Monday, October 31, 2005


Williams Mix

Tonight, it’s on to a few works that I happen to enjoy.  And one I don’t.  And one I’ve never heard!  I’ll add that it was late when I wrote much of this, and I was pretty punchy, so there may be a higher percentage of silliness in these reviews...

Williams Mix
This is pretty much the most depressing work in the entirety of Cage’s career, in my opinion.  This was one gigantic tape-splicing operation that took a year or so to complete, with a myriad of problems.  Cage apparently co-opted anyone who wandered by to do some splicing.  I say it’s depressing simply because a huge amount of effort (Cage apparently gave instructions on how to complete if he died working on it) went into something that could now be replicated in a tiny fraction of the time.  It’s essentially a mixture of several hundred recordings that fall into the category of city, country, electronic, manual, wind and amplified “small” sounds (as a side note, there is a Yahoo! group devoted to such amplified sounds).  The splicing and all operations were determined using the I Ching, the Chinese oracle and one of Cage’s favorite means of performing chance operations.  The version I listened to is a beautifully re-recorded copy of the original work from 1952 on the “Octo Mixes” CD, which also has a new realization.  I originally heard it on the 25th Anniversary recording, but it was full of chatter and laughter from the audience.

My experience in listening to it is pretty wild.  It’s almost like some sort of incredibly fast out-of-body experience, as if you are rushing through all of human civilization, with rapid blasts of highly distorted speech, rumbling noises of electronics, tiny snippets of music...All that and a seemingly omnipresent frog.  It feels like a compression of all of modern life into a few minutes of sound, and it’s exhilarating to listen to.  As a bit of trivia, the two speech fragments I can actually make out are “gonna find a winner” and “thing that sing.”

When I heard Revolution 9 from the Beatles, I thought it was a wild idea.  Then I heard this from well over a decade before and the poor Beatles just weren’t interesting anymore.

Living Room Music
I challenge anyone to listen to this and not enjoy hammering out the rhythm on whatever furniture is available.  Which is perfectly fine, since the 1940 work itself is to be played on household objects, window frames, and whatnot.  The second movement is hilarious to me, featuring several performers rhythmically hissing and singing some Gertrude Stein about the world being round.  I especially enjoy the male voice in this recording who says, “round and round and rooooound.”  The first and last movements feature pure percussion, and the solid, hard sound of the strikes are very appealing and easy to beat along to.  The melody section, the third movement, is a simple melody with percussion accompaniment.  It has something of a ritualistic feel, I think.

One of the reasons I find the second movement so hilarious is that it allowed the work to be included, somewhat absurdly in my opinion, on the Mode “Choral Works” release.

This was my first One, and my first number piece for percussion, in this case a solo drummer.  It was written in 1990.  Since the drums obviously don’t take on the same sort of extended sounds as strings or wind instruments, the feel is pretty significantly different.  Moe importantly, there is a wider variety of sounds, from the metallic drum rolls, to harsh bass hits, and so on.  Each of these loud events is surrounded by long bouts of silence.  Thus, my natural analog for this would be floating through space (even though mentally I am space out, I will admit that I’ve never physically been there).  Of course, you wouldn’t actually hear anything in space, but I think the various sounds are analogous to bumping into space debris.  I’m guessing most Ones, even for strings and other instruments, are pretty sparse affairs.  Sparseness highlights the unique characteristics of each sound, and in this case you hear certain rolls longer than you would ever hear them in other music, bringing out some of their peculiarities (such as, in one case, a curious ringing sound).  This was fun, although I think the more sparse the number piece, the more it needs to be approached like the mass of sparse piano works from the 50’s.

Music for Marcel Duchamp
Dedicated to the artist, this work from 1947 was originally written for Dreams that Money Can Buy.  The piano doesn’t have a massive number of preparations, although it is heavily muted.  To my ear, the effect is that it makes the keyboard sound more like a plucked instrument than it otherwise would.  The work has a fairly characteristic rhythm, and extensive repetitions towards the end (and other though less extensive repetitions of similar phrases towards the end.

I have a definite feel for the style of music, but it’s hard to describe exactly.  It very much reminds me of some of the music from ancient Greece that I have heard when played on various types of lyres.  Similarly, when I see a movie about Egypt, there’s typically a soundtrack that reminds me of this.  So I’ll go out on a limb, risk some chastisement, and claim that this sounds west Asian to me.

The title isn’t kidding around.  Waiting is from 1952, and really doesn’t have much to it besides, well, a lot of waiting.  A little over a minute’s worth, followed by a few brief piano notes.  Then you wait awhile longer.  It’s sort of fun, actually.  You might even be able to scare someone by passing it off as a recording of 4’33”.

Variations II
In 1961, Cage wrote the second in his Variations series for any number of players and any means of producing sound.  I knew I was going to have to tackle these, possibly the absolutely hardest to approach of  anything Cage ever wrote, eventually.  Basically, the work is a series of transparencies with points and lines, which are superimposed on each other and used, after some manipulations, to determine readings for frequency, duration, etc.  I am not really sure what I can add to that.  My recording, one of several that I have, is from one of the “New York School” albums, and features what seems to be sandpaper, some percussion (wooden sticks, some kind of gun I think, and a rattle), along with a slide whistle.  Every single performance would sound completely different, and I’m not sure if there’s any general suggestion I can offer other than to listen to the sounds, as Cage might say, as just sounds, without any substantial relationship to the other sounds.

I personally feel that the performers, who effectively create the performance, are the ones who get the most out of this work.  I would actually rather like a copy of the score, because it might be attractive.

cComposed Improvisations
In 1990, Cage was commissioned for a work for Steinberg bass guitar.  He created this, which also includes parts for snare and “one sided drum with or without jangles.”  A snare drum solo version has been recorded, as has the guitar and snare, but the poor potentially-jangly drum has been ignored. :-(

Like most of the late works it includes time brackets, during which events may be played, their exact number, duration, etc. to be determined by chance operations.  I’m afraid that on this recording, by Robert Black (the same one who requested it), I do not get the feeling that chance operations were been used; instead it sounds basically like a very experimental jazz tune, with the drums playing some fairly recognizable beats at points.  On the other hand, it is not a continuous performance.  I’m not therefore convinced as to the authenticity of this performance.  I’ll have to refresh my memory of the liner notes.

Exactly one person known to read this blog will have any hope of understanding what I mean when I say that the sound reminds me of the experimental (and obscure) jazz group El Guapo, who not coincidentally are the only experimental jazz group I have any familiarity with whatsoever.    

Sunday, October 30, 2005



Tonight I tackle one of the least approachable and longest of all the pieces music of any kind that I own: 103 for a large orchestra.  One of the big advantages of having MP3s of this performance as opposed to the original disc is that I can hear it played continuously, exactly as I would have heard it in concert.  The size of this piece was the justification for skipping Thursday, since i am for about 45 minutes of Cage per day.  

103 is a number piece, the second largest of all of them, written in 1992, and uses time brackets and a series of single tones produced by each instrument.  This recording, the only recording, was for various reasons conducted even though the score calls for no such thing.  Obviously, with 103 instruments, there’s a pretty decent variety of sounds, but as I expected the strings are pretty dominant.  This is primarily, I suppose, because they can hold tones for much longer periods than the other instruments, although with circular breathing the winds manage it too.  

The first thing that comes to mind is that this work is extremely long; at 90 minutes it’s the longest orchestral music work I own.  That presents a pretty significant problem for those of us with attention spans that tend towards the 15-20 minute range with orchestral music.  The problem is accentuated in a Cage work like this, since the overall texture and large-scale structure of the piece is static, without development or ending.

