Tuesday, November 29, 2005


Sixteen Dances

I have created a preliminary list of works reviewed so far.  I will slowly add links to them and eventually sort them by title, date, etc. for convenient reference.  This is a bit of a project/exam time for me so it will be a pretty lengthy process.  

Humorously, I discovered I reviewed A Book of Music twice!  I hope they are not completely different in the nature of my comments, or else that might imply that my reviewing is subjective...and I’m sure no one would ever think that...:-P

Sixteen Dances for Soloist and Company of Three
This work consists, obviously, of sixteen dances scored for flute, trumpet, piano, violin, cello and four percussionists.  It was written in 1951 and goes on for about an hour. Each dance has a specific title which, although I don’t have much other information about the work, presumably relates more to the dances it was written for than to the music performed, since the sounds seem chance-determined.    

Well, my first impressions are quite wrong, the music definitely does not seem completely chance determined, although it feels as if in certain pieces at certain points, the orchestra is governed by chance operations (particularly the wind instruments).  The work is composed of nine named dances with interludes between most of them; often, the interludes are more interesting than the named work.  The most interesting to my ears is certainly the last dance, called Tranquility, which features a large number of gong hits surrounded by randomness, which suggests a feeling of floating quietly in space.  The sound rumbles and continues for a very long time, something like the piano in Fourteen, but not as loud.  The eighth dance, which is one of the interludes, also is charming, with its light piano sounds.  Most of the more interesting music seems to be towards the latter half of the work.

Throughout most of the music, the piano plays sharp, forceful notes, punctuated by chords from the two wind instruments and strings which I might describe as, “miscellaneous” and not very significant, although it does have a sort of ‘modern’ feel to it, not as much like later Cage works.  That is, it feels colder and more precise than most of his music.    

Monday, November 28, 2005



For what it’s worth, after a bit of buying, the unowned Cage list continues to shrink!  I’m down to about 17 works that I currently cannot review.  Two of those may not even really exist (the Tomato Marriage at the Eiffel Tower / Four Dances recording, specifically).  A few of them are expensive (the Europeras for example) or completely, insanely, totally outrageously expensive (Barton Workshop for example).  

It’s interesting to me that many of Cage’s early works from the 30’s are scattered across miscellaneous compilations, and have never been incorporated into the “normal” Cage music collections and labels.  

Perhaps Mode needs to make a new release:

John Cage Volume 38: Early Works Hardly Anyone Cares Much About
Sonata for Clarinet
Music for Wind Instruments
Three Pieces for Flute Duet
Five Songs for Contralto
Three Songs for Voice and Piano
Greek Ode
First Chapter of Ecclesiastes
     Untitled Composition
Marriage at the Eiffel Tower
Composition for Three Voices
Sonata for Two Voices
Prelude for Six Instruments in A Minort
Solo with Obbligato Accompaniment...

I bet most of it would even fit on one disc, assuming of course the current owners of the unpublished scores are not  cruel and dastardly and would let them be used...




Today I’ll cover two items that were very kindly provided by readers!  It’s been awhile since I posted, but not since I listened.  Instead of posting one gigantic effort, I will interject some of the comments on pieces I heard this past week into the next couple of week’s reviews, so that the extra length is spread out a bit.  I’ll also make up for a little time by hitting some quite long items—the delayed Sonatas and Interludes, perhaps a Europera (or two?)—this week.

As some might know, the 23rd was my birthday and due to the Thanksgiving holiday it was celebrated on the 25th.  Sadly, I didn’t get any new Cage as gifts, but that just means I’ll be spending my own money on some used items from Amazon this week!  

Two additional notes:  If anyone happens to be in or around Italy, and wishes to be extremely helpful, here is a library catalog entry for the book Il treno di Cage which features a cassette of music for “prepared train.” It’s one of the rarest items and it would be great if I could hear a copy of it to review!   Of course, since it’s fairly rare there may well be onerous restrictions on the ability to actually do anything with the book and cassette.  Still, it’s a starting point for a search:

Cage : il treno di Cage / foto: Nino Monastra .Bologna : Grafis & Fylkingen, 1979.
31, [51] p. : ill. ; 21 cm + 1 cassetta. ( Le trasgressioni ; 2.)
Complementi del tit. anche in inglese e francese. - Pubbl. in occasione delle Feste musicali tenute a Bologna nel 1978. - Tit. della cassetta: Alla ricerca del silenzio perduto / John Cage.
BNI 817306.
1. Cage, John - Bologna - 1978 I. Cage, John II. Monastra, Nino
780.92 (ed. 18) – MUSICISTI

Bibl. Nazionale Centrale di Firenze
    Collocazione: D.M.o.9
    Inventario: CF990272381     1 v.

My Italian is pretty limited, so it was fun trying to find this...

Secondly, where might one find the complete text to Empty Words?  I have enjoyed reading Lecture on Nothing to myself and to friends; it would be nice to try something a bit more challenging!

This is a radio recording of a work that consists of chopped up country names and national anthems.  Actually, this particular recording features folk music from the relevant countries from the 1984 Olympic Games, rather than national anthems.  This is reasonable because frankly, national anthems pretty much all sound the same to my ears.  Anyway, the letters are pronounced in a curious manner, almost in a call-response form for two voices, one male and one female.  The effect is fairly hypnotic.  

This is a text work which was created by arranging by chance sentences, words, and so on from Thoreau’s journals that refer to music or sound.  If you have heard the text pieces on the Mode Cage Reads Cage album, you have heard this, except that Cage’s voice seems more forceful, and less quiet than he seemed on, say, the Mesostics on the Mode album.  The text is also interesting, and I can’t help but notice a large number of frogs making their appearance...rather similar, actually, to the ever-present frog in Williams Mix.  A connection!  Since there’s also a lot of water mentioned, I suppose the frogs make sense.  The text flows wonderfully off Cage’s tongue, as he has always been an ideal performer of his own vocal works.  It, like HMCIEX, is a little hypnotic.  At first, you try to derive meaning from the flow of words, syllables, and phrases; eventually, it just seems to enter your mind, generating an occasional image (the wind, music, the sky, frogs...more frogs...).  Even if it’s just spoken text, its performance thus has a similar effect on me as the performance of music does.  I think it will even replace Indeterminacy as my late night listening before bed...

Tuesday, November 22, 2005



Thanks to an earlier rise than expected tomorrow (dentists always set out to make my life difficult), we’ll stick with skeletal reviews and a rant.  One of the key things I do when I come home to Alabama is to canvas the city in search of cheap music.  I hi the jackpot in a local Coconuts, where some person had abandoned a bounty of unexpected finds, including an awesome set of renaissance dance music on a French label for $2.99, as well as the most unexpected of all, a CD by Thomas Adès, which hilariously had an explicit lyrics label on it (perhaps the only classical-section album to receive such a distinction).  I don’t know much about Adès, except that a) he is really young and b) he’s on Allmusic’s “top 500 composers.”

That was a longwinded way to get to my main point: Cage is placed in the top 50 by the Allmusic editors, which was surprising to me—he was the only “contemporary era” composer to get such a distinction.  I’m not sure if it’s because they really like him that much, or if they had to choose someone from that period and picked Cage.

A Dip in the Lake: 10 Quicksteps
I didn’t quite realize how long this version of the music was!  Thus I will break it into a few different listens, similar to the various Etudes collections.  This version was downloaded off of the Internet and features actual recordings from Chicago.  The experience is interesting, if slightly hard to follow—specifically, I don’t know what, if anything, makes each collection of sounds a “quickstep.”  Anyway, each one is about a minute long and consists of snippets of sound from a location, sometimes played continuously and sometimes repeated.  A lot are natural sounds—wind, rain, etc. and a lot are man made including radios, cars, boats and the like.  As with one of the earlier listens, it’s interesting that the nature sounds and the manmade sounds all become equally ambient in this work.  One curious fact I noted was a lack of other humans lending their voices to the sound!  Only a few times did I hear anyone.  Maybe they went to the locations at unpopular times, or these quicksteps just happened to all be rather unpopulated areas.  

Three Dances for Two Prepared Pianos
This is a complex work with elaborate and interesting preparations from 1945.  Each dance has a distinctive character.  The first is highly metallic and features a pretty wide array of different sounds.  The rhythms seems olid and more or less continuous; they are not as fragmented and rapidly changing as I have come to expect from percussive Cage music.  In my mind, the first dance is clearly the highlight.  The second feels more deliberate and maybe almost march-like in its pace, but because it’s a bit slower the rhythms become harder to follow.  It ends with a brief climax.  The third dance is more hectic than either of the other two.  Most pleasurable are the unexpected “blobs” (what I wrote in my notes) of unprepared tones that show up to my surprise.  Some of it feels very random and almost like static...towards the end, I even felt as if I was being pelted by music!  

