In this concert, cellist Alexis Descharmes has assembled a deeply personal tribute program along the lines of John Cage’s Circus pieces. This collection of pieces, or performable ideas, is allowed to clash and connect in multifaceted ways unpredictable from a priori consideration of the program’s individual elements.
Cage wanted to free his music not only of his own taste but of history as well; but there were several teachers and forebears whose influence Cage gratefully acknowledged—Cowell and Schoenberg, Webern and Varèse. No composer, however, meant more to Cage than Erik Satie, whom he described as “indispensable.” For the young Cage, Satie had confirmed his sense that music should be structured rhythmically; and throughout his life he admired Satie’s unforced openness, his humor, his visionary speculations. “Each time I hear Satie well-played,” Cage remarked, “I fall in love all over again.” A number of his pieces derive directly from Satie’s via chance operations (including Cheap Imitation , which “imitates” Satie’s Socrate, many Solos for Voice , and Two6 ). Among Satie’s most popular works are his (1889-97) for piano, whose title suggests dances of ancient Knossos; tonight Alexis Descharmes will perform his arrangement of the first three for cello and piano. He has also arranged, for clarinet and piano, a version of Vexations (c. 1893), dating from the period of Satie’s deepest involvement in Rosicrucian mysticism. This short, structurally simple, intensely chromatic piece has become notorious for bearing the implication that it be performed 840 times. One surmises that Mr. Descharmes will not comply with this instruction this evening; but in 1963 Cage organized the first complete performance of Vexations by a team of pianists, in a concert lasting over eighteen hours.
If Cage often paid tribute to Satie, many composers have honored Cage with tributes of their own. One example is the Swiss composer Klaus Huber. In his 1992 memorial to Cage …ruhe sanft… (“rest gently”), Huber combines serial, spectral, microtonal (third and sixth tones, as is usual with Huber), and random techniques, thus dissolving, as he says, traditional compositional antagonisms. These multiple ordering systems may allude to such works of Cage as the Thirty Pieces for Five Orchestras (1981), which had impressed Huber deeply; and one may also hear Cage’s echoes in the work’s polyphonic openness, in which a live or pre-recorded cello ensemble (and even an optional voice) intermingle with the soloist’s music. In ferner Gesang (“distant song”), written for this event by Austrian composer Beat Furrer, Cage is perhaps most present in the work’s proximity to silence. Most of the piece hovers near the threshold of audibility, unfolding lines from delicately shaded unisons: only at the work’s center is there a vehement outburst, which, however, subsides toward stillness.
Cage and Pierre Boulez became close friends in 1949, and enjoyed for several years an intense intellectual exchange as they explored new compositional systems—extensions of serial practice in Boulez’ case, random means in Cage’s. However, with time their fundamental opposition became clear: Cage wanted to relinquish control, Boulez to build a firm foundation for it, and their intimacy did not survive their disagreement. Boulez’s Messagesquisse (1977) pays homage not to Cage but to the conductor and patron Paul Sacher, from whose name both its pitch material (E-flat–A–C–B–E–D is a musical spelling of “Sacher”) and its rhythmic structures (via Morse code) are derived. As with the Huber work, Boulez sets the cello soloist against an ensemble of cellos, though to more deliberately dramatic effect. (Alexis Descharmes has pre-recorded the other cello tracks in both cases.)
Turning to Cage’s works: the Etudes Boreales (1978) are part of a series of virtuoso pieces beginning with the Etudes Australes for piano and concluding with the Freeman Etudes for solo violin. Cage first fixed the locations of musical events on his note paper by tracing star maps, and then used additional chance operations to determine, with painstaking precision, the specific qualities of those events (pitch, dynamics, duration, timbre, articulation). Whereas in the Freeman Etudes, Cage always selected pitches from the total range of the instrument, in the cello etudes the available range changes width randomly, and is never wide enough to encompass the instrument’s full range. This variation brings about melodies that are sometimes surprisingly conjunct and lyrical, even intensely if unintentionally “expressive.” Also distinguishing these pieces is Cage’s unprecedented focus on and exploration of the cello’s highest register—extremely perilous for the performer, and extraordinarily beautiful. By contrast, the piano writing eschews lyricism, and transforms the entire body of the piano into a percussion instrument. Although the cello and piano parts share a common tempo, they are quite independent, and may be played either as solos or, as here, a duo.
