such noise in music:
I believe that the use of noise to make music will continue and increase until we reach a music produced through the aid of electrical instruments which will make available for musical purposes any and all sounds that can be heard.
Cage was only twenty-five years old when he spoke these words to a Seattle arts society. If he were invited to speak to us today on the future of music, what might he say? We must be content with silence.