First a note—I sometimes see this work written as one-zero-one, or as one-o-one, where ‘o’ is the capital letter (i.e., O) rather than a zero.  I’m unsure if this is significant or a wacky typo.  Anyway, this is a large orchestral work with time-bracketed parts.  There is no conductor, and the Mode recording I have sounds pretty much like what I’d hoped the 103 recording would sound like!  It begins with a loud brass explosion.  Most impressively, I can hear all the percussion sounds and the piano completely clearly.  It sounds like there is something in the orchestra besides strings!  Otherwise, the music is much as I have come to expect from a number piece, although there are louder sections here than I am used to, and a wider variety of attacks on different instruments (notably the piano, which sounds a bit more like it does in the Music for Piano series).  Overall, it’s an effective refutation to the 103 recording.  

Monday, November 21, 2005



I’ll be posting twice today, so keep your eyes peeled in a non-literal manner.

Cage’s fourth piece for two instruments features either violin and piano or violin and sho.  Naturally, I chose the sho version!  Both were created in 1991.  It’s three section for the sho’s seventeen pitches and four movements for the violin, which is played microtonally.  The show plays relatively loudly in comparison to the violin in my version, with a bit more variation in dynamics.  The violin is played so softly that the bow’s scraping sound comes through very clearly, and I don’t hear the slow raising and lowering of volume that I observes from other number pieces.  The fairly high pitches used for both parts gives the music an airy quality, as if the listener is floating through it.  

In terms of pace, the sho’s part is more rapid and more is happening; it seems as if the violin part mostly provides a generally unvarying contrast to the sho, as the tones it plays tend to extend much longer in time than the sho tones, which at their loudest totally overpower the violin.  To follow my nature theme from previous reviews, I’d compare this to crickets and fireflies, where there’s a only-very-slightly varying sound context of the violin while the sho flashes in and out unexpectedly.  Because of the way the sho is played (not sustained for a long time), I’m guessing the piano version is similar, but the attack would be different since the piano would not build up the ay the sho music does.

The Unavailable Memory Of
This prepared piano music from 1945 uses only five pitches.  The piano preparations are not very complicated, and the sustain pedal seems used throughout. The piano sounds a little more plucked than usual. The music begins with two sections that start relatively slow, but then move through the pitch material quickly.  Then the music becomes more rhythmic and a bit more dramatic (that is, played forcefully in this recording) but it still strikes a meditative mood because of the repetitions. Its ending is unusual in its non-abruptness.

Perpetual Tango
This is something like Cheap Imitation.  For this work, Cage manipulates the notes but keeps the rhythms of Erik Satis’s Sports et Divertissements.  It was written in 1984 for a tango collection.  The result is similar to other of Cage’s deconstruction efforts; you feel as if you hear a somewhat distorted version of the original music.  At first the recording sounded dead to me, but I warmed to it; it does capture some of the warmth and humor of the original Satie piece, but now it’s a little more confused.  The music is repetitive, obviously, but it’s fun to listen to.  I prefer this to Cheap Imitation by a pretty large margin.

Music for Piano No. 1
The series of piano music from the 50’s begins here, with notation based on imperfections of the paper on which it was written, one of several ways Cage sought to bring chance into his compositional process.   There’s a lot going on in the music, and seems almost melodic to my ears.  I do like the variety of tones, and the string plucks.  I’m not sure I really hear any chords though, except when to keys manage to be pressed at the same time.  It’s a quick selection of solid notes, cascading down rather like rain…

Saturday, November 19, 2005


In a Landscape

On my way back to Alabama, I listened for an hour or so to the NPR classical radio station. I was reminded why I don't listen to much of the stuff: it sounds totally and utterly dead. Well, not everything, but the stuff from the mid-to-late 19th century. Gah. I think one of the reasons I like Baroque-and-earlier music is the liveliness of it. Or maybe it has to do with how the music is transmitted to my car radio, perhaps somehow the life is sucked right out of it.

Here's today's Internet Cage Quote. I was discussing Cage with an acquaintance of mine, and he mentioned how much he liked Four6 as performed by Sonic Youth. I mentioned that it didn't really follow Cage's score, he said that was OK, it sounded great anyway; "they made it sound symphonic." He finally noted that Cage probably wouldn't be a stickler for the rules.

I tend to disagree; it seems to me that when you are given a relatively high degree of freedom, the non-free aspects become all the more important. But nevertheles, I will hear that ecording at some point, since it's the only version of it I have around ;-) Tomorrow I will begin the first part of the correctly-recorded version of A Dip in the Lake which is avilable on the Internet!

Triple-Paced No. 2

This is a 1944 prepared piano version of Triple-Paced, aparently identical besides the changed instrument/ I would describe it as actually rather cute, in a way. The melodic part is very bouncy and upbeat, so I smiled while listening. This is intersperesed with some forceful segments, but even they do not seem angry, just louder. Maybe the work is simply a bit childlike. The piano preparations seem pretty basic as well, without any substantial complexity.

In a Landscape
Last time I heard a Satie-themed piece, I said it would sound lovely on a harp. So, since Cage specified "piano or harp" for this music from 948, I chose a harp version! This piece, or at least a hideous, mangled monstrosity inspired by it on a William Orbit CD (experimental pop musicians would be way more experimental if they could drop the boring, repetitive beats).

It seems my harp version also involves a guitar, which is too bad. I would describe this one, like Dream, as subtly beautiful. I say that because it is so slight and slow, but very atractive. The reader who found Dream insipid probably won't like this one any more, although I feel it's a bit more complex. It seems to be a myriad of variations on an upward-moving 'revelaing' theme; I can almost imagine a curtain being opened in front of some amazing golden artifact when it arises. The emphasis here is on the implications of the word "artifact," because this music feels like it is putting me in touch with something ancient, some faded remnant of a lost history.

The only negative is that this sounds a bit too similar to modern "new age" music for my tastes, so I prefer to simply think o it as in the style of Satie: mysterious, quiet, and still.

A Book of Music
Here's a big virtuoso two prepared piano work composed in 1945. It strikes me as a curiously underheard item Cage's output. My suspicion is that it's very long at about half an hour, so it doesn't fit easily on a compilation CD, and it alone isn't as "central" a work as, say, the Concerto.

The music does not seem especially complicated; in fact, it seems more primitive and rhythm oriented than most; the music is largely a long series of single staccato thrusts of the beat. Virtually all of the preparations are either percussive in nature, or make the piano sound plucked instead of hammered. The second part speeds things up quite a bit. Homrously, I think of a spider as I listen, because the music seems to zip across the floor, and then pause suddenly, then zip again. Or, that miht be because I just saw a spider a little while ago.

To me it feels like the music is more complicated than its result; that is, it sounds like a lot of effort went into designing the sounds I hear, but at the same time the result seems fairly basic. I think the highlight of this work is the rapid fire use of multiple percussive sounds in the second part, which is pretty fun. Still, it's not overall very memorable.

Friday, November 18, 2005



Well, I drove to Alabama today, and I brought my music with me...or so I thought. I copied my entire classical music directory to a portable hard disk, but made a mistake--I copied the 'Classical/Classical' directory, which is Mozart and friends only, as opposed to the entire 'Classical' diretory which includes the 'Classical/Contemporary/Cage, John' directory that I need. Sigh.

It's obvious that the blame for this error lies on wheoever decided to call both the genre and the period by the same name ;-) Certainly not with someone who does not pay sufficient attention to what he is doing...

Anyway, I do have access to my PC in Virginia via remote desktop so I can still get at the music, it's just a bit more challenging now...I am once again glad I never turn that PC off.

Additionally, I'd forgotten how awful the speaker setup here is, with the right channel not functioning at all. Consequently, I will have to transport Cage via CD to the living room, much to the potential dismay of my mother...

Blogging will continue apace tomorrow! I'll probably start with some of my recent aquisitions, which I did manage to copy.

Oh, I enjoyed hearing Indeterminacy in the car. I won't review it, but it was nice to hear some of my favrite stories again. Heh, even if I've heard them all over and over for the past few weeks when I go to bed...