I went through it in jaunts; listen for half an hour, then I cleaned with Cage in the background, then listened for awhile longer, then sent some email, and for the last half hour or so I entered a quasi-meditative state and came close to falling asleep.  I’m not sure how I would react to this in a concert hall; most probably I would doze off ;-)

As with pretty much every number piece I’ve heard, this one feels very organic; it grows and swells like a plant, with different wisps of sound suggesting different moods and emotions.  For example, passages where the timpani come rumbling in seem more dramatic and forceful than others.  Throughout much of the work, there is a sense of tension built up as more instruments add unrelated tones, and then relaxation as they withdrawal.  Depending on the tones and instruments, each tension takes on a different character.  Sometimes the sensation is pensive and nervous; other times, it is foreboding, and other times it’s what I might call a forceful relaxation, like a strong massage.  The silences are welcome after several minutes of being overwhelmed with slow moving sound.  Of course, there are also some quick sounds: fast horn blasts and quick string scrapes.  In some cases they seem like conversations over the rest of the music, sometimes having an eagerness about them that forces you to pay attention.  

In spite of the length and the difficulty this work would seem to impose upon a listener, it turns out to be pretty inviting.  The various chance-determined orchestral works seem almost angry or at least cold and uncaring by comparison with this.  My only criticism is the same basic criticism I have of orchestral music in general: I get really bored of hearing endless, endless strings.  There is a percussion performer, but apparently only one, and he is not especially active, only popping in with a bell or a triangle ding (or various unidentified but always resonant and metallic sounds)  now and again.  The score also calls for two pianos, but I never heard them.

All and all, it was an interesting experience.  I don’t know if I’ll repeat it because of the sheer length and the fact that, thanks to the total dominance of the strings, most of the work sounds the same as all the rest.  I wonder if a non-conducted version would sound different.

Friday, October 28, 2005


Credo in Us

For those who are curious, only a mere 140 recodrings remain!

Tonight I was going to go to a concert by the Virginia Tech choir, but sadly it was a ticketed event, and there were no tickets being sold at the door.  Since Tech’s music department calendar does not list ticketing information, it’s always sort of a toss up as to whether I will actually be able to attend the events I attempt to go to.  Fortunately, the recitals by students are always free, even if there is some cost in being stared at because I am the only person there who is not a professor, a family member of the performer, or a music student required to attend.  On the plus side, I hear music I wouldn’t otherwise, often by composers who aren’t even dead yet!  Even when they are, I doubt I’d hear them otherwise. Two weeks ago, a clarinet player performed some Berio which would have no doubt made a traditional audience huff, collectively adjust their monocles, and walk out in annoyance for being presented with something they haven’t heard 28,000 times previously.

Yes, my perception of classical music audiences is based entirely on caricatures I’ve seen on The Three Stooges.  

Anyway, no more cynical ranting!  There’s Cage to discuss.  I skipped listening yesterday; you’ll find out my rationale tomorrow.  

But what about the noise of crumpling paper which he used to do in order to paint the series of “Papiers froisses” or tearing up paper to male “Papiers dechires?”  Arp was stimulated by water (sea, lake, and flowing water like rivers), forests
In 1985, Cage composed this work with and gave it an outrageously long title, which was based on a letter from the Arp Foundation; the work being a celebration of Jean Arp.  As usual for the later work, there is a strong sense of the natural world here.  There are ten parts for various resonant instruments.  In my recording, I hear various wooden and metal percussive sounds.  This is mixed with the sounds of crumpling paper and the various noises produced by water.  The effect is very peaceful and meditative.  

The percussion instruments are apparently following a beat, but I could not detect what it is by measuring the time between different sounds.  Yet, I felt like there was a guiding rhythm even if there is no specific one.  The most prominent instruments produced this feeling, whereas some of the others—blown jugs or bottles, a rolling ball—only creep in at unexpected times.  The jugs, in fact, came in halfway through with a very low pitch that gave everything else a sense of dread.  The paper and water noises come once in awhile, and do not seem rhythmic to me.  Instead, it feels like the other instruments give these sounds a context in which to exist.  The water noises are a little more common and include boiling sounds, pouring sounds and the like.

As a side note, I heard various noises as this piece played on my computer.  I heard a knocking noise that may have been someone knocking on a door upstairs, or might have been part of the music.  Similarly, there was a moderately loud scraping noise that might indicate a damaged audio file.  Or, it too might be part of the music.  I’m not sure!  I guess this music is sort of like 4’33” in this respect; I hear (possibly) external sounds and they become part of the performance.

Music for Carillon No. 1
For some reason, no one likes to record the Music for Carillon series.  This is off of the live recording of Cage’s 25th Anniversary Concert from 1958, and to be honest I don’t think it was a very good recording.  The carillon’s kind of muddy, and there’s a fair amount of tape hiss, too.  

Anyway, the music seems to feature various chunks of sound.  You hear a few bells, then a big wash of them, and then a few individuals.  This pattern continues throughout, and in this recording it just doesn’t seem very interesting, even though I like the sound of a carillon.  There’s an ancient LP featuring another recording of this work and three of the others in the series (but not No. 4 for some reason).  If anyone has unearthed it I’d love to have a copy.   Or, if anyone has access to a carillon, these are obvious choices for improved recordings!

Credo in Us
I think of this work as the masterpiece of Cage’s percussion music phase.  It was written in 1942, for percussionists using cans, buzzers, and gongs, as well as a radio and a piano.  It opens with the radio, and throughout most of the work, the radio is hidden by the percussions, like it is locked inside a cage (no pun intended).  The piano, on the other hand, has a few solos where it plays some simple rhythmic melodies, one of which is distinctly jazzy in sound, which is surprising since as far as I know Cage did not like jazz.  The whole performance seems divided up into pieces of intense percussion or piano playing, separated sometimes by silence or by quiet, but insistent rhythms.  Later, the radio becomes freed and it is played alone, surrounded before and after by piano rather than being buried in percussion.  

The jazz melody, towards its end, is engulfed by a low, intense piano rhythm that is very foreboding, and which to me suggests the war going on at the same time Credo was completed.  Unlike some of the other items Cage write around the time, there’s no peace here; the music is completely active and exciting.  My favorite aspect is certainly the radio. In spite of the fact that it could potentially sound like anything, I hear it as “the radio” rather than as whatever the radio happens to be playing (static, speech, other music).  It’s interesting that something so indeterminate fits in so well to the rest of the music.  As percussion music goes, I like this one even more than Antheil’s monstrous Ballet mécanique.  


Wednesday, October 26, 2005


And the Earth Shall Bear Again

Tonight I shall listen to eight relatively brief works that span nearly the entirety of Cage’s career.  Three of them are works I have never listened to before, so it should be a fun evening!  

The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs
One of what I presume is a rare setting of Finnegan’s Wake to text, this 1942 work is for voice and piano—at least in theory.  The piano is actually played with the lid closed as a percussion instrument.  For that, it is surprisingly effective, with the various finger taps and knuckle rapping producing different percussive sounds.  This is in contrast to the slowly sung text, suing a very limited range of pitches.  The style is as always without vibrato and it seems to me rather more dramatic than usual.  Here Joan LaBarbara actually seems aware that she has an audience (see Mirakus2 below).  

Cage does some interesting things within an extremely limited range here, so it’s pretty interesting in that respect.  But I’ll confess my favorite part has little to do with the music: It’s the quote of the phrase “child of tree,” the name of a later Cage work for amplified plant materials.

Sonata for Clarinet
Ah, one of Cage’s very first works that has ever been recorded, from 1933.  It features three movements, Vivace, Lento and Vivace, with one theme that seems to predominate throughout.  It has the sound of “complicated music” and it twists in turns in ways that reminds me of serial music even though I know it’s not serial.  I find the two faster movements to be inquisitive and birdlike; they seem to be eager to explore different tones.  The second movement is simply restful.  

Here’s an extremely rare organ work from 1983.  When I heard it, I assumed it was written four decades before, because it has a feel similar to In a Landscape and Dream except more strongly rhythmic and repetitive.  I’m pretty astounded that Cage composed it so late, since it’s a straightforward piece of organ music, with clear themes albeit seemingly no development.  From what I can tell, it seems to be a four part pattern repeated over and over again, including a main theme that sounds like it would be good for a TV or movie theme, and a monstrous rumbling at the very low end of the organ’s pitches, so low that my poor speakers choke on them.  

It’s pretty dramatic, overall, and does not feel as restful as the work it was supposed to be similar in style to (Dream).  This one’s a real oddity by virtue of the fact that it sounds so normal.  

