the lOveliest thing in
the tRuest action:
“not idle talK, but the highest of truths”
As much as John Cage was about a pure, wild poetics, John Cage was about getting things done: the diversity and the sheer quantity of his endeavor over more than fifty years of creative life are astonishing. The pattern of invention through activity obtained throughout his life: each new conception, each new piece was the end result of a myriad small breakthroughs along the way. By no means were these breakthroughs simple in either their pragmatics or their philosophy. Moving from traditional music and the fringes of the 1930s ultramodern current Cage immersed himself first in Indian, then Far Eastern aesthetics and philosophy. By end of the 1950s his method had become holistic; his life and his art an ever-expanding whole. Part of the spirit of these concerts, embodied in the several newly commissioned tribute works, is to demonstrate that one of his most important functions as a human being in the twentieth century, in America and in the world, was as a spur for others’ efforts to make something, to create, to work.
This afternoon’s concert on John Cage’s 100th birthday is partly structured around pairs of recorded readings from his extraordinary Indeterminacy: New Aspects of Form in Instrumental and Electronic Music (from which comes the quote in the above mesostic) and Arnold Schoenberg’s Six Little Piano Pieces, Op. 19. Cage, as is well known, was briefly a student in Schoenberg’s harmony class at UCLA and figures anecdotally in Cage’s Indeterminacy stories.
Cage conceived Indeterminacy in 1958, first as a lecture at Darmstadt and Brussels, then as a recording for Folkways. The textual source material is a set of ninety stories on a variety of subjects, some rooted in Zen Buddhism, others in Cage’s own life. On any one occasion, any selection from these stories may be read. In the original 1959 recording, the stories were accompanied by longtime Cage collaborator, composer, and pianist David Tudor playing selections from Cage’s Concert for Piano and Orchestra and a recording of the aleatoric electronic piece Fontana Mix, “composing” the sequence of events. The stories themselves were to be performed in exactly one minute; therefore the longer ones required Cage to read the text much more quickly, to sometimes comic effect. Many of the stories in the piece were published in Cage’s first book, Silence, and later in A Year from Monday, and Indeterminacy set the stage for many later text-based pieces. The Folkways recording no doubt helped establish for a wider audience this well-known iconoclast’s sense of humor and humanity.
The aphoristic—or again, koan-like—quality of these stories has a distinct analogy in Arnold Schoenberg’s Opus 19. A free atonal work, five of its movements were apparently written in a single day, February 19, 1911, the final being written on June 17, during the period of the very different activities of orchestrating the ultra-Romantic Gurrelieder and compiling the pedagogically strict Harmonielehre. These pieces are tiny, with a total timing of less than seven minutes, a tendency toward brevity and “moment” form that Webern would adopt wholeheartedly. Schoenberg had taken up painting, suddenly, in 1907; he associated with Expressionist artists, especially Richard Gerstl, whose intense style Schoenberg in some ways emulated. Schoenberg’s paintings, primarily self-portraits, are form and color defining moments of mood, suggesting a precedent for both Opus 19 and the Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 16. There are, too, literary overtones; certainly Schoenberg was able to arrive at certain motivic expressions of mood through as direct as possible illustration or reflection of text (as in The Book of the Hanging Gardens and Erwartung, as well as Pierrot.) The six movements are 1. Leicht, zart (tenderly); 2. Langsam (slow); 3. Sehr langsam (very slow); 4. Rasch, aber leicht (quick, but lightly); 5. Etwas rasch (somewhat quick); 6. Sehr langsam (very slow).
Living Room Music (1940) for percussion/speech quartet is one of Cage’s earliest distinctive works, already blurring the boundary between music and “event” and in its very content expanding the concert work beyond the stage. Although sharing its rhythmic preoccupations (clear pulse and meter) with the Constructions, its media of objets trouvés are at once residue of Dada and precursors of the found objects and situations of much later work. The second movement sets a text of Gertrude Stein, her “The World Is Round.” The optional, melodic third movement suggests a spontaneous recourse to unselfconscious song. Magazines and other prosaic object types are called for in the score.
The Perilous Night is a relatively extended (ca. twelve-minute) solo prepared piano work in six sections. Cage had invented the well-prepared piano (as it were) in 1940 when space considerations precluded the use of his wonted percussion ensemble for a Syvilla Fort dance performance in Seattle. Henry Cowell’s experiments with pianos were a significant precursor to the development. Cage wrote The Perilous Night in winter 1943-44 while living in New York City; the title was suggested by a series of Irish myths collected by Joseph Campbell. Although each movement has a distinctive sound, the sound, texture, and rhythmic flow of the piece suggest gamelan. Comparatively lush in its sonic variety, the piece nonetheless has a dry, steady-state quality throughout much of its length that belies its title and the difficult and unsteady circumstances of the composer’s life at the time of its composition, when the dissolution of his marriage to Xenia Kashevaroff precipitated a kind of spiritual crisis.
