In 1951 Cage turned definitively to chance operations and away from the principles of self-expressive art. However, in the early 1940s Cage was far from rejecting musical expressivity, which, indeed, was the central feature and motivation of many of his works. The vehement noise and rhythmic dissonances of his Imaginary Landscape #3 (1942), for example, were meant as an image of the war; Amores (1943) and The Perilous Night (1944) were representations of the delights and agonies of Cage’s personal life, as his marriage to Xenia Cage was ending and his lifelong relationship with Merce Cunningham was beginning. Of The Perilous Night Cage said that it was about “the loneliness and terror that comes to one when love becomes unhappy;” and a similarly troubled psychological intensity may be recognized in Four Walls (1944).
Four Walls, in fact, was a collaboration with Cunningham of a very special kind. The two men had been working together on small accompanied dances over the preceding year or two; now, however, they were ready to make something on a newly ambitious scale, conceiving a “dance-drama” in two acts of nearly an hour’s duration, with text and dance both authored by Cunningham. The subject of the drama, perhaps less personal than that of The Perilous Night but consistent with its exploration of “the disturbed mind,” was the tensions within and eventual descent into madness of an American family.
As was usual for Cage in this period, he began composing by building the work’s rhythmic structure, an objective framework which could focus and contain the more spontaneous composition of its local details and continuity. In this case, the structure was also coordinated with Cunningham’s drama, and included large silences to accommodate independent language and action. Further, ever practical, Cage wanted to make the piece relatively simple technically, designing it to be performable by someone unknown to him, as he knew he would not be able to take part in rehearsals. However, this was not the only reason he so drastically limited his palette: the score’s starkness is beautifully matched to his expressive intentions. Much of the music is in the dark low register; much is percussive (although no preparations are made to the piano) and extremely repetitive, both the long ostinati and the recurring panels of material suggesting obsession and entrapment. Also disconcerting are the work’s unprecedentedly long and exposed silences: in the drama these might have been less assertive, but in the concert hall they remain startling, demonstrating the seriousness with which Cage had come to view the complementarity of silence and sound, and giving a foretaste, however contrary in affect, to the silences that would open in Cage’s “non-intentional” work. The entire score is played entirely on the white keys of the piano, often tending toward a somber A minor, maintaining a monochromatic austerity until the end. Or almost: only once does Cage disrupt this uniformity. In Scene VII of the work’s fourteen, a solo voice makes its only appearance, singing this one explicit vestige of the drama, a text by Cunningham: “Sweet love, my throat is gurgling, the mystic mouth, leads me so defted, and the black nightingale, turned willowly by love’s tossed treatment, berefted.”
The integral work was performed one time only, on August 22, 1944, in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, in a production that included not only Cunningham but also a young Julie Harris, among other dancers and actors. Then it was forgotten, until in the 1970s the pianist and prepared-piano-specialist Richard Bunger revived the music, albeit without the theatrical component. Initially Cage felt uncomfortable with its expressive style, but, after Margaret Leng Tan premiered it in New York, he allowed it, finally, to be published.
Cage’s first applications of chance techniques, notably in his Music of Changes of 1951, were exceptionally arduous and time-consuming; and he felt the need to develop much simpler, more rapid methods. One possibility struck Cage unexpectedly: “I looked at my paper: suddenly I saw that the music, all the music, was already there.” Noticing imperfections in the paper on which he was writing, Cage decided he could transform these into pitches, determining through chance the number of sounds on a page, as well as specifications of clef and timbre. Other aspects of the sound, notably dynamics and duration, would be left to the performer. A principal result of this method was the series of Music for Piano #1-84, written between 1952 and 1956 (with a somewhat anomalous eighty-fifth added in 1962). These pieces are certainly simpler than Music of Changes had been, consisting solely of “single tones of the conventional grand piano, played at the keyboard, plucked or muted on the strings,” with noises on the interior and exterior piano construction also indicated from #4 onward. In Cage’s view, “The limited nature of this universe of possibilities makes the events themselves comparable to the first attempts at speech of a child or the fumblings about of a blind man.”
Of her version of the score, Margaret Leng Tan writes that “in addition to the normal, plucked and muted tones of the original score I added the seven bowed tones with Cage’s permission. Notwithstanding its aleatoric origins, Music for Piano #2 ends on a perfect C major triad!” Music for Piano #2 was composed for the dancer Louise Lippold.
Accompanying Music for Piano #2 is Rob Dietz’s video of 10 Stones, one of a series of eight aquatints that Cage made in 1989. In a number of visual and musical works from the 1980s, Cage took inspiration from the Ryoanji Zen garden in Kyoto, in which an expanse of sand surrounds fifteen irregularly placed rocks; often, Cage would find his visual forms, or the contours of musical lines, by tracing the shapes of rocks on the page. In this case, he brushed paint around stones. Each aquatint was produced in an edition of twenty to twenty-five, and every sheet was uniquely marked with smoke made by placing pieces of burning paper on the press before printing on dampened papers.
10 Stones was printed by Marcia Bartholme at Crown Point Press in San Francisco in an edition of twenty. Dimensions: 18 x 23 in. (46 x 58 cm).