Sports: Swinging
Swinging was one of a planned set of works after Satie written in 1989, although it was the only one finished.  There’s a repetitive wistful melody underneath one that seems to me to be longing, and I certainly hear the Satie connection.  Much like Souvenir, I’m surprised this is from 1989.  It’s extremely brief and fairly simple.  I wish Cage had written more in the series, although he has certainly prompted me to listen to more Satie.

Music for Piano No. 20
Yep, nothing says 1953 quite like extremely sparse piano music in the Music for Piano series.  It features eleven notes, to be played in sequence as desired by the performer.  It continues the pattern of several of Cage’s sparse piano works, allowing me to hear different tones fade out.  Notably, there are no note clusters here, they all seem more or less evenly spread out, giving the work the feel of a dripping faucet, but less consistent.  

I wonder if I will ever run out of things to say about the Music for Piano series.  I believe I have eight more entries to go!

Haiku from 1951 is considered on the border between intention and chance, and you can certainly hear it.  Certain aspects seem very 1940’s Cage-ish: the long notes that reach into space, and the spontaneous explosions of sound as the keyboard is pounded.  The latter still manage to jolt me when I hear them, though you would expect I’d be used to it!  Anyway, the first movement begins with something of an airy, basic melody, but that collapses in on itself as it progresses and you can get a strong sense of motive slipping away, especially when the loud, interrupting blasts I mention come out of nowhere in the second movement.  It is a pretty striking picture of Cage’s transitional period.

Mirakus 2
This piece consists of twelve songs of twelve notes on a French text.  The two things that strike me about this are that the pitch almost always moves upward, and that the text is sung in a fragmentary manner.  As a result, nothing ever feels “finished,” the melodic progression is left hanging, as is the text itself.  To me, it suggests snippets of conversations heard as you pass by people on the street, ripped out of context and in this case in a language I do not know.  One of the best things about LaBarbara’s performance of this and a lot of other works is, I think, the fact that she does not really seem to be singing to an audience, but rather just sort of singing to herself.  That’s one of the major reasons I get that “overheard snippets” feel from this work, as well as the “person humming to a song on their headphones” from a previous vocal work.  I wonder if this is intentional or not, because this manner of performance makes the music oddly inviting.  I have not yet to meet a Cage vocal work I don’t like!

And the Earth Shall Bear Again
This is definitely a favorite prepared piano work, played by the sometimes-criticized Boris Berman on Naxos.  If he has a flaw, I think it’s just playing too fast.  But this work especially seems to benefit from it.  And the Earth Shall Bear Again is from 1942.  Cage had an excellent grasp of the sounds made by the prepared piano, and in this one the sound unusually tight, in that each kepress seems to have a distinctive sound that is not “blended” into other tones, the way a lot of other works are.  The piano is played with a lot of force here, so the rhythm really grabs for my attention.  I especially like the sharp wooden sound that recurs throughout the rhythm.  The rhythm is more consistent throughout than I am used to, and it’s exciting to listen to.  A final distinctive feature to note is the spontaneous generation of a jazzy melody played seemingly without preparation (or precedent)  about halfway through.  It’s just out of nowhere.  Maybe the steady rhythm has been working a field, and this is the fruit that the earth has borne?

Tuesday, October 25, 2005


Experiences II

For those who might be interested, I have posted a link to a "CageMap" image that represents how I mentally associate various pieces by placing them in a 2D image. Of course, it's hard to show complex relationships with only two dimensions, so in the future I might try adding some color. This is my rough draft, anyway...

Tonight I chose mostly piano works, although at least one is only for piano in the broadest sense possible.  And the other is also for various honking noises.  

Standing for “As Slow As Possible,” ASLSP is a piano (or organ) work commissioned for a contest in 1985.  The work consists of eight parts; in performance, one is repeated, replacing a part.  In this case, part VIII replaced part IV.  I rather wish all the parts had been included so that I could create my own performance each time I listened, because now I can’t help asking myself, “I wonder what part IV sounds like!”  The answer is that it probably sounds a lot like the other parts—piano notes played slow enough that, if there were any relationship between them melodically, it is completely lost on me.  Similarly, I have no clue if there is a rhythmic structure.  Actually, the work suggests an interesting idea, one that someone has probably already done: take an existing piece of music, and play it so slowly that you can no longer listen to it in the same way as before.  

It has a feel similar to Winter Music in that you hear isolated tones, but there are fewer of them and more silence between.  About a quarter of the musical events are chords, and it is pretty fun to listen to them change shape and distort as they fade out into nothingness.  I also noted that some parts did not seem to be played quite as slow as, well, possible.  On the other hand, excessive slowness would probably be impractical, and Cage certainly considered the practicality of performances of his work important.

For Paul Taylor and Anita Dencks
Four sound events, notated so that space is equivalent to time, comprise this work from 1957.  At about three minutes long, it’s obviously very sparse!  In theory, it is for piano, but only two of the sounds involve the piano and even those use its interior construction.  To be honest, I only managed to hear three events.  Towards the beginning, I heard a barely audible fuzzy sound, like someone was adjusting a microphone.  A bit later, there was a (somewhat annoying) high pitched squeaking sound, probably feedback.  The next was a solitary wooden creak.  I guess I missed the last one somehow.  But, then again, all of this music is on my computer, and it may be the whirring of the fans drowned it out.  I spent the piece listening intently to hear something and hear everything except what I am listening for.

Oh, by the way:  never, ever listen to this on headphones.  Or at least never turn up the volume loud wondering if something is wrong, unless you like shattering your skull when the ear-piercing feedback arrives...I hope the next person to perform this picks a more pleasant auxiliary sound!

Experiences II
One of Cage’s rare vocal works, and the work which impressed me the most tonight.  It sets a poem by Cummings to music, and is much like Experiences I, which was for piano.  This style of singing is very beautiful to me; it has a slightly mournful feel to it.  I am absolutely certain that this music is very similar to some particular style, but I am having trouble putting my finger on it.  I want to say it is a bit like some of the field recordings I have heard by Alan Lomax from the 1930’s, but I may be wrong.

The voice has a strong accent, and I find it hard to hear the lyrics.  I do hear, “It is a moment after I dream of the rare entertainment of your eyes” and later, something about “the intolerable brightness of your charm.”  A rewarding listen.  I really like Cage’s vocal music.

Here’s a number piece, from 1991,  that’s quite different from the others I’ve talked about thus far.  It’s scored for two saxophones and three percussionists (Cage wrote more for the sax than I’d realized).  Whereas the last saxophone work I reviewed felt like a beating sun, this one is much less constant, but the sax parts still remind me of glaring light.  The percussion amounts primarily to smacking and thumping, though I am having trouble determining the exact instruments.  With a lot of silence between the appearances of the saxophones, which often play very brief tones, this has a cavernous feel to it.  I mean that literally; it feels as if I am exploring a cave: the percussion suggests movement in the darkness, dripping water, and so on, while the saxophones are the beams from my flashlight, occasionally reflecting off shiny surfaces but otherwise just fading into the blackness.  

Two Pastorales
Here we have another in Cage’s wide array of sparse, chance-determined piano works from the 50’s (1952, in this case).  What’s a bit unusual is that it’s actually for prepared piano.  At certain points, the strings are played by plucking, and there is an explosive tone cluster about three fifths of the way through the first of the Two Pastorales.  Cage seems to enjoy scaring me when I am at my most attentive!  The preparations are modest and only a few notes seem affected by them.

The second Pastorale is a little more surprising, because it features a variety of external sounds, mostly various types of whistles.  At one point I think I hear water being poured.  If the piano being played weren’t obviously a prepared one, I would think I was playing the wrong track.  I think in style this is pretty similar to Winter Music and Music of Changes (it was composed with the same chance operations as the latter), but it seems slower, and at a few points certain keys are played repeatedly and rapidly.  I think I like the other two more, though..


26'1.1499" for a String Player

Last night I tackled another piece for a stringed instrument that I didn’t expect to enjoy, but which I found fun.  But first, some percussion!  I just discovered that my spellcheker lacks the word “theremin.”  Read on to find out why I use the word...

