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.

"I think I am still a little bit ill, but the consequence is fatigue rather than any real symptoms."

Do you think it is related to your Cage project? Can one listen to too much Cage? Can too much Cage music cause physical illness?
Hmm, I suppose listening to too much Cage could cause some kind of sickness, but I'd expect it to result in some of the following symptoms as opposed to the sneezing and fatigue that I am experiencing:

1. Headaches
2. Obsessive tapping on objects
3. Mushroom addiction
4. Ear-ringing
5. Irrational fear of harmony

If I have any of those symptoms, then I'll probably have to call off my effort!
i dont think one can listen to too much cage. in fact, i think more people need to listen to cage's music. there is so much variety there to keep one interested for a long time.

many of the number pieces are very zen-like and meditative. especially the One piano pieces. they really put me into a certain headspace too. similar to some of feldman's music too. its lovely.

i heard stephen drury play one of the solo One piano pieces at NEC sandwiched between an ives sonata and maybe a beethoven sonata. it was amazing. the old folks there to hear the ives and beethoven couldnt take the cage. they were shuffling around and talking and huffing and hissing. its amazing that quiet and silent and patient music is so much more offensive than loud and crazy music. i guess it goes against our attention deficit society and how uncomfortable it makes people feel to actually sit with themselves in silence for a little bit with no stimulation at all.
On a ore serious note than my last comment, I agree that the sparse number pieces are very meditative. I do not find it hard to pay attention to them, perhaps because it's easier to focus on the single sounds than to follow the patterns of more complicated music.
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