Friday, October 14, 2005


The Perilous Night

We'll begin with a few early works for piano and prepared piano, plus one for voice and one for saxophone quartet.

This is one of Cage's character pieces for piano, performed here by Steffen Schleiermache, composed in 1946. It has a strong rhythm to it, and has some pretty distinctive sections. The first features something of a main theme and some almost-swirling background. As the work progress, that background becomes more forceful and more shythmic, and takes precedence. There are plenty of sudden shifts in rhythm towards the middle, to jar the listener, particularly some very spontaneous trill-like sections that seem to come out of nowhere and vanish again. Towards the end, the atmosphere becomes much more ominous, with sustained blasts from the lower keys. It finishes off with a percieved fight between the low and high keys with increasing space between them. Eventually the high wins out.

Triple Paced No. 1
Here's another early piano piece, dating from 1943. It's in three parts. The first is rather airy, featuring sweeps of the strings inside the piano. It is almost cloudlike. The second part is more rhythmic, with more forceful playing, and a sweeping style that imitates the sweeping of the strings inside the piano (which occur with frequency by their own right). THe last movement is very brief, and features a slowly emerging theme consistantly dominated and shoved back by a competing, louder music.

Cage's number pieces from late in his life are easily some of his most pleasurable music for pure listening. This one is from 1991, scored for a saxophone quintet. My copy is from the Mode "Cage of Saxophones" CD. As a general rule, I tend to associate the number pieces with weather patterns or natural forces of various sorts. It's hard to explain why, but there is something very natural and flowing about the way the instruments fade in and out (Cage described this as emulating the brush strokes of Chinese painting). In this case, I am reminded of the sun beating down. As the day progresses or as an ocassional cloud floats by, the sound changes, just as different light patterns could be observed. I guess I feel the "sun" anaology because the tone is very pure and very direct. Only in a few places am I shocked to be reminded, "Oh yeah, this is a saxophone playing" when the buzzing sound of one of them jogs my memory. Because the saxophones can be played more or les continuously, there is not much silence here (a feature of other number pieces), but neither is the sound quantity overpowering. It's just a warm glow.

Prelude to Meditation
Using prepared piano, Cage created this work back in 1944, the same year as The Perilous Night which is next. The work is very brief, which one might expect, and it has a bell-like sound to it and has much reverb. I believe Cage may have been aiming for a gong-like sound, summoning the faithful to meditation.

The Perilous Night
This is a work in six parts for prepared piano, played by Boris Berman on a Naxos recording. The first focuses primarily on the tuned sounds of the preparations, including a fairly low drum sound and several others that sound with various degrees of hollowness; some are quite 'woody.' The interplay between these two feels sneaky somehow. The brief second movement is a repetition of bell-like noises with some of the untuned preparations, reaching a crescendo, and then receding. The fourth movement explores tuned sounds again, and feels less down to earth. Or rather, it would do so if it were not for the constant intrustion of a very loud, very forceful drum-like sound that really shocks you as you are listening to the music. Every time I would settle down, it would suddenly arrive to yank me out of my complacency.

Movements four and five seem almost as preludes to the sixth movement. The fourth is very repetitive, with bells permeated by various thudding; the fifth is less rhythmic, or rather features a montage of suddenly-changing rhythms of various sorts. After that brief introduction, the highlight of the music arrives with the sixth movment. The person who recently told me he was unable to "groove" to his John Cage has obviously never heard this piece. First of all, it's absolutely incredible that the variety of sounds we hear here are all from the same prepared piano. It includes the use of the most blocky and nearly unpitched of all the sounds introduced so far, paired with a strongly rhythmic, piano-like section (it sounds like a very-slightly off piano, and hard to describe). This becomes faster and faster, and has a very curious "fade out" at the end, as the pianist plays the same rhythmic section over and over until it disappears. Wow.

Quest is a quick piano work from 1935. There is the sense of something being around the corner, and presumably this something is the fast-paced section encountered towards the end.

Eight Whiskus
Cage composed this work in 1984 for voice and then later for violin. The voice version I have is sung by Joan la Barbara. The text is eight mesostics on the first three words of a poem by Chriss Mann (a mesostic being a poem where the source words can be read vertically while the poem is read horizontally). There's not too much to say; the lyrics are more or less random (the mesostic was produced with a computer), spitting out assorted images, such as crusts of bread, time, mirrors, and, if I hear right, fucking. The vocals seem limited to a fairly small range of pitches, but peek out above and below at unexpected times.

Please post any requests as comments!

What goes into preparing a piano? Are all prepared pianos prepared the same way? For instance, if Cage uses prepared pianos in two different pieces, would those pianos necessarily be prepared the same? If not, what kind of notation does Cage use to indicate how the pianos are supposed to be prepared?
Ah, a useful question! The piano preparations depend on the particular piece. They involve insering screws, nuts, bolts, pieces of weather stripping and rubber as well as other materials between the strings of the piano.

I'm aware that the preparations are precisely noted in the scores, but having not seen one I'm not exactly sure how. I think he used lists of part specifications and diagrams.

Because there's always going to be a little variation in how the items are placed, there's some variation between different performances, but the difference between sounds produced was less than I'd expected between different recordings.
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