Tuesday, October 18, 2005


Winter Music

The pieces I listened to last night were more challenging than normal.  I begin with a short prepared piano work, and then move on to a lengthy chance-based piano piece and a late number work for strings.

Root of an Unfocus
This 1944 work for prepared piano has a curious title, since “unfocus” is not a word I generally use as a noun; nor, my spellchecker informs me, is it even a word!  Anyway, the work is relatively simple, and mentally I divide it into two parts.  The first part involves a light rhythm in the background that is intermittently interrupted by sharp, sudden attacks of a woody nature that tend to be much louder.  Nevertheless, the light rhythm always returns.  In the second part, we hear a faster rhythm, with sufficient sustain between the sounds that it becomes almost a light rumbling noise.  I like the effect.  There is a secondary rhythm going on as well which seems harpsichord-like.  

Winter Music
In the 1950’s and beyond, Cage composed a significant number of works whose performance is indeterminate of its composition.  That is to say, every performance of the work may end up sounding a little different.  In this case, there are 20 pages of music performed in whole or in part by some number of pianists.  It was written in 1957.  The recording I have features Steffen Schleiermacher on ten overdubbed pianos.   It was written using various chance operations, so the bottom line is that you hear, in this recording, about 25 minutes worth of piano noises.

The effect overall is that you are forced to consider each piano note individually, because there is no rhythm or sequence of melodic notes to latch onto mentally.  That makes sitting through a full performance a bit challenging!  It would not even make very good meditation music, as meditation requires some degree of repetitiveness to focus on.   Nevertheless, you begin to notice the variation in sounds of different keys and different modes of playing.  For example, you note the hollowness of some of the high notes, and you even finding yourself becoming excited when you hear more than one note played at once.  In a few cases, I found myself asking, “did I hear that?” when I was unsure if some particularly light note had been played or not.  An interesting, albeit perhaps not pleasurable, experience.  I expect it will sound relatively similar no matter how many pianos are chosen, unlike some of the other indeterminate works.

In keeping with the nature analogy I used with the last number piece, 1988’s Twenty-Three reminded me at first of a beach in slow motion, with waves slowly moving in and being replaced.  But something about the sound of the strings (thirteen violins, five violas and five cellos) did not quite fit because there were simply too many of them.  As I continued listening, I noticed how the structure of the time-bracket pieces allows me to listen carefully to specific sounds as they fade in and out, or they allow me to pay attention to various combinations of sounds.  I think the best example of this was a set of two violins playing two slightly different tones, and I could hear as I listened them seem to weave in and out from one another.  

As a general rule, Cage’s string-based number pieces seem very fluid to me and quite water-like.  In the end, I decided that listening to Twenty-Three is like listening to the sounds as you float down a river late in the night.  The low sounds that wash over each other all the time seem to reflect the way that the water in a river seems to ripple out and be overcome by other waves.  The music ominous, and hence my feeling of a nighttime journey.  Finally, many of the higher-pitched tones bring to mind insect noises of various sorts that you hear in the evening, especially when several of them roll off one another.  Obviously, this was not Cage’s intent, but nonetheless that is the impression I got as I listened.  

As a side note, I am always confused when I write a sentence that involves the phrase, “Cage’s intent.”  He created non-intentional music using chance operations of various sorts to remove his intentions from the music, but yet the decision to subject aspects of the music to chance is itself an intention.  Perhaps it would be most accurate to say that Cage’s intention relates to a broad structure of the music, but not to its actual construction, and that the impact of his intention can vary enormously between works.  

The Winter Music leaves me wanting. The garage-concert hall hybridization is interesting, with the first filling of the bucket striking a novel mood. Had the piano been playing a true melody or harmonic progression however, it could have served as a foil to the background chaos.
Cage wrote a big bundle of chance-determined piano works (85 sheets in the Music for Piano series, plus Music of Changes and others). I look forward to hearing how all of them vary in texture, if they do at all.

I am not so much looking forward to hearing all of them, at least not at this point. Maybe my opinion will improve! :-D
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