Wednesday, November 16, 2005


String Quartet in Four Parts

Tonight I heard a pretty decent variety: orchestra, string quartet, piano, and vocal.  I received an ad for a 127 CD box set of the entire works of Mozart on CD from Arkivmusic today, and certified its quality by verifying that Adagio and Rondo for Glass Harmonica is, in fact, performed on a glass harmonica.  Anyway, it entertained me to imagine what a “complete Cage” box set would look like.  I have about 60 hours of Cage on my computer, and lack a lot, probably another 10 or more hours worth of music.  So I’d guess about 60 CDs would make a decent Cage box set, although you’d have to provide lots of versions of the indeterminate works.  Maybe a separate disc devoted to each Variations?

That’s not 127 CD’s of course, but when you get down to it, who ever plays or listens to Mozart’s 20,000 minuets?  I dare someone to buy that box set and do a blog on it...

Day 78: Yet Another Symphony
Mozart wrote this at the age where I was playing with He-Man action figures in the bathtub.  Geez, I’m depressed.  


This is off the wonderful The Seasons CD which also features the rendition of toy piano music I reviewed some time ago.  I find this one to be much more dramatic in scope than the other number pieces I’ve heard; it doesn’t feel as peaceful as some.  The music is, like the other orchestral number works, dominated by strings and the brass (where is the percussion exactly?).  I would compare this to one of the others, which I described as a night ride on a raft, except this time, consider it a moonless late night trip through some sort of fairly barren landscape.  There’s a nervousness to the music, like something is constantly lurking just around the corner...It’s a great late night listen.   I think I get a similar feeling from other string-heavy number pieces, but this is stronger than usual.

Two Pieces for Piano, 1946
I have to use the year to distinguish this from a set from 1935.  Conveniently enough, the first piece (creatively titled ‘I’) continues the ominous mood set by Seventy-Four tonight.  In fact, these are directly related to The Seasons that I heard a few days ago, featuring music for certain sections.  I didn’t really associate the two with that work, but even now that I know, I am not sure how the second piece (‘II’) fits in; it seems extremely fragmented and does not, even as I listen to the winter section of The Seasons, really seem to be the same thing (except at certain points).  It feels fragmented, or maybe even unfinished.

String Quartet in Four Parts
This item from 1950 has four movements, the first three gradually becoming slower.  The first movement feels relatively conventional, except with curious dissonant shifts at certain points.  The second one pauses more often, and seems to become more fragmented, with sudden shifts in unexpected directions, and sudden sonic bursts where quiet was assumed.  Apparently this music has to do with the fall in America, but looking outside I’m afraid I don’t see the connection.  Anyway, the third part seems to continue in this progressively-more-distorted direction, and it seems as if the strings actually squeal and groan in protest at certain points.  It’s played a bit more quietly.  Throughout all three of these parts, there is a constant back and forth feeling that comes close to making me seasick (a nod to Glenn, who asked if Cage could make me ill, as I recall...).  The final movement, the quodibet, is totally shocking.  It’s really very attractive and feels fairly Baroque in nature.  And I swear one of the instruments sounds like bagpipe towards the end, or else I am just crazy (or both may be true).  It feels like a nice celebratory dance after the long voyage above.

Nowth Upon Nacht
Ahhh, I always know this piece by the SLAM of the piano lid at the beginning, which makes an excellent percussion sound!  I broke Cage’s score, which I recall requires that Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs be played first.  It’s got some Joyce text sung in a hilariously dramatic way (I’m amazed anyone can say “snicky sticks” with any seriousness).  The best part is definitely the “wooo-hwwwaaaaooo!” near the end.  I rather wish Cage had written more pieces like this.  Peacefulness is all well and good, but sometimes you need a bit of yelling and lid slamming!

Tuesday, November 15, 2005


Four Walls

Well, it’s pretty obvious I should not do my listening so late at night, because then I become too sleepy to write the reviews ;-)  I will see what I can write about last night’s before I fade out.  Tonight I spent an hour hearing Four Walls, which is quite interesting even without the textual and dance component.  

Oh, and an additional note: expect fragmented updating next week.  I am going home to Alabama for the duration of the Thanksgiving holiday, and though I will certainly hear my 45 minutes each day, the unreliable Internet connection at our house may make updates a bit slower.  My birthday will also be celebrated there, and hopefully it will include the unwrapping of some more Cage music!

And in my sleepy haze, I just had the following thought:  A big advantage of doing a CageBlog instead of a BachBlog is that there are fewer umlauts to type.  

Four Walls
This is a major dance work featuring multiple characters (a dysfunctional family) and a storyline with related music written in 1944.   The introduction to the first act reminded me a whole lot of the beginning to Nixon in China, but slower.  I realize this is fairly silly, but they both strike a slowly-developing, nervous tone.  Hmm, not necessarily nervous, but sort of sad...I guess the best way to describe it is “worried.”  This mood persists, more or less, throughout all of the music.  I’m not going to go scene by scene, but rather mention some overall thoughts, and then a few points that caught my attention.

Four Walls was meant for a dramatic play, and there are a large number of pauses in the middle of the music that would normally be filled with spoken text and movements on stage.  In listening to a recording, these are gone, and replaced with silence, which makes it sort of an interesting forward-reference to a certain infamous Cage work...The music is structured very specifically in space-equals-time notation, so that you can’t very well “skip” those sections without going contrary to the score (the fifth part from act one features an especially long silence).  Aside from the silences, there are some particularly long spaces filled with only ‘punctuating’ notes, usually repeated over and over.  Without the text or movement between them, they take on the feeling of a heartbeat or other rhythmic process.  As I listened, I divided up the music into essentially two types: music associated with actions, and music that might be considered the theme of the dance (based heavily on the worried music mentioned first).  The action music is usually strongly rhythmic, with frequent pauses, and sometimes includes a dialogue effect, with one stomping sound contrasted against a higher, softer sound, almost a male-female comparison.  It makes me pretty curious what else would have been going on as the music was played!  I get the sense that the various musical types may be associated with different characters.

In act one, there’s a particularly dramatic sequence in part three, and its ending feature a neat use of an interesting echo-like effect of a repeated melody.  The best example of the dialogue technique shows up in part four.  One of the most forceful sections of music is in part one of act two.  The work ends on a much darker variation of the original theme.  Finally, there’s the part for voice in part seven, singing a poem involving throat gurgling (!?), which was written by Merce Cunningham.  It’s sung in a high voice, relatively slowly.  I’m not sure how it relates to the overall drama.  

Monday, November 14, 2005


Imaginary Landscape No. 4

Last night I listened to Sonatas and Interludes and was not very impressed.  I chose to hear a non-Berman version, but frankly I like Berman a lot because he gives a great deal og emphasis to the rhythm.  I forget the performer of the version I heard (I will look it up), but I found it very hard to follow any of the Sonatas (they all sounded about the same), and despite the enormous number of preparations, the gamut of sounds was exceedingly small.  I’ll have to review it again using Berman’s version.

I should add another note—yesterday I promised an unusual work, but then I discovered Dance/4 Orchestras was available from the net, so the person who sent it to me was not especially original.  Thus I went with a “big” work (Sonatas and Interludes) instead.  As usual, here’s the sketches tonight, I’ll fill in the holes later..

Oh, one final note!  Various errors in grammar/factual data/etc. have been pointed out to me (there’s some especially awful ones in my last post!).  Keep in mind that all I do is run over this writing with a spellcheck, and otherwise my thought flow freely with little editing.  I can take care of all that sort of thing when I write a “what I learned” essay in the future, and also take the contents of this blog and reformat it into a more readable webpage.

Seven Haiku
A chance determined piano work from 1951.  Each Haiku is devoted to various persons in Cage’s life.  The music is apparently related to Music of Changes.  I’ve heard a lot of sparse piano works so far, and each has a bit of a different flavor.  The seven haiku are spaceous, with frequent chords.  The attacks between different notes vary, sometimes fast and very sharp with no sustain, sometimes drawn out.  Most interesting are the strange melodic fragments that show up, beginning with those inthe third haiku.  The fourth begins with what sounds like the start of a melody, but it goes nowhere.  Such musical “slices” seem very common in the Haiku overall.  

Some music for clarinet here, plus flute and percussion from 1991.  The number five plays various roles in the music.  As I listened to the music, I was given the obvious impression of watching the sky.  As usual, the strong continuous music from the wind instruments bring to mind the sun, but in this work there’s some amazing percussion work that feels like wind and clouds moving across the sound field.  The effect overall is very beautiful, with a particular emphasis on the very low percussive sounds that I can’t quite identify.  They raise my blood pressure a bit!  I feel a high degree of tension in some parts of the music, whereas others (especially the wind combinations) are totally the opposite.  