Here’s a classic percussion work from 1943.  It features prepared piano, tom-toms, and wood blocks.  The first two movements are for the former two instruments.  One of the greatest challenges I have in listening to most of Cage’s percussion works is my pop music background.  In pop music, the rhythm is usually extremely simple and very constant, but here it seems to change rapidly and I can get confused easily.  This was particularly the case for the tom-tom heavy second movement, where in a few cases the drumming sounded like me when I accidentally screw up a beat while tapping along to a song.  On the plus side, there were plenty of tom-toms taking part, so there seemed to be a variety of patterns to hear.  Plus the parts where the rhythm seems to “break” add a lot of tension; it snatches away the feeling of resolution I’d get, similar to the same sort of experience I have with melody elsewhere.

I much preferred the last two movements.  I’m always excited to hear solos from instruments I don’t ordinarily hear very often, and I think wood blocks rank pretty far up there!  Being what they are, the music has a pretty natural sound, and I just enjoy the timbre of wood pieces clopping together.  The final prepared piano movement has some interesting sounds.  In addition to the usual metallic sounds, popping sounds, and rattles (rattles which are interesting, I might add, because they are triggered at different intensities by different notes) were some very lush sounding pitched notes as well, as well as a sound from one of the rightmost keys that sounded even more hollow than normal, as if it was the sound of the keypress, disconnected from triggering anything, that was the focus.  Overall, I found the work rather fragmented, but fun.  

26’1.1499” for a String Player
These “time length” pieces are some of Cage’s most annoying, not in terms of sound, but in terms of my ability to remember their titles!  I wonder by what process Cage chose to measure the seconds to the ten-thousandth place?  This piece, written in 1955, combines a number of earlier 1953 pieces of a similar type, such that they may be played in duos, trios, or in any combination.  In all cases, the graphic score indicates where strings are to be stopped.  This performance on cello by Frances-Marie Uitti was novel in several respects.  First off, there were numerous sounds that did not come from the cello, but from Uitti herself and, interestingly, a radio.  She wheezed, gasped, hissed, and made various guttural sounds throughout.  I know that some of Cage’s works have notation calling for external sounds of various sorts, so presumably this score did as well and Uitti chose vocalization.  The radio was very surprising; I didn’t expect it but heard vague static noises that I thought might be a radio, a suspicion confirmed when I heard a random bit of piano music!  I have a particular fondness for the radio works, so this was a pleasure for me to hear, even if I’m not sure if the score really called for it.

I had expected Uitti’s cello music to resemble the Freeman Etudes, but I was wrong.  She plucked and zipped across the strings, at varying speeds.  Some notes sounded fairly normal, while others sounded like scratching a vinyl record. But my favorite sounds were those that changed pitch rapidly and varied in intensity, or which had a strange, ghostly vibrato.  The effect was that the cello was trying to sound like a theremin.  That’s funny, because I’m pretty sure most theremin players were trying to sound like strings.  So they meet halfway here, I guess.  Some of the more brief scraping noises suggested speech to me, and I could almost pick out which cello sound was in a “question” tone or in an “angry” tone, among others (laughter, sad, and so on).  The work is indeterminate (based on the “imperfections of the paper” on which it was written), but Uitti’s realization makes it very inviting.      

Monday, October 24, 2005


Bird Cage

Tonight, something I was not much looking forward to.  There are some Cage works that anybody can enjoy, and then there’s the rest ;-)

Bird Cage
“Twelve tapes, to be distributed by a single performer in a space where people are free to move and birds to fly” reads the 1972 score.  I guess in that respect, the performance is pretty straightforward.  I’m not sure if it was ever realized after the recording I have was made.  At any rate, what we end up is a sound collage of tapes, with speed, repetition and duration varied by chance operations, overlaid with the sound of birds.  I’m not sure what to say precisely here, other than that the sounds of the birds mix in well with the various sounds from the tapes (machine noises, electronics, talking) and I am left with the impression that there is less of a difference between the sounds of nature and the sounds of machines and people than you might expect.  Maybe one day you’ll be able to go to the record store and see “bathtub noises” and “cars engines” next to all the “nature sound” collections.  

Since there’s not much else to say, maybe it would be entertaining to make a list of some of the sounds I heard.
That’s only seven, I suppose.  Probably these were separated up into different groupings.  Additionally, I’m pretty sure some or all of the birds were recorded, because the chirping would suddenly cut out at certain points, not a very probable event in a real group of birds.  

Sunday, October 23, 2005



In two of today’s pieces, you can definitely detect the strong influence of Erik Satie.  One of the others is a response to a comment asking if Cage wrote any choral works.  Finally, I picked an obscure thing Cage wrote in his very early years.  

Before the reviews, I’d like to say that the “works I don’t own” list has now been updated to reflect the fact that I downloaded all of OgreOgress’s releases as well as Cheap Imitation for Violin from eMusic.  I wish everyone had their catalogs available on the web.  There’s no excuse for limited releases anymore.  Everything can be made available eternally on the Internet now!  I’m looking at you, Hat Hut! ;-)  I’ll save my rant about Hat Hut until we get to Imaginary Landscape No. 4 however...

Also reorganized the page and added links to places to buy them, for my own use and for interested third parties.  To be honest, the pieces I most would like to hear are the most obscure: Lullaby from 1991, which is a music box construction for an art show, and Il Treno from 77 which is sort of a Musicircus that takes place within a train.  

ear for EAR (Antiphones)
Cage wrote this 1983 piece as a  comission for EAR magazine’s 10th anniversarry.  The work is a series of vocal sequences followed by choral responses.  The leading vocal seems to follow the same pattern over and over, changing only the last note or two.  As a result, some lines sounded like questions, some like lamentations, and so on, all depending on where that last note went.  In performance, all but one of the voices would be invisible.  There’s no text, but it obviously reminds me of medieval choral music.  As usual, Cage has the performers sing without vibrato.  I don’t know why he does this in virtually all his work, maybe vibrato was a pet peeve of his?  Nevertheless, it makes the music sound very ancient.  At the same time, the feeling I get as I listen is very similar to that of some of the number pieces: long sounds, separated by silences.  Maybe the idea is less modern than I thought!  

Fads and Fancies in the Academy
Here’s some obscure program music from 1940.  It’s got piano and snares primarily, and handclaps come in eventually as well.  Much of it has a march feel to it, with the steady snare beat.  The first three parts consist of Axioms: “The pupil is eager to learn,” “The pupil is constitutionally lazy,” and “We deal with the total child.”  I guess the music somewhat fits axioms, although the lazy theme is much faster than I would have thought.  Maybe it emphasizes that he’s not doing the work?  The final axiom features some really bad whistling at the beginning.  Evidently the piece quotes heavily from popular tunes of the time it was written, but I obviously don’t recognize them!  The next parts are called Historical Sketches, one of “Reactionaries” which sounds like accompaniment to a silent film, and “Revolutionaries” which is all percussion, with the sound of a train at the end.  Finally, we get “Pessimistic” and “Optimistic” Vistas of the Future.  As expected, the former has an angrier, darker tone.  Without seeing a score or something, I have no clue what the work is referring to.  Someone should make a pantomime or something to go with it, though!  

Six Melodies for Violin and Keyboard
The first in our “double Satie” dose, I didn’t actually realize the Six Melodies would sound Satie-ish until I listened to it tonight.  It’s from 1950, right at the cusp of Cage’s move into chance operations, and right after his String Quartet in Four Parts, to which this is an addendum.  As I listened to the first two melodies, my mind went through a series of ways of relating this work to other music.  At first, I felt there was a very slight Eastern feel to the music, but as my exposure to Eastern music is extremely limited, that doesn’t mean much.  The first two also are dissonant and the violin feels “stretched” at certain points, working hard to play the correct note.  The third and fourth, however, reminds me a whole lot of Renaissance music, though it’s hard to put in words exactly.  It’s lost most of the dissonance, and there’s plenty of repetition of themes.  The fourth represents the only point where the piano comes into its own and plays a melody that is not as background to the violin.  The last two melodies are more or less like the beginning.  I also think I hear some plucked strings occasionally throughout, which is unusual for either instrument.  

