The array of piano works on tonight’s program—representing over thirty years of Cage’s compositional output, with an added tribute by Philip Glass—comprises music from the strictly notated to the wildly indeterminate, from the harmonically conventional to the timbrally unorthodox, from the massively dense to the almost imperceptibly sparse.
Though its breadth demonstrates the variety of compositional approaches represented in Cage’s vast piano oeuvre, there are a number of commonalities to the over fifty works he wrote for the medium. Foremost among these is his longtime collaborator, David Tudor, for whom many of Cage’s piano works (including several on tonight’s program) were written. Introduced to Cage by Morton Feldman in 1950, this virtuosic pianist and meticulous interpreter of contemporary music would go on to shape much of Cage’s music and career in the following years. When Tudor began translating the constantly changing tempi of Cage’s early music into precise values measured in seconds for performative accuracy, Cage began using clock time to notate duration in all of his scores. Tudor also was important in taking Cage’s music to Europe, through performances of Concert for Piano and Orchestra and Fontana Mix for an audience including composers Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen at Darmstadt in 1958. In fact, one could say that much of Cage’s success came as a direct result of Tudor’s ambassadorship of his music in the 1950s and 1960s.
Stephen Drury’s program, however, begins with music from an earlier period that was influenced not by a wealth of interpretive resources, but rather an absence of them. Written in 1944, Prelude for a Meditation serves as a one-minute introduction to Cage’s music for prepared piano, one of his earliest and best-known innovations. Always the consummate entrepreneur, the young Cage was often employed as an accompanist for dance classes and recitals. His initial desire was to compose music influenced by the African cultures he had been introduced to in his studies at the New School with Henry Cowell. This proved difficult, though, due to Cage’s lack of access to exotic instruments and the amount of stage space they would require. Having observed Cowell strum on the piano strings to imitate the Aoelian harp, Cage embarked on a number of experiments using unorthodox playing techniques and alterations (“preparations”) of the piano’s physical structure. First explored in Bacchanale (1940) and perfected in the Sonatas and Interludes (1948), Cage’s most common preparations involved inserting into the strings all manner of objects: bolts, foam wedges, rubber stoppers, paper. These alterations allowed Cage to maximize timbral variety while minimizing the performance resources required, as demonstrated in Prelude for a Meditation by the use of only four white keys.
Following nearly a decade later, Music for Piano represents an intermediary position between Cage’s earlier works for prepared piano and his following period of chance-based composition. Composed during a four-year span beginning in 1952, Music for Piano consists of eighty-four separate pieces, of which Drury has chosen “a selection of eight or nine which can be combined and sequenced in any way.” Many of the timbres found in the earlier Sonatas and Interludes are present here, though their occurrence is both less frequent and less melodious. Two important additions, however, begin to emerge in Cage’s work during this period: chance and indeterminacy. The former refers to the randomization of fixed compositional decisions and comes almost directly out of Music for Changes, Cage’s first work written using divination tables found in the I Ching. The latter refers to notation that allows interpretive freedom, and continues trends established in works like Water Music or 26'1.1499" for a String Player where certain aspects of sound are left unspecified. In Music for Piano, chance and indeterminacy are manifest in Cage’s decision to select certain musical parameters (pitch and timbre) by flipping coins or reading imperfections in the paper, while leaving other parameters (rhythm and dynamics) open to the performer.
One of the most striking examples of Cage’s experiments with indeterminacy in his entire catalog, Variations II (1961) presents the performer with an almost entirely open graphic score, to be performed on any instrument. The work was written for David Tudor on his thirty-fifth birthday, and bears many of the notational hallmarks of its 1958 predecessor Variations I—transparent sheets containing dots and lines that are measured in relation to one another to determine frequency, amplitude, timbre, duration, and occurrence within a given time period—the only significant difference being the size of the dots and number of lines per transparency. However, Tudor’s realization of Variations II for amplified piano departs significantly from his interpretation of Cage’s earlier graphic scores. Rather than use precise measurements to derive discrete measurements for every musical parameter as specified in the score’s preface, Tudor simply uses the relationships between the dots and lines to determine whether any given variable will be interpreted as “simple” or “complex.” Though his method required him to completely re-notate Cage’s score, the outcome was both more personal and more suited to the electronic sounds of the amplified piano. Therefore, according to Drury (whose first exposure to Cage’s music was Tudor’s recording of Variations II) this interpretation “bears Tudor's mark more strongly than any other performance in the way it builds a kind of hybrid piano/electric instrument.”
4'33" presents another case in which Tudor’s influence has significantly affected performance practice. Now immortalized among musicians and audiences alike, the work has come to be regarded as radical in the way Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring may have been in 1913. The inaction of its performers has elicited listener reactions ranging from the angry whispers of the 1952 premiere in Woodstock, New York, to the intentional sabotage of a North Carolina School for the Arts performance in 1970, to a hushed crowd and standing ovation at a live televised BBC broadcast in 2004. It has been the catalyst for a decades-long discussion about the role of silence in music and listening, and is often used as a wedge issue among avant-garde artists and their more traditional counterparts. Revivals, arrangements, and parodies have all been staged in the fifty years since its inception, and there has even been an attempt at reclaiming it for populist purposes through a number of recent “remixes” by several high profile studio producers and dance musicians in Australia and the UK.