Hymns and Variations
This work from 1979 is a choral piece for twelve voices, using subtraction techniques on hymns by William Billings.  It’s become clear to me that it’s simply impossible to make choral music in this style that doesn’t sound great; every possible combinations of tones by voices sounds good.  The music is sung in a fragmentary form, with subtraction techniques applied to each hymn, resulting in ten variations.  The singers also only sing vowel noises, but what is curious to me is that I can still detect a degree of the reverence that would have been a part of the original music and text, which was religious in nature.  

Imaginary Landscape No. 4 (March No. 2)
This is one of Cage’s most infamous of all his works, the music for twelve radios and 24 performers.  It was composed in 1948.  Back in high school, a friend and I enjoyed driving around downtown Birmingham in his car late at night, and we highlighted the experience by tuning the radio between stations on its AM setting.  Radio static is an inherently lonely and unnerving sound.  I also took a bit of pleasure in using a handheld radio to “listen” to my computer, monitors, hard drives, etc.  Light switches would make a satisfying click, whereas my PC’s CPU would created buzzes and beeps as it operated.

So naturally, I like Landscape No. 4 a great deal.  I have two versions, one by the Cikada Duo which I believe uses 24 radios, and one by Maelstrom.  Both renditions are excellent.  Listening to this music never fails to get me very nervous because the sounds are completely ghostly and haunting, in the same way that listening to extremely old wax cylinder recordings will freak me out, no matter what the contents.  There are two things you hear in the music for radio: solid spaces of sound, where the fequency is constant, and the distinct rushing, shifting sound as the station is changed.  The collage-like nature of the work brings to mind Williams Mix, except that in this case the contents are dynamic and change any time it is performed.  But even though it changes, the experience of listening to it will always be similar.  It’s one of the Cage works I love the most and which I was very excited to get a recorded copy of!

For M.C. and D.T.
An extremely brief 1952 work for piano, for Merce Cunningham and David Tudor, unless there are others associated with those initials.  It’s directly related to Seven Haiku above.   They sound quite similar, and the length (longer than any of the Haiku) obviously has a wider selection of sounds to hear.  Nevertheles, it still manages to have long silences.  The melodic almost-beginning fragments are common.  If the initials are indeed for Cunningham and Tudor, I guess the music’s length is directly related to the importance of a person to Cage.  In that case, I feel a bit sad for a few of the names from the Haiku, who only merited about 23 seconds of music!

Sunday, November 13, 2005


The Seasons

Last night I heard a bunch of music of different types.  Actually, I guess much of it was for piano.  Here are my comments.  Tonight, I will be listening to...something a little unexpected that I managed to get a hold of recently.  

A Room, for piano
This is the version of the work for piano, written in 1942.  There’s not too much to say about it:  It features a repeating rhythmic structure with only minimal ornamentations at various points.  There is a small degree of variation, and the repetitiveness makes them easier to detect.  It’s pretty ambient, and subtle shifts in tempo by the pianist are noticeable.  

Rozart Mix
I’m not sure just how authentic this recording is.  Rozart Mix is for 88 tape loops played simultaneously.  In theory, the loops will break and are replaced, and the piece ends when the audience leaves.  How this recording was made I am unsure, except there are clearly a series of repeating tape loops that are played at various loudness and speeds.  I recognize a pretty enormous variety of music, from classical to pop and jazz, mixed with voices of all sorts of languages.  Sometimes loops come in and vanish for awhile, only to return later.  The crying baby (or maybe it’s just a squeaking toy) reminds me of Revolution 9, since the Beatles were on my mind (see below).  Overall, it’s neat, and the overlapping multilingual voices are a lot of fun.  I swear I heard Ronald Reagan.

Double Music
This was a 1941 collaboration with Lou Harrison, each composer writing half of the parts.  The instruments include brake drums, gongs, a thundersheet and other such metallic items.  There isn’t much development, although I think some of the points are nicely highlighted by thundersheet crashes (there is an especially loud section of them that I enjoy a lot near the end).  The work does not feature much variation in rhythm,  and is exciting throughout.  It’s one of the most straightforward percussion works.

The Seasons
Good grief, this has to be the most conventional music Cage ever composed!  It’s based on the Indian idea of the cycle of seasons, and begins on winter and ends in the destructive fall.  I detect a slight Eastern flavor to the music, especially with the flute (it was scored for a piano with orchestra in 1947, for a ballet by Merce Cunningham).  

The most clearly dramatic section would seem to be winter, which has an especially powerful surge towards the end.  Spring is to some extent what I expect: fluttery sounds suggestive of cute little birdies and bunny rabbits, but there’s a nervousness to the music, and there’s a very negative-seeming explosion by the brass instruments that shows up sometimes.  I suppose cute little bunny rabbits are pretty nervous.  Summer offers a significant contrast.  It is much slower than the other movements, and has a rather languid pace.  I’d call it lazy and relaxed, but it’s only a little bit, there is a tension here too.  I’d imagine someone relaxing on his hammock, but keeping one eye open, as it were.  The final movement, fall, is full of curious string chirps during the prelude.  The meat of the music is quite forceful and nearly angry, which certainly suggests destruction, although with much more drama than just random, mindless destruction, so maybe destruction with a higher purpose in mind.  The last portion of the fall section is much quieter, and sounds like the prelude to winter, thus bringing the cycle back to its start.

A Valentine Out of Season
This is a set of three pieces composed in 1944, not too long before Cage separated from his wife, Xenia.  The first piece involving short melodic lines played slowly, with the only piano preparations having a muffling effect and a slightly metallic drum sound.  The second piece is faster and clearly rhythmic, but still very quiet and unornamented, using mostly the metallic drum-like sound.  Often the passages feel incomplete, adding to the tension already brought out by the first part, with only a few instances of forceful playing.  The last part feels like something between the first too; there is much silence and slowness, but ends at a faster pace that I am not sure what to make of.  Retreat?  Overall, the first section is so haunting and sad and that mood persists for the rest of the music being affected as I listened.

The Beatles, 1962-1970
Ah, Cage’s only real concession to pop music!  Aki Takahashi asked some composers to write a Beatles-related piece of music in 1989, so Cage took a, well, Cagean approach.  He bought a Beatles piano songbook, and extracted chunks drawn from their entire output, and then mixed them all together randomly into six piano parts.  The result is pretty entertaining; because the extracts were chance-determined they often do not necessarily represent recognizable portions of the music.  All of the parts are played overlapped on top of each other.  The tempo and octave do not necessarily match the Beatles songs, so it’s fun to see if I can pick out particular tunes.  My favorite part comes towards the middle, when all the piano parts go silent except for one, which plays the refrain to Eleanor Rigby, among my favorite Beatles tunes.  

The work also reminds me that the Beatles seem totally over-hyped (although considering the colossal amount of hype, it’s hard to imagine how anyone could live up to it), but that is a rant for another blog :-)  The final section, for some reason, brings in a whistle, and then it ends quite abruptly...more or less like the Beatles, I suppose.  It’s a fun work to listen to; I really like Cage’s collage pieces like this and Apartment House and plenty of others.  It’s an effective encapsulation of the Beatles into a short eight minutes.

Friday, November 11, 2005


Concerto for Prepared Piano and Orchestra

Another few works including a longish number piece continue tonight.  I spent part of today hunting for Cage scores.  We apparently do have the Solo for Piano from the Concert at Virginia Tech, which I was excited to see.  Sadly, I never found it.  The score has vanished or is checked out.  I did dig up a few books on Cage, as well as a book on his correspondence with Pierre Boulez.  I was not aware they got along.  I also read Conversing with Cage for awhile, until some lady came up the same aisle that I and the book were on.  She stood in the same section as I, so perhaps she was checking out Cage.  More likely she was looking at Brahms or someone else nearby.  

Ah, if only she had been looking at the cage and had not been twice my age...

Concerto for Prepared Piano and Orchestra
Just a quick pet pieve: the “and orchestra” in titles of concertos always sort of bugs me: Doesn’t a concerto by default include an orchestra?  Hmm.  

This work sounded more interesting on paper than in reality, I’m afraid.  The key instrument is the prepared piano,. I am aware of the premise of the music: the piano and orchestra operate through different means for the first two movements, and in the third come together.  The liner notes also suggest that the piano tends to be played in a more ‘traditional’ style than the orchestra, which is governed by very complex pitch charts of various sorts.  

