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.

they are performing rozart mix at brandeis university at the end of november. its the 40th anniversary of the first performance of the piece there. i know the piece was written for alvin lucier and his students at the time. and i think lucier is creating the new version for the 40th anniversary as well. im really looking forward to it. it turns out ill be in boston the day before. i havent heard any live cage pieces in some time now.
I agree about the Beatles 1962-1970 being fun. But I think Double Music is fun as well when played at a fast pace and may be one of the best percussion pieces ever written i.e. one forgets it is being played by percussion. I do have a bias towards earlier Cage, though.

Never heard of Rozart Mix. Intriguing.

Robert Gable
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