Cage’s Concert for Piano and Orchestra (1957-8) is a chance work that combines procedural ideas from as early as the Sonatas and Interludes and The Seasons with chance operations and indeterminate details and form developed over the course of the 1950s. On the largest level, the form and content of the piece are indeterminate in that any complement, from solo to tutti, of the aggregate of thirteen individual players, plus piano and conductor, might play in a given performance. (Cage later added a solo for voice.) Within a performance, there is no coordination among solos; the (optional) conductor’s role (the conductor’s score is a list of timings) is as a kind of living stopwatch, indicating time frames to the players.
Within each player’s part, other indeterminacies are present. The location of playable elements on a page is determined by the I Ching. The elements for each instrument, which Cage developed based on the idiomatic (and certainly not limited to traditional) possibilities of the instrument learned from performers, frequently can’t be predicted exactly in their details of pitch, articulation, and dynamics. Notes are in three sizes: large, medium, small; these differences suggest either loud, medium, or soft dynamics, or duration of the event. Strings apply ad libitum scordatura tunings; performers are also asked to sing unspecified notes and sounds, among other options. The piano part alone is a catalog of potential techniques, a wellspring Cage would return to in later music. James Pritchett notes eighty-four different notational and compositional methods in its sixty-three-page part. The sheer variety of types of graphic notation is in itself incredible: pages from the Solo for Piano are displayed in an exhibition in the Katzen Arts Center at American University. There is an enormous amount of detail in each part as it’s written, which detail is extended infinitely by the imaginations of the performers. (Alexis Descharmes performs the Solo for Cello from this piece at La Maison Française in his concert this evening.) In practice, the form of the piece is wildly mobile, like Earle Brown’s experiments inspired by Calder. The present performance features flute, clarinet, violin, and piano.
Christian Wolff began his association with John Cage, Earle Brown, and Morton Feldman as a teenager in New York City in the early 1950s. His development as a composer paralleled many of Cage’s experiments, particularly with regard to performer choice, into the 1960s. Along with Frederic Rzewski and Cornelius Cardew, he has nurtured a utopian, communal approach to making music and has an ongoing concern for progressive political ideals, represented in his work with varying degrees of explicitness. He has performed extensively as an improviser and worked with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. Wolff studied Classics at Harvard and taught Classics there, and for nearly twenty years at Dartmouth College, where he also taught comparative literature and music.
About John Cage, Wolff writes, “[H]e was instrumental in having me be the composer that I am, not by having his music be an ‘influence’ (he really disliked the notion of influence), but, first (and quite briefly) as a teacher, then as lifelong friend, he, as Morton Feldman once put it, ‘gave permission,’ or, whatever I cooked up, he thought it fine, and supported it enthusiastically.” Wolff’s tribute work for this festival is his Second Serenade and for flute, clarinet and violin, completed in July 2012. The composer relates, “Those three instruments reminded me of a very old piece (1950) for that combination, called Serenade. It used just 3 pitches (untransposed). The new piece uses a lot more and—unlike the early one which is, along with the extremely limited pitch material, structurally tight (using a version of the Cageian rhythmic structure scheme)—it (the new piece), like most of my music of last three decades, is, structurally, a continually changing mix of different kinds of stuff—like a patchwork quilt with irregular patches. Another way to put it, it is continuously discontinuous.”
David Felder was invited by Morton Feldman to join the faculty at the State University of New York, Buffalo in the early 1980s, and in 1985 Felder became Artistic Director of the eminent June in Buffalo festival, founded by Feldman in 1975. In 1996 he formed June in Buffalo’s professional orchestra, the Slee Sinfonietta. He has consistently pursued innovation in the use of technology and multimedia in his music, which is characterized by a unique sensitivity to timbre. Felder writes, “In my work Green | Flash it is my intention to pay homage to Cage’s preparation of the piano, one of his many signature innovations, and to some personal memories of my own numerous interactions with Cage over the years, beginning in the early 1980s. In one of these interactions, we were speaking about a particularly beautiful SoCal sunset over the Pacific Coast Highway. Cage remarked that the sunset was ‘like the vibraphone—beautiful, but we know that it isn’t good for us.’ The short composition is an 8-channel electronic piece (here mixed down to 4 channels) made entirely from modified acoustic piano samples and lines. The piano itself is detuned, resynthesized, and each individual ‘note’ is further altered by attending to each partial as an independent entity.”