Sunday, October 16, 2005


Litany for the Whale

Tonight I aimed for one of the highlights of Cage’s prepared piano compositions, two of the lowlights of his percussion works, and the vocal item for which this blog gets its title.  

Daughters of the Lonesome Isle
This is a 1945 work for the prepared piano, with various timbres ranging from bell-like to rattling.  Like most of Cage’s early works, it was choreographed to a dance, and its rhythmic structure is shared with the dance.  It’s divided into a variety of fairly well-defined sections.  One of the most distinctive includes a fast past section using high pitches that sounds reminiscent of Flight of the Bumblebee.  Generally, it alternates between fast and slow, with several peaks, most notably about halfway through.  At this point, it sounds as if much use is made of strumming the strings inside the piano.  This is followed by a quieter section.  In the final sections, Daughters reaches a clear climax, using most of the available sounds and sweeping through the piano strings repeatedly.  

Imaginary Landscape No. 2 (March)
In 1939, Cage wrote his first Landscape for turntable; in the 50’s he wrote his fourth and fifth, for radios and mixed recordings respectively.  That leaves two Landscapes in between, which are far less interesting compared to earlier and later oddities.  The first I’ll consider is No. 2 from 1942, replacing an unrelated Landscape for record players.  It was scored for various percussion instruments, but frankly it would be most aptly titled “that tin can piece” because most of the work is spent banging on them.  There’s also a bass drum that kicks in at unexpected times.  Things finally pick up about two thirds of the way through, where we hear some rattles, and a buzzer that sounds for all the world like an old telephone bell in my recording, and a lion’s roar.  Perhaps the most distinctive instrument is a blown conch shell, which reminds me of an alpine horn.  

Litany for the Whale
This is one of Cage’s vocal works.  It was written in 1980, possibly predating the Save the Whales craze by a few years, or perhaps Cage leapt onto the fad.  Whatever the case, I find it impressive.  It’s arranged in a straightforward manner: Two vocalists sing the letters of the word ‘whale,’ pronouncing one at a time.  One performer follows the other, and then both sing together.  

I would say there are to points of reference from which I would approach it.  The first is based on the title of the work, which might suggest that the music is an imitation of whale song.  This makes some sense.  The vocalizations are surrounded by periods of silence, and the overall effect is that the sounds seem to be emerging from a distance.  An unintentional effect of my particular recording is that the sound is quite low, and increasing the volume allows the sound of air flowing over the microphone to be audible.  The work thus sounds almost underwater.

The second way to approach it is far less modern.  The style of music actually sent me back several centuries, and brought to mind monophonic medieval religious music performed in monasteries.  There is a clear stylistic similarity.  The way in which the music is sung is restful, and could even be described as prayerful (as much so as medieval music with lyrics are in a foreign language I can’t decipher anyway).  The effect is beautiful and Litany would be suitable for meditation.  In fact, because the work goes on for so long (edging on half an hour), meditation might be its most suitable context.

Imaginary Landscape No. 3
This rather brief work from 1942 is scored for a percussion ensemble, just like its predecessor.  Some of the more exciting instruments are turntables. some electronic devices and an amplified coil of wire, which when played sounds like laser sound effects from a 1950’s science fiction film (no doubt because that is exactly how such effects were produced).  The amplification is very strong though, so it overpowers the incessant tin-can banging (maybe that is a good thing).  Like No. 2, the crescendo towards the end is especially exciting and recommended.    

I recall stories of Cage eating ketchup sandwhiches during the depression. Take for instance Imaginary Landscape No.2 from 1942. Did Cage receive any contemporary recognition for that or similar works, or did Cage's reputation only really begin to rise towards the end of his life?
Hmm, I'm not aware of ketchup sandwiches, although at one point I think he and his roomate at the time lived off bananas. I think his recognition grew in the music world in the 1950's. With respect to the public eye, he became more well known after winning an Italian quiz show on mushrooms in 1959 (that also marks the point at which he finally achieved financial security).

Incidentally, Cage appeared in an early episode of "What's My Line?" as well. Actually, it might have been one of the other similar quiz shows from the late 50's, early 60's.
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