This is one of Cage’s most popular works, a piano work from 1948 written for a dance.  It’s one of exactly two Cage works that NPR’s national classical broadcast has played since 2002 (as far back as the playlists go).  Even after the first few notes, I immediately thought of Satie’s Gnossienes.  The texture and emotion of the piece seems nearly identical: peaceful, mysterious, and ethereal.  This version is for piano, but I really feel it would sound just as good on a harp.  The mental image I have is sitting somewhere staring at the night sky—but oddly, not the real night sky, but rather in an observatory with the stars projected overhead.  That’s where this music would fit in best; additionally, its restfulness certainly suggests it would make good music to dream to.  I can understand why this work is so popular; it is hauntingly beautiful.  Listening to this also prompted me to hear the Six Melodies again, and I can see the relationship between those and Satie as well.  

Friday, October 21, 2005



Today, I am going a little on the obscure side: a string quartet, some film music, and then...something for piano that is rather hard to describe

1989’s Four for string quartet has four parts that may be performed by any of the players, and which are traded between performances of individual sections.  Depending on how many sections are played, the work can last 10, 20 or 30 minutes.  This is the premiere recording by the Arditti Quartet (for whom it was written) of the 30 minute version.  I’ve said before that Cage’s late works for strings bring to mind water, and this is no exception.  The sound tends to grow, swell, and surround you, like being immersed in a lake.  The other thing I noticed is that the long tones of Four make it seem sad, and almost depressing.  Two of the strings were particularly noticeable: the bass in a few places was on the very edge of audibility, which was interesting.  One thing Cage’s work does is make you stretch your ears to be sure you heard something.  The high pitches often did not sound very string-like, and a few cases I could have mistook them for some sort of brass instrument.  

Four is very sparse, without lacking in sound.  Because the notes played stretch for long periods, and fade out, they don’t interrupt or snatch at your attention; sometimes, it takes a moment to realize that a sound has gone out or a new one has come in.  There is only one point when all four instruments were silent, and that was quite surprising.  

Music for “Works of Calder”
This one is a truly obscure find.  It was written around 1950 for a movie about Alexander Calder and his mobiles. It features two sequences for prepared piano.  In my original encounter with the work, on the last of MDG’s series of complete works for piano, I heard only the piano sequences.  The Mode release features narration from the film and a percussion sequence played by Cage.  I have read that Cage intended the sound to be relevant to what was on-screen, so the first segment for piano makes sense in that it sounds like bumping mobiles can be heard.  The sounds from the prepared piano are largely thumps and pops.  Additionally, there are brief melodic passages, the most memorable of which resembles a police car siren passing by.  The intensity increases slowly throughout.

The film’s narration concerns a boy who meets a man building mobiles.  In it, the man comments that although everyone sees something different when they look at a mobile, “only the mobiles were exactly what they were and nothing else.”  The narration concludes with the dramatic statement, “And the man’s name was.....Samuel Cardew.”  The drama is ruined by the fact that the film is about Alexander Calder, and I have no clue who this other fellow is.  Anyway, the percussion section involves a lot of banging on metallic instruments of some kind.  Because the recording sounds deteriorated, it’s hard to be sure exactly what they are, but you hear distinct tearing, ripping and breaking sounds.  I had read that the soundtrack featured the sounds of mobiles hitting one another spliced together on tape, but this does not seem to match that description, because it is so loud.  But the mobiles were the inspiration.

The final part is very similar in texture and style to the first prepared piano sequence, with one exception.  About two-thirds of the way through, a series of rhythms play.  At the end of the series, one rhythm continues a long time, and then continues again after a pause.  This goes on for a minute or two, with the duration of the rhythm decreasing as the silent duration goes up.  Eventually, it ends, and is followed by another set of noises quite similar to part one until the performance ends.  It’s an unexpected surprise!

Electronic Music for Piano
Any number of pianos can be played with electronic devices in this 1964 piece.  Apparently the score was a single sheet of paper with instructions for combining bits of the Music for Piano series with electronics.  I think this is one of those cases where Cage gives a broad description of a work and the performer is left trying to figure out just what in the world he meant.  Steffen Schleiermacher made a valiant effort to produce something interesting on this recording, which basically amounts to various piano noises with recordings, oscillations and feedback.  The piano noises include keys being pressed with various amounts of force, strings in the piano being plucked, and some obscure percussive noises, probably including hitting the sides of the instrument.  In a few cases, electronic modifications are made to the sounds, varying their loudness for example.  I also heard recordings of birdsong and human voices played at random points during the recording, and finally, there was an awful lot of feedback.  I say “awful” because, wow, feedback isn’t much fun to listen to!  Fortunately, it doesn’t last long. just loud blasts for a few seconds in most cases.  Some of it is feedback, and some might be tones from some kind of oscillator.  You can’t do much to judge this performance since the instructions are so vague.  This work basically adds a twist on the original Music for Piano series.      


Freeman Etudes

Tonight (yes, 4:00 AM is “night” for me), I listened to first book of the Freeman Etudes.  I’ll be hearing that work one book at a time over an extended period, since it is so large.  A vocal work with percussion accompaniment rounds out the offering.  

Freeman Etudes, Book 1 (Etudes I – VIII)
Some time ago, I purchased János Négyesy’s performances of the Freeman Etudes.  I confess some confusion about the disc’s contents.  The source for all information Cage,, lists the Etudes as being comprised of four books of eight etudes each, yet the album’s track listing sets them into two books of sixteen each.  But since the total number is the same, I will assume that the disc is simply mistaken, or that the division into “books” is arbitrary.

The Freeman Etudes were an attempt by Cage to explore the practicality of performing impossible music.  I’m no violin player, but the descriptions I’ve read make the seeming impossibility of the work clear.  Cage collaborated from 1977 to 1980 with Paul Zukofsky in creating charts and tables of all the sounds that could possibly be produced by the violin.  Then he subjected all the possibilities to chance operations using the I-Ching (a perennial favorite).  Chance determined all aspects of the work, and the performance of each note is described in extreme detail in terms of microtones, duration, bowing pressure, and so on.  After the first seventeen were created, Cage quit working on them (believing them possibly too difficult to be played) until 1989, when the total rose to thirty-two after he heard a performance by Irvine Arditti.  The performance instructions are that the performer should play as many notes as possible.    

My impression on hearing these is that perhaps the work is very rewarding to the performer, who would feel as if he or she has created something amazing when finished.  The work is also interesting since it’s such a polar opposite to the time-bracket music Cage had begun working on at the same time, typically allowing performers a great deal of freedom.  Actually listening to the Etudes is pretty challenging.  My immediate reaction was a certain amount of sympathy for the violin, which sounds as if it is being tortured and is squealing in protest!  Nevertheless, I am surprised at the variety of sounds that are produced that certainly do not remind me of a violin.  Some sound more like high-pitched whistles, chalkboard-like scraping noises, and human vocals.  In the 4th etude, I believe, I heard a sound that to me was like a bagpipe, and around the 7th, there was an extended screech that recalled a car skidding down the road, but extended out into time much longer than I’d expected could be done.  Other short segments, by contrast, are played furiously fast.  

Each etude is about four minutes long, and they all sound quite similar (the reason for my uncertainty as to which etude the above sounds came from).  As a consequence, listening to the entire set is a bit daunting, so I suggest taking it in small doses.  In other words, I’d redirect the performance instructions to the listener and say to hear as many as you can, but don’t feel bad if you have trouble hearing all of them.  

She Is Asleep
Cage’s two-movement work for percussion and prepared piano with voice was composed in 1943, intended to be played in any order and with additional parts that were not finished.  On my recording, the percussion section is played first.  The predominate feature is a set of drums.  Although I am not sure what type they are, they sound like animal skin drums.  Various rhythms are played on them, with pauses of brief durations between each; sometimes the pauses feature solitary sounds.  There are two other instruments that begin to assert themselves towards the end, a snare drum that rolls a few times and some sort of metallic drum that plays in the last minute or so.  They are played quite softly.  Although there is some sense of urgency to the playing, aside from the new elements at the end, there’s no climax.

