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.      

There are 3 different performing versions of "Four"; a 10' version, a 20' version, and a 30' version. You might want to specify which version was reviewed.
Ah, interesting! This is Mode's 30 minute one. I have made the correction on the blog (a convenient advantage of the medium!).
Calder's mobiles have been on display at the Whitney Museum lately. Part of the exhibit included a video on Calder's mobiles. I didn't catch the soundtrack while I was there, but perhaps it was the film you spoke of.
It might be. According to, the film one an award at the Woodstock film festival. Did the mobiles make any noise as they moved?
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