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.  

The use of cowbell as rhythm in the First Construction was fun. And as the sheet of metal's sound faded away, it joined in unison with a nearby air conditioner in the room where I am listening. 8 minutes into the piece, I enjoy the transition to a regular beat. The timed hitting of the metal is evocative of an industrial process. I wonder if Einsturzende Neubauten ever heard this.
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