The second part is for voice with an accompaniment of wooden blocks, which also play by themselves at a few points.  There seems to be a slight detachment between the two performers.  Cage’s vocal works somehow manage to have instant appeal for me, even though I come from a pop vocal background.  In this case, there is no text, only tones, and the sound is for all the world like a woman humming a tune she is listening to on a pair of headphones—some short, quick melodies, followed by long held tones, which sometimes vary in intensity.  I like it quite a bit; it contrasts with a lot of the other vocal art music, especially romantic-era songs, which I can barely stand listening to.  I’m not sure why these vocals are so much more appealing, and I wonder if other listeners with pop backgrounds would feel the same way.  

Thursday, October 20, 2005


In the Name of the Holocaust

At this time, I’ll post on my most recent listening from yesterday, and later I will discuss tonight’s choice.  Yesterday I heard two works from the 40’s, for voice and prepared piano, and two from the 80’s that use Cages time-bracket method of composing (more on that in a bit).  I’ll also note that I have posted two lists to the left, one of unrecorded Cage works and one of recordings that I have either not gotten around to buying or cannot find.  Those family and friends who happen to read this site should note that these CD’s make excellent birthday and Christmas gifts, especially those that require annoying things like, say, sending orders to obscure European recording companies (whose websites are conveniently listed on the page).  

Forever and Sunsmell
Cage’s vocal works are always a bit odd because he chooses texts that are either very abstract or in some cases chance-determined.  The lyrics to this 1942 work are by Cummings, and not being very familiar with his work, I can’t say much except that here he uses as nouns some prepositions and other unexpected words.  Cage’s music is divided into two sections, the first being dramatic and forceful: Joan La Barbara’s voice is usually followed or coincided with some powerful drumming, and she sings loudly with some amount of vibrato (fairly unusual for Cage).  I really like how the first section ends, with “children of almost.” La Barbara’s voice twists at the end of the word ‘almost’ as if she is exasperated somehow.  After a brief bit of humming, the second, quieter but also forceful section commences.  It features a softer but more defined rhythm than the first.  The singing is also much softer here, to the point that most of the lyrics are too quiet really make out.  In fact, it seems to get progressively quieter; there is no dramatic ending here.  I think I’d recommend this work for headphone listening.  

Thirty Pieces for Five Orchestras
This is Cage’s first work (dated 1981) to use a system of time brackets.  The basic idea is that performers are given brackets of time in which they are to start and stop playing their proscribed sounds, but they have freedom to choose when to begin playing.  In his later works, Cage usually had performers try to imitate Chinese writing with strokes that seem to wash in out of the air.  This one lacks that requirement, since many sounds pop in suddenly and vanish, or introduce themselves by other means.  

I’m not certain of the degree to which the tones used are chance-determined.  My perception as I listen is that they are not so much: I hear many repetitions of the same tone by the same instrument.  In fact, although there are no soloists, there are times where certain instruments playing the same tone with a fairly clear rhythmic pattern seem to be serving as accompaniment for other instruments.  As a result, I don’t feel the same pressure to think of each sound separately as I felt with Winter Music.  The interactions between different instruments, sometimes seeming to play off each other intentionally or not, were interesting to listen to.  Perhaps most awkward were the silences, which are emphasized strongly by the surrounding music; to be a bit cliché, they were some of the loudest parts of the music.  

Apparently, the orchestras are separated in space, though I am not sure how this is reflected in the recording.  I do know that some instruments seem far louder than the others.  So listeners, be careful with that volume control!  The temptation is to turn it up, but when one of the loud horn blasts or massive bursts of drums comes along, your ears are going to regret it.  As far as individual instruments are concerned, there were lots of entertaining slurs by the string and wind instruments.  In particular, you hear a lot of the winds play a solid tone for awhile, and then suddenly swerve off into silence almost like an old record player’s needle being lifted up.  It’s a neat effect.  Overall, although the work feels disjointed (something like a movie soundtrack collage that keeps teasing towards a climax it never reaches), there were plenty of features to keep me interested throughout.

Cage took a bit of a different track with this number piece from 1988.  Instead of providing instrumentation and letting performers choose tones to play, he chose the tones and let them choose the instrumentation.  I am reminded of Cage’s reference to Bach’s Art of the Fugue as an indeterminate work where the boundaries are given and the performer chooses the colors to fill in a complete picture.  This version was from a CD titled, “Music for Eight” and is performed on (what sounds like) two violins, violoncello, viola, and a wind instrument.  If you will permit me to digress: I have no idea why the Ensemble Avantgarde chose to record Five on a CD titled Music for Eight, especially when Cage’s Eight has not been recorded (for what it’s worth, neither has Eighty).  Anyway, the feel of the work is very similar to Four5, no doubt because this performance uses a wind instrument.  I expect that other performances on other instruments would be recognizable, as the tones played remain the same.  Also, there were a lot of silences in this particular recording.  I didn’t get as strong a sense of naturalness from this work as I have from other number pieces.

In the Name of the Holocaust
This is a confusing work written for prepared piano in 1942.  The powerfully mournful tone and the title would suggest that it is intended as a eulogy for the victims of Germany’s oppression before and death camps during World War II.  The date, however, makes this assumption problematic.  The first true extermination camps did not open until 1941, and I don’t believe they were ever widely known among the American population until after the war’s conclusion, even if the oppression inflicted by the Germans was.  Cage did have a pretense for the word; he uses it as a replacement for “Holy Ghost” in a wordplay allusion to James Joyce.  I am unsure when the word “Holocaust” took on its current historical meaning, but I didn’t think it was until after the war’s conclusion.  Perhaps this work is a bizarre, but very appropriate, coincidence.

Nonetheless, it is striking.  The first movement involves a pattern of what I would call “nauseated” piano music, because it sounds like a sickly distorted piano.  This is punctuated by bell-like tones that seem to be ringing for the dead.  The work is generally slow-moving and mournful, with an occasionally dissonant percussive strike.  The second movement continues the mournful theme, but more forcefully and more loudly.  It features certain swirling piano music at points, and an intense siren-like ringing sound at certain points.  The piece closes with some loud, pounding tone clusters (e.g., smashing of piano keys all at once) in combination with the other sounds that bring to mind the destruction of war.           

Wednesday, October 19, 2005


First Construction (in Metal)

I’m afraid I got a bit distracted last night and didn’t hear anything, so I’ll go for two tonight to make up for it.  Since I had a request from a friend for works he has heard before, I’ll go with one of Cage’s most famous, the First Construction.  I’ll then talk about a lengthy prepared piano work that I had never listened to before.  

First Construction (in Metal)
The first of a series of three constructions, First Construction from 1939 is one of cages most recognizable works; at least to me, I know what I’m hearing immediately after the initial rattle of the thundersheets.  The subtitle is apt, because all of the instruments heard are clearly metallic in nature.  They seem to be mostly xylophone-like instruments, with gongs and bells also.  Apparently, car brake drums and anvils are played too, though I can’t say I recognize anything specific.  Perhaps the most distinctive instrument is the submerged gong, which has a very strange and ghostly sound to it; frankly, it sounds like a gong played backwards.  The parts that make me smile the most are the sections where you hear a cacophony of cymbal crashes and thundersheet rumbles simultaneously.  The work seems to constantly build toward these points, teasing you with unfinished beginnings of a rumble of the sheet or the playing of a gong.  

From my listening, I think First Construction can be divided into two broad sections; the first features a fairly regular rhythm, which continues, sometimes fading in and out, until about the third quarter of the work, where the tempo increases substantially.  The crashes of the metal sheets become very central, and the sound becomes all-encompassing.  Eventually there is a final crescendo, and the work rings out in echoes.  

A Book of Music
Cage wrote a large number of works for prepared piano in the 40’s.  This one from 1944 is not that well-known, possibly because it is among the longest of Cage’s works for the instrument.  Unlike some of the others heard in the past few days, there’s no use of the sustain pedal, as far as I can tell.  This greatly affects the texture, making the prepared sounds much more short and distinct; it has the feel of a long sequence of individuals rather than a mass of overlapping sounds.  In addition, there is not a tremendous variety of sound, in spite of the extensive preparation of the piano.  Aside from a few percussive or metallic sounds, to my ears most of the piano tones are only slightly modified.  

