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.  

We're doing it in NYC in September (1776)
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