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?

"And the Earth Shall Bear Again" was an enjoyable listen. I am consistently surprised at the vareity of tones a prepared piano can produce. Sometimes, I feel as if I am hearing the same pitch with different timbres depending on the context. Were pianos prepared so as to duplicate certain pitches in order to have a variety of colors for a single note?
This wouldn't surprise me much, and it seems likely that it is the case in some of the pieces where there are unprepared passages that seem to use a variety of different notes, some of which I'd heard a prepared version of previously. I wonder if the effect was intentional or not, or if the preparation just happened to change the tone of one of the prepared notes.
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