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.  

Dream achieves a pleasant atmosphere through the use a simple melody tracing out variations on a pentatonic scale. Thanks to the fact that the harmonies barely change over the course of its 8 minutes, it achieves a quiet stillness. As a sountrack, it could serve a useful role. Nevertheless, it is the musical equivalent of doodling on a sheet of paper, and its chief originality lies in the fact that Cage considered this collection of notes worthy of being called a composition. Any proficient pianist could duplicate this effort after a few beers and some fiddling around on the black keys.
You wrote "Any proficient pianist could duplicate this effort after a few beers and some fiddling around on the black keys."

In the same vein, any composer could have written 4'33", but only one actually did.

In a different vein, any of us could have protested the Iraq war before it began, but only a few of us did.
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