The work is divided into two large sections.  The first section is fairly slow, but consistent, something like a march.  It increases in intensity over time.  There are several clearly defined rhythms, as this section is divided into four movements, but they are not all that easy to distinguish.  Aside from a clear ramping up of the intensity about two thirds of the way through (almost as if the music is breaking into a spontaneous dance), this part is pretty homogenous.  The second section is also fairly homogenous overall, but it features sudden flurries of fast-paced activity.  This its defining characteristic—you hear fast flurries, with spaces of either rhythmic playing or sometimes distinct, seemingly unrelated sounds played in between.  The fastest of the flurries sound almost like electronic music!  Some of the spaces between them are long and feature repeated themes.  The latter half of the second section has several subdivisions separated by silences, but they have similar feels to them.  A loud, fast conclusion is followed by a very brief rhythmic coda.  

Tuesday, October 18, 2005


Winter Music

The pieces I listened to last night were more challenging than normal.  I begin with a short prepared piano work, and then move on to a lengthy chance-based piano piece and a late number work for strings.

Root of an Unfocus
This 1944 work for prepared piano has a curious title, since “unfocus” is not a word I generally use as a noun; nor, my spellchecker informs me, is it even a word!  Anyway, the work is relatively simple, and mentally I divide it into two parts.  The first part involves a light rhythm in the background that is intermittently interrupted by sharp, sudden attacks of a woody nature that tend to be much louder.  Nevertheless, the light rhythm always returns.  In the second part, we hear a faster rhythm, with sufficient sustain between the sounds that it becomes almost a light rumbling noise.  I like the effect.  There is a secondary rhythm going on as well which seems harpsichord-like.  

Winter Music
In the 1950’s and beyond, Cage composed a significant number of works whose performance is indeterminate of its composition.  That is to say, every performance of the work may end up sounding a little different.  In this case, there are 20 pages of music performed in whole or in part by some number of pianists.  It was written in 1957.  The recording I have features Steffen Schleiermacher on ten overdubbed pianos.   It was written using various chance operations, so the bottom line is that you hear, in this recording, about 25 minutes worth of piano noises.

The effect overall is that you are forced to consider each piano note individually, because there is no rhythm or sequence of melodic notes to latch onto mentally.  That makes sitting through a full performance a bit challenging!  It would not even make very good meditation music, as meditation requires some degree of repetitiveness to focus on.   Nevertheless, you begin to notice the variation in sounds of different keys and different modes of playing.  For example, you note the hollowness of some of the high notes, and you even finding yourself becoming excited when you hear more than one note played at once.  In a few cases, I found myself asking, “did I hear that?” when I was unsure if some particularly light note had been played or not.  An interesting, albeit perhaps not pleasurable, experience.  I expect it will sound relatively similar no matter how many pianos are chosen, unlike some of the other indeterminate works.

In keeping with the nature analogy I used with the last number piece, 1988’s Twenty-Three reminded me at first of a beach in slow motion, with waves slowly moving in and being replaced.  But something about the sound of the strings (thirteen violins, five violas and five cellos) did not quite fit because there were simply too many of them.  As I continued listening, I noticed how the structure of the time-bracket pieces allows me to listen carefully to specific sounds as they fade in and out, or they allow me to pay attention to various combinations of sounds.  I think the best example of this was a set of two violins playing two slightly different tones, and I could hear as I listened them seem to weave in and out from one another.  

As a general rule, Cage’s string-based number pieces seem very fluid to me and quite water-like.  In the end, I decided that listening to Twenty-Three is like listening to the sounds as you float down a river late in the night.  The low sounds that wash over each other all the time seem to reflect the way that the water in a river seems to ripple out and be overcome by other waves.  The music ominous, and hence my feeling of a nighttime journey.  Finally, many of the higher-pitched tones bring to mind insect noises of various sorts that you hear in the evening, especially when several of them roll off one another.  Obviously, this was not Cage’s intent, but nonetheless that is the impression I got as I listened.  

As a side note, I am always confused when I write a sentence that involves the phrase, “Cage’s intent.”  He created non-intentional music using chance operations of various sorts to remove his intentions from the music, but yet the decision to subject aspects of the music to chance is itself an intention.  Perhaps it would be most accurate to say that Cage’s intention relates to a broad structure of the music, but not to its actual construction, and that the impact of his intention can vary enormously between works.  

Monday, October 17, 2005


The City Wears a Slouch Hat

The City Wears a Slouch Hat
This 1942 work consists of percussion music to accompany the CBS radio play of the same title by Kenneth Patchen.  The play concerns an unnamed fellow (whom I shall call Guy), who travels a city and encounters a number of characters, and listens in on patches of conversation.  At one point he is held up, but the gunman is shocked to discover a photo of himself in Guy’s wallet.  Guy seems to have assorted psychic powers, at one point answering a phone in a faraway apartment to tell the caller that the person they are trying to reach is dead along with his family, and making the bullets disappear from another gunman’s weapon.  Two scenes stick out in my mind.  At one point, he meets a man by the river, and they have a truly surreal discussion.  The man has never been on an airplane but wants to see things from above.  He asks Guy if he had ever been to a particular city near a lake near the border, but Guy has not, although he knows the workers in a creamery near to the city.  In the lengthy final scene, Guy waxes philosophical, calling for the need for more love in the world, and noting that he is going to “enter your house, hands outstretched” and that there is no need to be afraid.  

Cage had originally intended to use electronic means to produce the music, but the studio would have insufficient time to put it all together.  Instead, he wrote a percussion accompaniment that is largely atmospheric in nature.  There are plenty of additional sound effects based on the sounds of the city, which is an interesting preview of Cages’ later embrace of noise and appreciation of such sounds as music.  I say this because all of the sound effects fit in so well with the percussion accompaniment that the two are all but indistinguishable.  

I had to turn up the volume quite loud to make up for Guy’s very quiet voice, which was unfortunate in a few places.  There is one particular point where Guy sees a cloud trying to talk to him on a mountain, and the intensity of the accompanying thundersheets knocked me right off of my couch.  The work is highly recommended, but perhaps less so for the music than for the surreal story.  Musically, the highlights in my mind are the part where Guy is at the river, as well as the previously mentioned section with the speaking cloud.

A Dip in the Lake: Ten Quicksteps, Sixty-two Waltzes and Fifty-six Marches for Chicago and Vicinity
A work from 1978, A Dip in the Lake was a huge disappointment for me.  In theory, it is a work that involves collecting sound recordings from chance-determined locations in Chicago, though transcriptions can be made by selecting similar locations in another city.  At one point, I thought it would be entertaining to attempt to create a version of this work for my town of Blacksburg.  Sadly, the score was completely non-instructive, and it wasn’t clear what, if anything at all, should be done with the sounds.  In the recording I have, the work is somehow performed by Francis-Marie Utti on the cello (and a bunch of whistles), but unfortunately I have no idea what she based her interpretation on.  In short, then, the score makes no sense, and consequently the recording makes no sense.  My inquiries on the Silence mailing list did not result in any helpful replies, so I presume the work is basically a waste of time.  
[Note: I am aware of two other attempted performances of the piece, but I have not heard the results.  If someone can point me to them, I’ll replace this commentary.]

Sunday, October 16, 2005


Litany for the Whale

Tonight I aimed for one of the highlights of Cage’s prepared piano compositions, two of the lowlights of his percussion works, and the vocal item for which this blog gets its title.  

Daughters of the Lonesome Isle
This is a 1945 work for the prepared piano, with various timbres ranging from bell-like to rattling.  Like most of Cage’s early works, it was choreographed to a dance, and its rhythmic structure is shared with the dance.  It’s divided into a variety of fairly well-defined sections.  One of the most distinctive includes a fast past section using high pitches that sounds reminiscent of Flight of the Bumblebee.  Generally, it alternates between fast and slow, with several peaks, most notably about halfway through.  At this point, it sounds as if much use is made of strumming the strings inside the piano.  This is followed by a quieter section.  In the final sections, Daughters reaches a clear climax, using most of the available sounds and sweeping through the piano strings repeatedly.  