The title of Music for (1984-87) is completed by the number of instruments participating in a performance: up to sixteen instrumental parts and one vocal part may be superimposed. The material of any given part consists of two types: “pieces,” which comprise melodies akin to those of the Etudes Boreales (likewise unfolding within chance-determined registral limits) and single tones that may repeat an unspecified number of times; and “interludes,” short melodies or chord successions, randomly chosen from small gamuts of possibilities. These various limitations—of register, of repetition, of choice from a gamut—make for strong perceptual gravitations but don’t impede a floating interpenetration of independent parts, something reinforced both by the spatial placement of the musicians (Cage asks that they be spread out) and by their independent progress in time. As in many of Cage’s late works, Music for uses what he called “time-bracket notation.” Using stopwatches, the players proceed through their material without regard for one another, but are often allowed some choice in their pacing. Cage usually provides variable “brackets” within which a phrase is to be played: he may indicate that it should start anytime between 1'00" and 2'00" and end between 1'45' and 2'30", in which case it may last anywhere between a maximum of one and a half minutes to a minimum determined by the fastest possible playing speed. This strategy, superseding the fixed icti that underlie the Freeman Etudes and the Etudes Boreales, allows to the interpretation of this music a special flexibility and breadth.
Descharmes writes: “One afternoon in July, in Paris, when I was working on tonight’s Cage evening—practicing Cage, listening Cage, reading Cage (and eating mushrooms)—I suddenly needed to leave my cello and to get out of my practicing studio at the Opera Bastille. I walked towards Châtelet to refresh my brain, and saw this banner on the Centre Pompidou: Gerhard Richter, Retrospective. Why not go? Anyway, I wasn’t able to practice anymore that day… I walked quite quickly through the first exhibition rooms, but stopped in front of a series of 6 monumental paintings. I was shocked. Even more when I discovered that these six paintings formed a series titled Cage. Richter was listening to the music of John Cage while he worked on these paintings for the 2007 Venice Biennale. It came to me that it would be nice to share this with you, by means of a slide show that acts as a counterpoint to the music. The next day, I came back, with my camera and, after obtaining permission from the Centre Pompidou staff, I took more than 200 pictures of small details from Richter’s paintings… So the slide show this evening represents my vision of Richter’s paintings—as Richter’s were his vision of Cage’s music…”
Cage’s Concert for Piano and Orchestra (1957-58) is one of the culminating works of his first decade of chance composition. The work consists of an exceptionally elaborate piano part and thirteen more circumscribed orchestral parts (and another for conductor as well), but any number of the given instruments playing any amount of their material may be used in a performance: there is no master score, no fixed relationships among the instruments. Of the orchestral parts Cage writes: “Both specific directives and specific freedoms are given to each player…. As many various uses of the instruments as could be discovered were subjected to the composing means which involved chance operations.” In the string parts, Cage calls for a rich variety of pizzicati, glissandi, and other articulations, and also provides for frequent, random retunings of the instrument. Any of the individual parts may be played as a solo work, as in this performance for cello alone.
Of his version Descharmes writes: “While I was practicing in July, the Solo for Cello from Cage’s Concert for Piano and Orchestra, one of my colleagues from the Paris Opera Orchestra said to me: ‘It’s like the sound of a wood fire!’ At first I didn’t pay attention to this funny little remark, but after a few hours, I realized that I was, in fact, influenced by his words—especially during the numerous silences of the piece. I now had a permanent wood fire crackling in my mind’s ear! I had the idea of sharing this experience with you (this inner sound) by playing a recording of a wood fire while I perform the Solo (strictly). Of course, it’s not a part of Cage’s music. It’s, rather, a personal idea, a personal feeling of mine. Nevertheless, I’m quite sure this idea and Cage’s music walk in the same footsteps. The sound of fire and of silence function in the same way: you can consider it as thought it were emptiness, while waiting for the next event, or just listen to the whole as music…”