It is true, the few fragments of the prepared piano I hear do seem conventional, but their fragmented nature makes them sound in my mind pretty much like the orchestra.   There are only a few extended sections where the piano plays alone, and there I think it sounds a lot less conventionally expressive than in most of the short prepared piano works like A Valentine Out of Season or The Earth Shall Bear Again.  As a result the loss of the expressiveness in the third movement just isn’t very shocking (to be totally honest, I didn’t really tell much difference).  More interesting are the silences that fill the last movement, which apparently highlight the rhythmic structure.  

The work does feature some interesting parts for the percussion section of the orchestra, but I wish the prepared piano sounded more like it did in Cage’s other works for the instrument.  Still, the music does combine a lot of Cage’s ideas up until when it was written in 1951, and even suggests 4’33” a year before that work was composed, so it’s central to Cage’s output even if I don’t really enjoy it much..  

This is a work for a solo violin featuring single sounds played without vibrato.  This is one of the Ones (pun intended) where Cage seems to be emphasizing the complexity of even the simplest sound when it’s heard in isolation and extracted from a harmonic or melodic context.  The length of the tones (they are played generally long) and the types of tones used (only natural ones without microtones) allow for very detailed listening.  What I heard included the natural scraping sound associated with the act of bowing that becomes more and more obvious as higher pitches, along with warbling variations in the tone resulting from the impossibility of applying truly constant pressure and speed.  I think it’s these two characteristics that make the number pieces for strings seem “watery” to me.  

This work also highlights a possible reason why Cage dislikes vibrato: it seems to cover up a lot of these details, and makes the violin sound less natural and less human (especially when it covers up the ‘imperfections’ of pitch).  It got me to thinking back to how I used to hat listening recordings of Glenn Gould playing the piano, because he hums.  But now I don’t mind it at all, because the idea that a person is making the music doesn’t bother me.  That is, I don’t think I should be offended when the fact that a human is performing is somehow highlighted.  

Thursday, November 10, 2005



Tonight I decided to tackle one of the fairly long number pieces I have floating around.  There’s a Zachary W. Bond who plays trombone at Yale and shares my name down to the initial.  One of the works is one he should play!

I’ll post the skeleton reviews tonight and fill them in the morning...I updated the unowned works list to remove items donated recently or that I expect to have very soon.  Thanks to all those who have offered!

Every night for the past few weeks I have been listening to Indeterminacy as I go to bed.  Cage’s voice is very soothing, especially as I hear him through my earplugs, a little muffled.  I keep wishing that one day I would meet another Cage aficionado with whom I could share the following in-joke (or any like it):

Him: “So, Zac, what do you think of the international situation?”
Me: “The thing to do...is to develop...foreign...trade.”
Both: (cackling)

No johncage.info on this one, I’m afraid, so all I know is what it’s scored for, trombone and piano, and that it was written in 1991.  My rendition features a whole lot of silence, which is to be expected as pianos don’t hold their tone quite so long.  The music lasts nearly 40 minutes, and I pumped it up to a very high volume for my enjoyment.  

The trombone tends to play very long single tones, whereas the piano plays chords as well as single tones, often several in a sequence.  The piano seems consistent in the softness of its music, and never overpowers me with loud strikes the way some of Cage’s works do.  Since often the two instruments play together, you get the distinct feeling of the piano “poking around” the solid tone from the trombone, so I like to think of this work as being like rain falling through a beam of light.  

I was amazed by how much I like this work.  I think it’s a powerful accompaniment to natural sounds, thanks to its extended silences.  My apartment door opens onto a hallway open to the outside air, and when it’s fall and windy out, leaves often rustle as they blow past my door.  This music accompanied the sound impressively.  I often get the feeling that Cage’s late work is intended to emulate nature, and so it makes sense that it accompanies nature so well.  

Experiences I
Another in Cage’s set of Satie-like piano works from the 40’s.  This one’s from 1945 and is a simple work utilizing only the white keys.   I really enjoy the music, despite (because of?) its simplicity.  I guess it’s instantly appealing.  It also has clear similarities to the Experiences for voice.  The most interesting aspect of this piece may be the way it pauses so abruptly, leaving unexpected spaces between similar-sounding passages.    My recording is not so great; there seems to be a lot of odd noise on top.  

Wednesday, November 09, 2005


Some of "The Harmony of Maine"

Today there was not an especially clear highlight, but that’s OK.  I heard more sparse piano music, some grossly edited organ music and a prepared piano work.  I tried to enjoy the recordings with a cool glass of pumpkin pie soda, being the second-most-palatable flavor of holiday cola.  Unfortunately, I was unable to get much of it down.  I love pumpkin pie, but this tasted far too spicy for me.  Specifically, there seemed to be some nutmeg, which I consider to be one of the most noxious substances known to mankind.  

More unfortunately, it’s all downhill from here.  Tomorrow I will be having a cool glass of carbonated turkey and gravy.  

Music for Piano 69 – 84
This is my second listen in the series of Cage’s sparse chance-created piano music.  It’s very weird to say, but I find this kind of music more enjoyable to hear than the Variations or Cartridge Music even though they are just instances of sounds, bearing no relation to each other, separated in space.  This group, from 1956, can be performed separately (all 16 were separate in this recording) or with others in the same series.  

The performance was very nice, and you could really hear a wide array of timbres among each of the types of piano tones, depending on how hard the key is pressed, for how long, and where it is located on the board.  The variety of sounds that can be achieved from a nonprepared piano is quite impressive in its own right!  The most interesting parts of this recording were the very curious high ringing noises which sounded more like the tapping of a wine glass than piano sounds.  I also got to hear a variety of strumming, plucking, and slapping sounds.

It feels odd to say, but this sort of music becomes more interesting and actually fairly entertaining the more I hear of it.  

An aptly named work for prepared piano that is definitely not over-complex.  It was written in 1942, and is pretty nice to listen to with very consistent rhythm and repetitions.  My favorite rhythm is the one towards the 1:30 mark, which seems pretty mysterious to me, and it leads directly into the most dramatic section with a faster, very repetitive and very simple rolling rhythm.  Most of the music seems pretty laid back, though.  Well, not so much inactive but rather less “dramatic” and more “fun.”  The exceptions are the middle section I already mentioned, and the ending which is pretty tense and forceful.  This work doesn’t stick in my mind as a great prepared piano work, but it’s nice and solid nonetheless.  

Some of “The Harmony of Maine”
This music is a modification of Supply Belcher’s “The Harmony of Maine” from 1794, and thus relates in my mind to Apartment House.  The music is for organ, and Cage did chance modifications of the work so that some notes are deleted and others are changed in length.   Cage’s experiments in this work modification area are always interesting to me; in this one, you can hear both Cage and the original music at the same time.  You can picture how it once sounded without hearing it.   The gaps and distensions make you wistful, so there is a sadness to listening to the music.

Essentially, the experience is one of echoes.  There were two things that crossed my mind as I listened.  The first thought was Fadograph of a Yestern Scene, a phrase from Joyce that is also the title of a Samuel Barber work (which is why I know the phrase).  That came to mind because both Joyce’s nonsense wording and this music evoke a image in my mind: it seems like a faded and distorted reflection of the original music.  

Another, more interesting thing that came to mind was mushrooms.  Cage once commented that the job of mushrooms is to remove old rubbish from the world, through the process of decomposition.  Cage’s modifications of this music definitely strike me as decomposition, because the work is losing notes, becoming torn apart, and if the process continued it would be reduced to simple tones devoid of context: the very materials from which it was created in the first place.  This isn’t a negative thought at all, to me.

Cage was the mushroom, but fortunately he isn’t poisonous.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005


Cartridge Music

Tonight, I enjoyed a few number pieces, plus the first of what will be a three-part set of Cheap Imitations.  I also am enjoying a cranberry sauce soda while I listen, the most palatable of a “holiday soda” gift pack I purchased today.  I’ve also included my comments on Cartridge Music from last night.

This is a curious work for a chorus (another choral work, for the person who asked about them!) with the letters of “Oregon” sung.  Now as I listen, I can’t really make out the lettering, but I certainly enjoy it a lot.  The music (along with my speaker set up) completely surrounds me and I feel like I am engulfed in a thick mist of voices.  I think a lot of Cage’s vocal works really highlight the beauty of the unornamented voice, and here I get to listen to several such voices singing simultaneously in single, solid tones. The result is very attractive, especially when the voices continue for so long that they seem less to be voices and more like ambient noise that you miss when it vanishes.  