However, “the silent piece” (as Cage often called it) began not as a lofty statement about the nature of musical experience or artistic irreverence, but as the next logical step in Cage’s use of the I Ching. He had already used its tables of divination symbols a year earlier while writing Music of Changes to make decisions about things such as pitch, rhythm, and dynamics. Why not silence? As David Tudor recalled in an interview with William Duckworth, “Since the procedure for Music of Changes was that out of 64 possibilities 32 were silence, he simply arranged his chart so it only dealt with the 32 numbers that would produce silence.” The evidence for this connection—according to Tudor—is borne out in the original score, which was notated on a conventional grand piano staff in the same manner as Music of Changes with its four-beat measures and shifting tempi. Unfortunately, this version of the score for 4'33" was lost, to be replaced by later versions—several of which are currently on display in the Katzen Center—notated using textual directions and lasting a total of four minutes and thirty-three seconds (the duration Tudor had calculated from Cage’s original rhythmic notation). It was this version that was published by Peters Edition in 1960, bearing a title drawn from Tudor’s calculation.
Though written only four years earlier, In a Landscape is free from the type of polemics aroused by 4’33”. Instead, it takes a much more measured and traditionally “musical” approach. Composed in 1948 to accompany a dance by Merce Cunningham, it was written at a time when Cage had become fascinated with the music of Erik Satie. Of particular interest was Satie’s concept of “furniture music” (musique d’ameublement), music for the listener “to take no notice of…to behave as if it did not exist.” This, along with Satie’s use of what Cage called “time lengths,” led Cage and Cunningham to work in isolation from one another so that the only thing “common between music and dance was time.”
In its likeness to Satie’s music, Philip Glass’s Modern Love Waltz, 2012 has much in common with In a Landscape. Both works are in a metrically ambivalent 3/4, both use repeated metric structures (2+2 and 5+7+3 respectively) similar to those of Satie, and both feature arpeggiated ostinati. Although the inclusion of Glass may seem out of place in the context of an otherwise all-Cage program, Modern Love Song originally served as music for Constance DeJong’s 1972 radio performance of her novel Modern Love—not unlike Cage and Cunningham’s collaborations, or David Tudor’s musical participation in the recording of Cage’s lecture Indeterminacy.
While In a Landscape and Indeterminacy found Cage and his comrades working in relative detachment, Etudes Australes grew out of a much more intimate collaboration. One of Cage’s last and most ambitious works for solo piano, the etudes were written over the course of two years in consultation with pianist Grete Sultan and are dedicated to her. Tudor had introduced Sultan to Cage after hearing her perform some of the earlier prepared piano works, as well as improvisations in which she played inside the piano with percussion mallets. Cage agreed to write for her, but decided to leave the piano unprepared, because it seemed strange to him “that an older woman should busy herself with sticks and strike the piano.” Rather than coin flips or paper inconsistencies, this time Cage chose the star charts contained in the Atlas Australes—also the source of the title—as a means of selecting pitches and durations. Over its numerous multicolored pages, Cage laid transparencies which he used to mark the locations of particular star formations. These transparencies were then copied onto staff paper using a table of all chords of one to five pitches that each of Sultan’s hands could play. Each of the thirty-two etudes uses a different subset of the chart, with the higher-numbered etudes using chords with more notes in denser configurations (Drury’s performance includes etudes seventeen through twenty-four). Due to Sultan’s unique physical characteristics and singular ability to perform dissociated hand motions, the resulting “duets for two independent hands” contain some of the most virtuosic passages ever written by Cage—if not for any instrument, then certainly for the piano. The music itself of the Etudes Australes consists of three different types of tones: those released as quickly as possible after being played, those sustained for as long as possible, and those that are held down and allowed to vibrate sympathetically throughout the duration of each etude by inserting rubber wedges into the piano keyboard. The resonance of the strings creates a quiet harmonic wash that lasts throughout each etude, and is often related to Cage’s interest in the transcendent aspects of Indian Carnatic music that had been an important influence on his music since the late 1940s. It is this aspect of Cage’s music (transcendent consciousness), according to Drury, that unites the disparate elements within his work for piano and indeed his entire catalog:
For me, all of Cage’s music is about using sound to transform our consciousness. More than any other composer he was aware of how sound alters consciousness and was able to set it free to do its work. This is true of the early prepared piano music (with its unrecognizable sounds coming from an instrument we thought we knew), through the long silent stretches which isolate the single sounds of Music for Piano, to the unpredictable resonances of the Etudes Australes.
During an interview in his later years, Cage remarked that “a New York Times critic recently said if the Etudes Australes were to last beyond my life that it would not be because of me but because of the stars from which it is derived.” Clearly, the New York Times had it dead wrong.