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.  

Fourteen is also a favorite of mine! As you'll hear soon, Cage revisits bowed piano in Twenty-nine. When this ingenious instrument is combined with strings and percussion it helps provide character, color and depth to the extended string sounds. Just as prepared piano can be compared with percussion, bowed piano can be compared with strings.
"Fourteen" is really an outstanding piece. In the last two years, Cage was really into giving each of the many number pieces he was writing a distinct characterization.

"Ten", for example, works with three different layers: two layers of wind/strings, "rubbing" against each other microtonally, and a third, percussive layer with perc/piano sounds.

The piano concert conception of "Fourteen" and the way the piano is played make a really marvellous "theme" for the piece.

There'a also a DVD out (Mode) with a filmed version of "Fourteen", played by the Ives Ensemble. Parameters like camera angles, focus, and the whole editing process were chance-determined.

Also, check out Stephen Scott's music for bowed pianos ("Minerva's Web/The Tears of Niobe" is a good example): an ensemble of players mostly occupied with bowing & rubbing the strings both manually and mechanically, using different materials and tools. Very unique music, though not as bold as Cage's approach in "Fourteen".
yes, you should check out stephen scott's music. i prefer his 'new music for bowed piano' cd. i think its on new world. really great disc. very steve reich in places. but also some gorgeous bowed piano drone clouds too. usually quite tonal work but very nice. there are some short videos on the web somewhere of stephen playing bowed piano with his ensemble. its really something to see.

does anyone know where cage got the idea of bowing piano strings?? ive always been curious about the genesis of that. did it come from stephen scott?
Fourteen was a great listen; it was an exciting exploration of timbre and harmony.

Bacchanale is another story. I found it incredibly bland throughout. The melodies and harmonies were colorless.

Finally etudes boreales is based on an original thought: the use of the entire piano (not merely the keys) as instrument. Some novel sounds were heard.
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