Cheap Imitation for Piano
Cage arranged the third movement of Satie’s Socrate for two pianos, but copyright problems prevented its completion.  So in 1970 Cage took a curious route, and used chance operations to transform the original Satie work, transposing notes and modifying the dynamics completely from the original.  

This was supposed to be a violin rendition of the work, but it turns out that eMusic lied to me, and I wasted three of my downloads on another piano version when I already had them.  That’s very annoying.  I did not read sufficiently carefully; the review they quote from allmusic is way off, but the fact that his is Cage himself performing should have made it clear it was not for violin!

Anyway, this work is totally boring.  In fact, I am breaking one of my rules right now, in that I am writing the discussion while I listen to the third part, which has another interminable 15 minute remaining.  The music is one long melodic line that goes nowhere.  Each note seems played so alike that any variation in dynamics is subtle enough that I may as well be listening to an old MIDI file.

There are certain exceptions—sudden shocking parts where Cage sounds as if he is hitting a sour note, but which presumably are just modifications of the original piece.  These seem to be emphasized by the playing, as do some portions of the final part.  But overall, I’m just twiddling my thumbs, waiting for it to end...

A Flower
This is a 1950 vocal work that includes piano lid tapping.  There is no text, but in my performance Joan LaBarbara sings long, slow tones, while the tapping on the piano tends to be fast and rhythmic.  

She scared me suddenly when she basically began quacking like a duck at one point.  So up until there, it seemed like a fairly conventional Cage vocal work—solid tones, no vibrato, highlighting as I said above, the unadorned voice.  For this work Cage added other animalistic noises, such as gargling.  Apparently the dance was about a flower, so Cage decided the music should seem more animal-like.  To be honest, after some bewilderment, I got a good laugh out of the music.  It reminds me of the horse-neighing part of Stockhausen’s Stimmug that never fails to leave me howling.  

As a side note, it’s too bad I didn’t do a Stockhausenblog, because a) the word is fun to say, and b) maybe he’d write to me and tell me I have no comprehension of his music ;-)  

Cartridge Music
Sometimes with works like the Variations series, Cartridge Music, Branches and others, I feel like Cage wrote them so as to be more interesting for the performers than for the listeners, and whatever listening enjoyment might occur really needs to be accompanied by watching the performers in action, or at least a detailed description of that’s going on...I’ll discuss this more below.  

Anyway, this is a work for various objects placed into phonograph cartridges and amplified, as well as the sound of furniture with contact microphones.  The material provided for the music consists of various shapes and transparencies such that every performances is different.  Indeed, the number of performers depends on the number of cartridges available.

In listening to it, much like Variations, I found it difficult to pay a lot of attention.  Most of the sounds were indeed interesting, but all sounded mostly like scrapes and scratches that varied by pitch.  I understand the concept of the work: small sounds that would otherwise be totally inaudible are being amplified.  But for me, unless I know what is making the sound, the sound itself is a bit less exciting.  On the other hand, I can imagine how I would feel being one putting objects into the cartridges and becoming excited as I wonder, “What sort of sound will this make?”  

But as for this recording, I particularly enjoyed certain short, loud sounds, as well as the “twang” sounds I associate with springs.  Some other noises were curious, like chains dragging and something shattering.  But most were just creaks and scrapes.  I would have loved either a video of the performance, or a text description of some of the parts that the performers found most interesting to play.

Monday, November 07, 2005


Sorry, just a shameless plug tonight...

I listened to Cartridge Music and another work tonight, but I will write tomorrow.  Right now, I would just like to make a quick shameless plug for two of my recent music purchases: Music of the Ancient Greeks and Music of the Ancient Sumerians, Egyptians and Greeks as performed by De Organographia.  I’ve always been fond of early music, and there’s not much earlier than this stuff.  

A lot of the ancient Greek music has been recorded before, but the most recently discovered papyri fragments are recorded on the second CD, including a nearly-complete Christian hymn, the earliest ever discovered.  It also features a nice recording of the complete Hurrian hymn to a moon goddess deciphered by Anne Kilmer in the 70’s.  She also released an LP, which I bought from her (apparently it did not sell very well since they still had plenty of copies in 2001...) but I like the Organographia version a fair bit more.

Be warned though, the Egyptian music is totally dubious.  For example, a horn call is recreated based on a description of it sounding like the bray of a donkey.  Of course all interpretations of music notation this old are fairly dubious, but the Egyptian stuff is the most dubious of all. ;-)

I have this theory that my interest Cage and new music has also driven my interest in early music.  It’s possible this is true for others as well, so I’m tossing this out...

Sunday, November 06, 2005


Suite for Toy Piano

Today was a night full of piano music, although not exactly by intent.  I think I am still a little bit ill, but the consequence is fatigue rather than any real symptoms.  

Later I describe how a number piece put me to sleep.  It’s interesting how some of Cage’s works really wipe me out.  His text readings are especially effective at that; the way Cage reads his mesostics in the Mode text pieces CD’s (among the most enjoyable Christmas presents I’ve ever received, I might add!) is veer calming and the nonsense of the text as you try to follow it sends me straight into the dream world.  I don’t know if anyone else has experienced this.  

This is an early piano work composed in 1938 using a serial style.  None of the five movements really strike my fancy.  The third is significantly longer than the rest, but moves quite slowly.  There are certain fairly rhythmic passages, and the sixth movement starts out in a peaceful relaxing style that shows some promise, but it seems I hear too much stair-stepping.  On the plus sides, certain melodic fragments recur fairly often; I understand part of the point of the music is the presentation of certain fragments of a tone row.  Nevertheless, I am unsure what the title signifies (except insofar as the row fragments are modified over time), because each movement seems quite similar to its predecessors.  I guess on paper, maybe the title has significance, but I really can’t hear it as I listen.

This work is from 1958 and features music for various parts of the piano and external noises.  One advantage of smacking a piano is that it’s pretty hollow and has a nice loud sound to it.  This one uses a radio for external noise, which is nice, but when you get right down to it, it’s a bunch of creaks, thumps and bumps.  Oh, and a few tone clusters and string plucks and a very few key presses.  The end is, thankfully, fairly silent.  

I understand the principle behind works such as this, in that you are listening to sounds being themselves.  But the sounds just aren’t very interesting.  Or maybe I’m in a bad mood tonight?  Hmm, I guess I could follow the principle of listening to it another four, then eight, then sixteen etc. times until I decide it’s interesting, after all...;-)

Suite for Toy Piano
This work takes advantage of the limitation of the toy piano, namely that it has only nine white keys.  Two of the movements in fact only involve five tones!  Curiously, there is an arrangement for orchestra ten years after its creation in 1948,  and it is occasionally played on a real piano.   I choose to stick with the toy version, however.

Cage does a thorough exploration within the ridiculous limitations he placed on the music (note that the toy piano also cannot play chords); we have some quick rhythms, and the melodies are usually fun, relying heavily (for obvious reasons) on repetition of the same note or notes over and over again and plenty of arpeggios.  But what I think I like most is just simply the sound of the toy piano.  It has a unique, very light timbre, and even more interesting is the loudness of the clicking when a key is pressed.  This compliments the upbeat texture of the music, and also gives it a slightly mysterious feel, something like harp music.  The variety of dynamics possible on such a frankly crappy instrument is interesting, too.  I don’t see much point in playing it on a piano, although I’ll admit I’ve never listened to a piano versions.

Of the five movements of the suite, I think I prefer the fifth, as it has a slow, strong rhythm and a theme that I like a lot.

In One5, each hand gets different time brackets; the work features 97 notes throughout its entirety.  It was composed in 1990.  I’m afraid this one put me to sleep practically instantly after I started listening to it.  Now it might be that I was tired, but even as I put it on right now while I type, there’s something about it that just really zonks me out.  I think of the music as something akin to starlight: brief specks that persist for awhile, but not usually loudly and that don’t really demand your attention.  Between them are long, long pauses, as you listen to the particular note fade into nothing.  Between the notes there’s nothing for your mind to hold on to, and as I listen to the sound alter and warp ever so slightly as it fades away, my brain tends to fade away too, until I am totally unconscious.  

But presuming you manage to stay awake, it’s interesting to note how you respond to each tone, and experience the subtleties of the sound of a piano.  For example, as I just heard one tone played, I can feel the vibrations on the strings seeming to go back and forth and back and forth until the sound is gone.  Unlike some of the other sparse piano works, there are no sounds other than single keypresses.

