Friday, October 21, 2005


Freeman Etudes

Tonight (yes, 4:00 AM is “night” for me), I listened to first book of the Freeman Etudes.  I’ll be hearing that work one book at a time over an extended period, since it is so large.  A vocal work with percussion accompaniment rounds out the offering.  

Freeman Etudes, Book 1 (Etudes I – VIII)
Some time ago, I purchased János Négyesy’s performances of the Freeman Etudes.  I confess some confusion about the disc’s contents.  The source for all information Cage,, lists the Etudes as being comprised of four books of eight etudes each, yet the album’s track listing sets them into two books of sixteen each.  But since the total number is the same, I will assume that the disc is simply mistaken, or that the division into “books” is arbitrary.

The Freeman Etudes were an attempt by Cage to explore the practicality of performing impossible music.  I’m no violin player, but the descriptions I’ve read make the seeming impossibility of the work clear.  Cage collaborated from 1977 to 1980 with Paul Zukofsky in creating charts and tables of all the sounds that could possibly be produced by the violin.  Then he subjected all the possibilities to chance operations using the I-Ching (a perennial favorite).  Chance determined all aspects of the work, and the performance of each note is described in extreme detail in terms of microtones, duration, bowing pressure, and so on.  After the first seventeen were created, Cage quit working on them (believing them possibly too difficult to be played) until 1989, when the total rose to thirty-two after he heard a performance by Irvine Arditti.  The performance instructions are that the performer should play as many notes as possible.    

My impression on hearing these is that perhaps the work is very rewarding to the performer, who would feel as if he or she has created something amazing when finished.  The work is also interesting since it’s such a polar opposite to the time-bracket music Cage had begun working on at the same time, typically allowing performers a great deal of freedom.  Actually listening to the Etudes is pretty challenging.  My immediate reaction was a certain amount of sympathy for the violin, which sounds as if it is being tortured and is squealing in protest!  Nevertheless, I am surprised at the variety of sounds that are produced that certainly do not remind me of a violin.  Some sound more like high-pitched whistles, chalkboard-like scraping noises, and human vocals.  In the 4th etude, I believe, I heard a sound that to me was like a bagpipe, and around the 7th, there was an extended screech that recalled a car skidding down the road, but extended out into time much longer than I’d expected could be done.  Other short segments, by contrast, are played furiously fast.  

Each etude is about four minutes long, and they all sound quite similar (the reason for my uncertainty as to which etude the above sounds came from).  As a consequence, listening to the entire set is a bit daunting, so I suggest taking it in small doses.  In other words, I’d redirect the performance instructions to the listener and say to hear as many as you can, but don’t feel bad if you have trouble hearing all of them.  

She Is Asleep
Cage’s two-movement work for percussion and prepared piano with voice was composed in 1943, intended to be played in any order and with additional parts that were not finished.  On my recording, the percussion section is played first.  The predominate feature is a set of drums.  Although I am not sure what type they are, they sound like animal skin drums.  Various rhythms are played on them, with pauses of brief durations between each; sometimes the pauses feature solitary sounds.  There are two other instruments that begin to assert themselves towards the end, a snare drum that rolls a few times and some sort of metallic drum that plays in the last minute or so.  They are played quite softly.  Although there is some sense of urgency to the playing, aside from the new elements at the end, there’s no climax.

The second part is for voice with an accompaniment of wooden blocks, which also play by themselves at a few points.  There seems to be a slight detachment between the two performers.  Cage’s vocal works somehow manage to have instant appeal for me, even though I come from a pop vocal background.  In this case, there is no text, only tones, and the sound is for all the world like a woman humming a tune she is listening to on a pair of headphones—some short, quick melodies, followed by long held tones, which sometimes vary in intensity.  I like it quite a bit; it contrasts with a lot of the other vocal art music, especially romantic-era songs, which I can barely stand listening to.  I’m not sure why these vocals are so much more appealing, and I wonder if other listeners with pop backgrounds would feel the same way.  

It seems as if in the Freeman Etudes that Cage did not provide any means by which to judge whether the performer was successful at playing the extremely difficult music. This is especially the case if the instructions are to play as "many notes as possible." If the end result is a screeching bizarre noise, then ironically a monkey could perform the abysmally difficult piece as well as a virtuoso.
Eh, not especially accurate--if you play any of the notes, you would have to play them exactly as specified. I think judging the performance would be based on whether or not the notes played were played correctly, and that would be possible because they are notated with such precision.

Also, the statement as many "as possible" forces the performer to reach his or her greatest potential; you have performed badly if you have performed any fewer than you possibly can!

As for the monkey, I think he could only play it if you considered not playing any notes at all to be playing it ;-)
Actually, it may be worse than that: If someone comes along and plays more notes than you did, they have proved that more simultaneous notes are possible, and thus yuour performance did not follow the instructions! :-O
this piece is very precise yet almost impossible to perform. cage's instructions are simply a commentary on how one might/should approach the impossible. however, using skillful editing and recording techniques it is quite possible to record the freeman etudes exactly as written. if these works are to be recorded, why not record them in this way? performing them live is a different story. a monkey could not even begin to play the first note of this work which is cage's equivalent of paganini's etudes.
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