Tuesday, October 25, 2005


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.      

Amores II is fun, although the percussion could be played with greater intensity. It sounded somewhat clinical, which I guess is a result of the difficult instructions laid out for the performer.
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