Saturday, November 05, 2005


Apartment House 1776

Tonight I heard two items I like a lot, one I found very boring, and one that sounded un-Cage.  I also wandered over to the local bookstore, and picked up a book about “music and ecstasy” which went to some effort to try to explain why people like music.  Some of it was interesting, and out of boredom I looked up Cage in the index—I found him several times, once being criticized because his chance operations never ‘produced any memorable melodies,’ once because he created graphic scores that were more ‘efforts at visual art with no real concern for the music they might result in,’ and once in the context of his Europera which was one of a list of examples of music that no one would listen to for pleasure.  Nothing beats listening to some academic pointyhead jab music he dislikes with his-oh-so-sharp skull...  

He also lamented the fact that there have been not been any composers with Beethoven-ish stature since...well, since Beethoven.  I suspect it’s a lack of time and the fact that everyone is buried in music 24/7.

Six Short Inventions for Seven Instruments
Well, I can’t say this one did much for me.  That’s not too surprising since it was written in 1934 and thus among the earliest works of all.  The first features some very harsh melodies.  The third and fourth are fast-paced but consequently extremely short.  The fourth is perhaps the most interesting, played in this recording with plucked strings.  The fifth is the most successful at providing a comforting melody, while the sixth is the most extravagant and longest, yet still fairly forgettable.  Interestingly, the instruments for the composition are not specified; in this case it seemed to be some strings and a flute.  

Third Construction
One of Cage’s several great percussion works, this Construction from 1943 has a very tribal feel due to the use of skinned drums and more “wooden” sounds in addition to the good ol’ tin cans.  There’s some sort of especially loud metallic item similar to the metal sheet used in the First Construction, which breaks in at appropriate points for some added drama.  There also are points during the work where certain instruments show off more or less by themselves.  

As I said, there is a tribal feel to the work, which comes into the picture most clearly about halfway through, when a toned sound that reminds me of some sort of bird or animal noise enters the music; later, there is a similar effect from some sort of horn call.  Occasionally there’s a barely audible very low sound too, which adds to the tension. The intensity seems to keep going up and up throughout, with only a few lulls, and reaches its forceful climax at the end.  

Today I read that the use of tin cans and various other unusual items was partially motivated by the fact that Cage had essentially no money for normal percussion instruments.  I don’t think the music was hurt by it!  

Apartment House 1776
Apartment House is one of my all-time favorite works from Cage.  It was written for the American bicentennial in 1976.  I generally consider this work to be in the same class as Roaratorio or the Europeras, in the sense that it is a collage of sounds of various sources associated with a unifying theme.  In this case we get two main aspects: musical works and singing.  Cage intended it to represent the sounds one might have heard in an apartment house in 1776.  

The music is a mixture of various nice melodic instrumental music collected from late 18th century composers.  The music selections complement each other well, even though they are played all on top of each other.  But these are not precise renditions of the melodies; instead, they have had chance-selected modifications, including shifted pitches, dropped notes, and so on.  The effect is stronger on some parts of the music than others, resulting in kind of an eerie feeling as certain pieces sound distorted as if played on a warped record.  The skipped notes and the distortion seem to emphasize the distance of the music from the here and now.  The slow works seem eeriest; since their rhythm does not stick out very much, all the notes from the works intermingle heavily and the result is unsettling.  The unsettled-ness is quite appropriate, because my favorite aspect of the work, drum solos from an old marching band book come in at random points, disturbing the music and suggesting impending violence and war.  Those solos are played appropriately very loud and drown everything else out.

The vocal music features works that are representative of four groups living in New England at the time of the revolution: the Protestants, the Sephardim (American Jews), the slaves, and the Native Americans.  All of them sing traditional material including hymns, work songs and chants, depending on the group.  The volume seems relatively low, such that it’s difficult to make out specific lyrics, but they are generally religious in nature (as expected).  The fact that it’s performed simultaneously suggests the discord that the clash of cultures resulted in, and the drum solos drown out all the multitude in a cacophonous conflagration.  

I would love to hear this performed in person!

Ad Lib
I listened to this expecting a bland 40’s Cage piano work, from 1943 in this case.  It is much different than I’d expected.  It has a ragtime feel to it, and is very bouncy for most of the work.  But there’s a bit of a dark undercurrent to it, and strangely seems to suggest both Satie and Joplin to me practically simultaneously.  Well, maybe not exactly at the same time; it seems to shift between the two.   The last minute or so goes pretty crazy with the glissandos.  It’s a fun listen; not a heavyweight certainly, but pretty cute.  Sometimes it’s good to go in with low expectations, I suppose.  

Thursday, November 03, 2005



Today was an entertaining day, Cage-wise.  Since my students finished their electronics lab earlier than usual, I has time to wander off to the Virginia Tech library.  My initial reason for going was to look up a book on the Choctaw Indians, but since I couldn’t find it, I went to wander through the rows upon rows of PhD and MS theses (staking out the competition, more or less).  Lo and behold, right around the corner was Tech’s collection of sheet music!  They were all rather haphazardly arranged, but I learned quickly to yank out anything with a ‘C’ in the call number.  I managed to find manuscripts for Daughters of the Lonesome Isle, Music of Changes, One4 (I might be wrong on the superscript), and Six in this manner.  

Someone asked how Cage notated the piano preparations.  It looks pretty much like a vague list of equipment (“small bolt,” “typewriter bolt,” “rubber”) and notation for the particular note to modify, as well as the location at which to play it.  I presume there is some agreed-upon idea of how long a “long bolt” is in performance.

Music of Changes was curious; in the intro Cage specified that the shape of the note heads mattered, but it seems hard to believe anyone can distinguish the shape of the note heads in his manuscript!  He also had the humorous comment that some of the music would appear completely “irrational,” in which case the performer should use his judgment.  If I recall correctly, one inch was equal to approximately two and a half seconds.

The two numbers pieces were less interesting, consisting of parallel rows of staves superimposed with notes in the case of One4 and number in the case of Six (the numbers indicating which instrument is to be played).  Each also had time bracket indications.

Next time I get the chance, I hope to dig around a little more (yes, maybe I will even break down and go look in the catalogue) and try to find some of the graphic scores with transparencies and so on.  I’ll note one last thing that struck me as hilarious: something like 200 volumes of Bach’s works printed in super-tiny books, almost like a “travel edition” similar to those tiny versions of Scrabble or whatnot.  

Seven is one of the earlier number pieces, written in 1988.  Each of the instruments (flute, clarinet, piano, and string trio) plays a number of notes in its specified time bracket, the number depending on the particular instrument.  A percussionists is specified to make any sounds, but with a specified instrument for each time bracket.  

This performance comes on much stronger than I am used to from Cage’s number pieces; the instruments start up rapidly, play frequently, and don’t wash in and out as usual.  The percussion instruments feature primarily some hideous scraping and creaking sounds, which are actually pretty unnerving if heard in the dark.  There is a sense that all of the instruments are striking out at the listener, and so if I compared another work to floating slowly down a forested river, I’d refer to this one is a terrified run from a monster in the same forest, with vines and branches all reaching out to trip and entangle you.  Even strings are ominous, since they seem to be playing Freeman Etudes-esque scrapes and such, whereas the warbling of the two wind instruments adds to the tension.  
I’m not sure if it’s the work or the performance, but the character of Seven is much different from what I am used to.  

This is a group of nine songs from 1985 that consist of mesostics on the Biblical Genesis.  It’s partially a performance piece, as the singer may change costumes and sing songs by Satie elsewhere during the performance.  

The portions Cage wrote are obviously biblical in origin (the use of “begat” is a dead giveaway), so even without reading about it I would have known rapidly.  Also, Jacob shows up all the time, so I suspect this was not a mesostic over the entire book of Genesis.  LaBarbara’s singing is not audience directed during the mesostics, but it is sweet and melodic; very satisfying to pop ears that like a clean, smooth female voice.  The cabaret songs are an interesting touch.  The image I have is something like a chant in a monastery spontaneously breaking out into a song with a piano appearing out of nowhere.  Alternatively, you can imagine a church that is most unfortunately located right next to a club where someone is singing, interrupting the readings.  

The novelty wears of quickly though.  My desire was to listen to Cage, not to Satie, so the fact that the songs are always much, much longer than the mesostics makes me tire of them quickly.  I understand that this work was also a part of The First Meeting of the Satie Society, so in that context it would make sense to have so much spontaneous Satie, but on its own, it’s pretty annoying.