Imaginary Landscape No. 2 (March)
In 1939, Cage wrote his first Landscape for turntable; in the 50’s he wrote his fourth and fifth, for radios and mixed recordings respectively.  That leaves two Landscapes in between, which are far less interesting compared to earlier and later oddities.  The first I’ll consider is No. 2 from 1942, replacing an unrelated Landscape for record players.  It was scored for various percussion instruments, but frankly it would be most aptly titled “that tin can piece” because most of the work is spent banging on them.  There’s also a bass drum that kicks in at unexpected times.  Things finally pick up about two thirds of the way through, where we hear some rattles, and a buzzer that sounds for all the world like an old telephone bell in my recording, and a lion’s roar.  Perhaps the most distinctive instrument is a blown conch shell, which reminds me of an alpine horn.  

Litany for the Whale
This is one of Cage’s vocal works.  It was written in 1980, possibly predating the Save the Whales craze by a few years, or perhaps Cage leapt onto the fad.  Whatever the case, I find it impressive.  It’s arranged in a straightforward manner: Two vocalists sing the letters of the word ‘whale,’ pronouncing one at a time.  One performer follows the other, and then both sing together.  

I would say there are to points of reference from which I would approach it.  The first is based on the title of the work, which might suggest that the music is an imitation of whale song.  This makes some sense.  The vocalizations are surrounded by periods of silence, and the overall effect is that the sounds seem to be emerging from a distance.  An unintentional effect of my particular recording is that the sound is quite low, and increasing the volume allows the sound of air flowing over the microphone to be audible.  The work thus sounds almost underwater.

The second way to approach it is far less modern.  The style of music actually sent me back several centuries, and brought to mind monophonic medieval religious music performed in monasteries.  There is a clear stylistic similarity.  The way in which the music is sung is restful, and could even be described as prayerful (as much so as medieval music with lyrics are in a foreign language I can’t decipher anyway).  The effect is beautiful and Litany would be suitable for meditation.  In fact, because the work goes on for so long (edging on half an hour), meditation might be its most suitable context.

Imaginary Landscape No. 3
This rather brief work from 1942 is scored for a percussion ensemble, just like its predecessor.  Some of the more exciting instruments are turntables. some electronic devices and an amplified coil of wire, which when played sounds like laser sound effects from a 1950’s science fiction film (no doubt because that is exactly how such effects were produced).  The amplification is very strong though, so it overpowers the incessant tin-can banging (maybe that is a good thing).  Like No. 2, the crescendo towards the end is especially exciting and recommended.    

Friday, October 14, 2005


The Perilous Night

We'll begin with a few early works for piano and prepared piano, plus one for voice and one for saxophone quartet.

This is one of Cage's character pieces for piano, performed here by Steffen Schleiermache, composed in 1946. It has a strong rhythm to it, and has some pretty distinctive sections. The first features something of a main theme and some almost-swirling background. As the work progress, that background becomes more forceful and more shythmic, and takes precedence. There are plenty of sudden shifts in rhythm towards the middle, to jar the listener, particularly some very spontaneous trill-like sections that seem to come out of nowhere and vanish again. Towards the end, the atmosphere becomes much more ominous, with sustained blasts from the lower keys. It finishes off with a percieved fight between the low and high keys with increasing space between them. Eventually the high wins out.

Triple Paced No. 1
Here's another early piano piece, dating from 1943. It's in three parts. The first is rather airy, featuring sweeps of the strings inside the piano. It is almost cloudlike. The second part is more rhythmic, with more forceful playing, and a sweeping style that imitates the sweeping of the strings inside the piano (which occur with frequency by their own right). THe last movement is very brief, and features a slowly emerging theme consistantly dominated and shoved back by a competing, louder music.

Cage's number pieces from late in his life are easily some of his most pleasurable music for pure listening. This one is from 1991, scored for a saxophone quintet. My copy is from the Mode "Cage of Saxophones" CD. As a general rule, I tend to associate the number pieces with weather patterns or natural forces of various sorts. It's hard to explain why, but there is something very natural and flowing about the way the instruments fade in and out (Cage described this as emulating the brush strokes of Chinese painting). In this case, I am reminded of the sun beating down. As the day progresses or as an ocassional cloud floats by, the sound changes, just as different light patterns could be observed. I guess I feel the "sun" anaology because the tone is very pure and very direct. Only in a few places am I shocked to be reminded, "Oh yeah, this is a saxophone playing" when the buzzing sound of one of them jogs my memory. Because the saxophones can be played more or les continuously, there is not much silence here (a feature of other number pieces), but neither is the sound quantity overpowering. It's just a warm glow.

Prelude to Meditation
Using prepared piano, Cage created this work back in 1944, the same year as The Perilous Night which is next. The work is very brief, which one might expect, and it has a bell-like sound to it and has much reverb. I believe Cage may have been aiming for a gong-like sound, summoning the faithful to meditation.

The Perilous Night
This is a work in six parts for prepared piano, played by Boris Berman on a Naxos recording. The first focuses primarily on the tuned sounds of the preparations, including a fairly low drum sound and several others that sound with various degrees of hollowness; some are quite 'woody.' The interplay between these two feels sneaky somehow. The brief second movement is a repetition of bell-like noises with some of the untuned preparations, reaching a crescendo, and then receding. The fourth movement explores tuned sounds again, and feels less down to earth. Or rather, it would do so if it were not for the constant intrustion of a very loud, very forceful drum-like sound that really shocks you as you are listening to the music. Every time I would settle down, it would suddenly arrive to yank me out of my complacency.

Movements four and five seem almost as preludes to the sixth movement. The fourth is very repetitive, with bells permeated by various thudding; the fifth is less rhythmic, or rather features a montage of suddenly-changing rhythms of various sorts. After that brief introduction, the highlight of the music arrives with the sixth movment. The person who recently told me he was unable to "groove" to his John Cage has obviously never heard this piece. First of all, it's absolutely incredible that the variety of sounds we hear here are all from the same prepared piano. It includes the use of the most blocky and nearly unpitched of all the sounds introduced so far, paired with a strongly rhythmic, piano-like section (it sounds like a very-slightly off piano, and hard to describe). This becomes faster and faster, and has a very curious "fade out" at the end, as the pianist plays the same rhythmic section over and over until it disappears. Wow.

Quest is a quick piano work from 1935. There is the sense of something being around the corner, and presumably this something is the fast-paced section encountered towards the end.

Eight Whiskus
Cage composed this work in 1984 for voice and then later for violin. The voice version I have is sung by Joan la Barbara. The text is eight mesostics on the first three words of a poem by Chriss Mann (a mesostic being a poem where the source words can be read vertically while the poem is read horizontally). There's not too much to say; the lyrics are more or less random (the mesostic was produced with a computer), spitting out assorted images, such as crusts of bread, time, mirrors, and, if I hear right, fucking. The vocals seem limited to a fairly small range of pitches, but peek out above and below at unexpected times.

Please post any requests as comments!



Welcome to my John Cage weblog. One of the most common statements I've encountered when I mention that I enjoy the music of John Cage is, "the man has interesting ideas, but I don't much listen to the music." But why not? True, some of Cage's works are a little bit difficult to approach, but certainly not all of them are quite as unusal as, for example, 4'33", the so-called silent work.

The purpose of this blog will be to offer a perspective on every recorded Cage work I can get my hands on. At present, I have at least one recording of the majority of his output, at least of that subset that has ever been recorded. Hearing live concerts would be ideal or even nessecary for many of Cage's works, but unfortunately that is virtually impossible.

I have no qualifications for doing this other than desire. I am a computer engineer graduate student by trade. I have an awareness of Cage, I have read a biography; I have read several collections of his writings (Silence, A Year From Monday, and a few others). I have no music background whatsoever as a performer; I have never played an instrument. I also have only a minimal grasp of theory, and cannot read music by sight.

My background as a listener is largely devoted top pop music, especially various post-punk bands of the late 70's and modern indie rock, whatever that phrase means anymore.

This is all a long-winded way of saying, "If someone like me can listen to, appreciate, and enjoy the music--the actual music, not just the ideas, then anybody can.

I look forward to sharing this experience with you!

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