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.  

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