This is the second of cage’s percussion number pieces that I have heard, written in 1991.  In the fall of 2003, right about this time of year, I hosted a two-day “student-taught session” on the music of John Cage.  The first day was an hour and a half of electronic or other unusual-instrument music, while the second day focused on works written late in Cage’s life (the majority of biographical sketches seem to think Cage died in 1952 or so).  Two people showed up, an art student and his girlfriend, but the girlfriend arrived early and then left, thinking she’d be alone.  Anyway, part of my theme for the number pieces for the second day was a set of four reflecting earth, air, fire and water.  This was the recording I chose for air, for very obvious reasons.

Every instrument played in this rendition suggests movement: the slowly rising gongs reflect gushing wind that drives the other two sounds, a curious metallic fan-like rhythm and wind chimes.  The feel of the work is like a loud gust of wind blasting you, that eventually dies down, only to start up again.  I doubt very many other performances would sound quite like this though, depending on whether or not the percussion instruments are specified.

As a side note, I am very much looking forward to the OgreOgress release of Three for recorders.  I fondly (or maybe not) remember playing the recorder very badly in grade school, and I like hearing the instrument.  To my displeasure, a lot of old recorder works are now performed on flute for some reason.  I’m glad Cage wrote something for the instrument!


Imaginary Landscape No. 1

Tonight, some electronics, some prepared piano, and some rain.  Sometimes it is entertaining to imagine Cage sitting on the other side of the couch listening with me.  He seemed to say various things about recordings during his life, so I’m not sure what his thoughts on the premise of this experiment would be, or if he would have been offended by my falling asleep during Etcetera (see below)...

Our Spring Will Come
A 1943 work for prepared piano, Our Spring Will Come follows a typical pattern for works of this type: relatively short segments of alternating rhythmic passages.  Many of the passages include melodies from unprepared piano keys, or sometimes single tones.  The work is very upbeat and the rhythms are uniformly fast. There are a few points where a single rhythm, with four sounds, is played for a fair amount a time, with no other notes.  Also, Cage punctuates things in the latter half of the work with some very abrupt silencing of the piano.  The piano preparations generally produce a rattling, metallic sound.  The different types of rhythm are recognizable when they repeat.

Improvisations IV (Fielding Sixties)
This is an online recording of a 1982 work that I obtained, which features speed-modified recordings of a classical violin piece.  They all seem to be the same piece, but overlapping each other and played either fast, resulting in a screeching, banshee sound, or else played slow with a warbled, mournful, groaning sound.  The effect is interesting, and I think the choice of violin music highlights it nicely.  The imagery in my mind is, for some reason, strands of DNA being bent and twisted around one another.  I’d say it’s haunting, but maybe unsettling is a better word.  

In this work from 1973, performers move between three stations; as each station reaches is maximum occupancy, the play.  As this occurs, percussionists play boxes in a light manner that resembles the rain or rustling leaves.  Of course, I hadn’t read this description before I listened to the piece, and I was debating whether the light tapping sound was bubbling stew or raindrops.  There were also taped bird sounds involved, and sometimes what sounded like dog or something else non-avian.  The instruments, strings, wind and piano, play slightly rhythmic and sometimes lyrical bursts of tones.  

The music was relaxing to listen to.  In fact, maybe it was too relaxing.  In a way it felt like a number piece on a larger scale, with different instruments playing for awhile but then fading away in a non-abrupt manner; sometimes, all the instruments disappeared leaving just the percussive sounds.  It was during an extended passage of this almost-silence in the last five minutes or so that I went into either a trance or dozed off; the piece is so soft and comforting that I really didn’t notice it had ended until I heard the buzzing of the record players in the next work!  I look forward to hearing the orchestral version.

Imaginary Landscape No. 1
While I was driving to a bookstore in the summer of 2003, I heard a soft drink ad on the radio which paid tribute to, “the guy who first realized a turntable could be an instrument.”  I felt the need to yell out, “1939, dude!”  Of course, I was wrong—apparently some Dadaists did it in the 20’s, and I think Resphigi used recorded birdsong in The Pines of Rome even before that (as a side note, apparently there were riots; but that’s OK, classical music audiences rioted over everything back then.  Maybe their monocles were in too tight).  Nevertheless, Imaginary Landscape No. 1 for variable-frequency turntables, piano and cymbal stands out in my mind as a key work in early electronic music, even if today some of the turntable bleating reminds me of a truck backing up.
The music consists of frequency test recordings at various speeds, mixed with short piano passages of only a few notes, and cymbal crashes.  Between these sections, the piano strings are strummed.  The loudest part of the whole performance is certainly the strumming of the piano strings, which like in Fourteen produce a powerful rumbling sound.  Each strumming is progressively louder each time, building an ominous tension.  The frequency tones provide a backdrop to the whole thing; sometimes their speed is varied slowly and you hear the pitch shift, and other times it is too rapid to notice anything but a stairstep increase.  The work follows a pretty clear pattern, and there aren’t any surprises.

Personally, I like to listen to this Landscape at very high volumes such that the piano strings make my walls shake, perhaps to the annoyance of my neighbors...

Tuesday, November 01, 2005



Tonight I listened to two pieces I’m only slightly acquainted with, plus Cage’s first work for prepared piano.  I’m happy to say they were all a lot of fun.  Yesterday I suffered from a bad cold which oddly seems to have vanished altogether at this point.  I have some free time this evening so I may be posting again.   I confess I have been saving some of the most well know items, like HPSCHD, Sonatas and Interludes, Landscape No. 4, etc. For a few works, namely HPSCHD and the Europeras, I would like to at least recreate some of the visual elements.  I remember reading somewhere that Europera 5 calls for a dusty table lamp and a television, which I can certainly use.  I may also construct a computer screensaver full of NASA imagery to at least give a flavor of the sort of thing seen at the HPSCHD event.  

Etudes Boreales
Here I’m listening to the cello version of the work.  As a test, I stuck in a Freeman etude to see of I could tell the difference.  There was no question; the Boreales etudes use a lass dizzying variety of sounds.  In a way, the music sounds almost melodic, even though it was composed in 1978 through the use of astronomical charts.  I enjoyed it much more than I enjoyed the Freeman Etudes, probably a direct result of Frances-Marie Uttui’s comforting way of playing them.  Also, I’m not coming to my listening experience with the same “this work was hideously complex” preconception that I had with the Freeman Etudes.  Consequently, listening on my couch was quite pleasing; it was fun to wonder where the not-quite-a-melody would go next.  It’s totally unpredictable.  So far, this has been the most enjoyable of the totally chance-determined works I have listened to outside of the Number Pieces.  

Cage’s first prepared piano work was written in 1940, originally for a percussion ensemble for which there was not enough room in the performance space.  In texture it’s straightforward, with the usual muted piano sounds combined with a few metallic percussive noises.  The majority of the work is spent on a very fast rhythmic playing; in a lot of prepared piano works, there is the sense of lots of different rhythms played, with sudden sharp gaps between them.  Bacchanale is different and simpler in this regard.  

Towards the middle of the work, there seems to be a bit of an interlude which focuses more heavily on the percussive sound, is played quieter, and shifts the theme slightly.  My overall impression is of physical movement, which is certainly not surprising since it was written for a dance!  The fast paced sections suggest running, with pauses for reflection at certain points.  

Originally I was going to title this post Bacchanale under the theory that it would be the most-preferred item tonight, but I changed my mind after listening to Fourteen.  It was written in 1990 and features piano, assorted wind and strings, and two percussionists.  The most distinctive aspect about the work is that the piano is played by bowing it with fishing line.  Mode called this a “Piano Concerto” for their collection.  

I am glad to say that I can hear all of the various instruments distinctly, especially the often ominous tone of the bowed piano.  It often manifests as a low, rumbling, but at other times is a higher, warbling cloud.  It’s hard to explain the sound; I guess I could say it sounds like a solid tone, but warped and bent out of shape as it increases in loudness.  The experience is pretty unnerving, something like thunder or the wind.  Add to that the rain-like sound of some of the wind instruments that are played so that the sound seems to break in and out of existence, and the tingling sound of some particular type of percussion, and the result is a musical storm, accentuated also by the wind-like slow playing of a gong.  There are certain points of silence, as well.  Honestly, the music is a bit frightening (especially some of those extremely low piano bowings), but very pleasing.  

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