Thursday, November 03, 2005



Today was an entertaining day, Cage-wise.  Since my students finished their electronics lab earlier than usual, I has time to wander off to the Virginia Tech library.  My initial reason for going was to look up a book on the Choctaw Indians, but since I couldn’t find it, I went to wander through the rows upon rows of PhD and MS theses (staking out the competition, more or less).  Lo and behold, right around the corner was Tech’s collection of sheet music!  They were all rather haphazardly arranged, but I learned quickly to yank out anything with a ‘C’ in the call number.  I managed to find manuscripts for Daughters of the Lonesome Isle, Music of Changes, One4 (I might be wrong on the superscript), and Six in this manner.  

Someone asked how Cage notated the piano preparations.  It looks pretty much like a vague list of equipment (“small bolt,” “typewriter bolt,” “rubber”) and notation for the particular note to modify, as well as the location at which to play it.  I presume there is some agreed-upon idea of how long a “long bolt” is in performance.

Music of Changes was curious; in the intro Cage specified that the shape of the note heads mattered, but it seems hard to believe anyone can distinguish the shape of the note heads in his manuscript!  He also had the humorous comment that some of the music would appear completely “irrational,” in which case the performer should use his judgment.  If I recall correctly, one inch was equal to approximately two and a half seconds.

The two numbers pieces were less interesting, consisting of parallel rows of staves superimposed with notes in the case of One4 and number in the case of Six (the numbers indicating which instrument is to be played).  Each also had time bracket indications.

Next time I get the chance, I hope to dig around a little more (yes, maybe I will even break down and go look in the catalogue) and try to find some of the graphic scores with transparencies and so on.  I’ll note one last thing that struck me as hilarious: something like 200 volumes of Bach’s works printed in super-tiny books, almost like a “travel edition” similar to those tiny versions of Scrabble or whatnot.  

Seven is one of the earlier number pieces, written in 1988.  Each of the instruments (flute, clarinet, piano, and string trio) plays a number of notes in its specified time bracket, the number depending on the particular instrument.  A percussionists is specified to make any sounds, but with a specified instrument for each time bracket.  

This performance comes on much stronger than I am used to from Cage’s number pieces; the instruments start up rapidly, play frequently, and don’t wash in and out as usual.  The percussion instruments feature primarily some hideous scraping and creaking sounds, which are actually pretty unnerving if heard in the dark.  There is a sense that all of the instruments are striking out at the listener, and so if I compared another work to floating slowly down a forested river, I’d refer to this one is a terrified run from a monster in the same forest, with vines and branches all reaching out to trip and entangle you.  Even strings are ominous, since they seem to be playing Freeman Etudes-esque scrapes and such, whereas the warbling of the two wind instruments adds to the tension.  
I’m not sure if it’s the work or the performance, but the character of Seven is much different from what I am used to.  

This is a group of nine songs from 1985 that consist of mesostics on the Biblical Genesis.  It’s partially a performance piece, as the singer may change costumes and sing songs by Satie elsewhere during the performance.  

The portions Cage wrote are obviously biblical in origin (the use of “begat” is a dead giveaway), so even without reading about it I would have known rapidly.  Also, Jacob shows up all the time, so I suspect this was not a mesostic over the entire book of Genesis.  LaBarbara’s singing is not audience directed during the mesostics, but it is sweet and melodic; very satisfying to pop ears that like a clean, smooth female voice.  The cabaret songs are an interesting touch.  The image I have is something like a chant in a monastery spontaneously breaking out into a song with a piano appearing out of nowhere.  Alternatively, you can imagine a church that is most unfortunately located right next to a club where someone is singing, interrupting the readings.  

The novelty wears of quickly though.  My desire was to listen to Cage, not to Satie, so the fact that the songs are always much, much longer than the mesostics makes me tire of them quickly.  I understand that this work was also a part of The First Meeting of the Satie Society, so in that context it would make sense to have so much spontaneous Satie, but on its own, it’s pretty annoying.

This is the second of cage’s percussion number pieces that I have heard, written in 1991.  In the fall of 2003, right about this time of year, I hosted a two-day “student-taught session” on the music of John Cage.  The first day was an hour and a half of electronic or other unusual-instrument music, while the second day focused on works written late in Cage’s life (the majority of biographical sketches seem to think Cage died in 1952 or so).  Two people showed up, an art student and his girlfriend, but the girlfriend arrived early and then left, thinking she’d be alone.  Anyway, part of my theme for the number pieces for the second day was a set of four reflecting earth, air, fire and water.  This was the recording I chose for air, for very obvious reasons.

Every instrument played in this rendition suggests movement: the slowly rising gongs reflect gushing wind that drives the other two sounds, a curious metallic fan-like rhythm and wind chimes.  The feel of the work is like a loud gust of wind blasting you, that eventually dies down, only to start up again.  I doubt very many other performances would sound quite like this though, depending on whether or not the percussion instruments are specified.

As a side note, I am very much looking forward to the OgreOgress release of Three for recorders.  I fondly (or maybe not) remember playing the recorder very badly in grade school, and I like hearing the instrument.  To my displeasure, a lot of old recorder works are now performed on flute for some reason.  I’m glad Cage wrote something for the instrument!

This version of Three2 was recorded on a very cold and snowy night in December 1999 at Calvin College in Grand Rapids Michigan. My friend Karen Krummel teaches cello there and she helped set things up, after hours, for the recording sessions. The instruments were chosen by chance. I made a list of all possible instruments (the ones I owned) which could potentially be used to realize the piece.

By chance, a few weeks later George W. Bush would be seen in his very first national debate (Republican primary) on the very same stage we recorded our very cold, windy and ominous sounding CD named "Three2, Twenty-Three, Six, Twenty-Six". At that time John McCain was the clear front runner and he later won Michigan's primary. Michigan has yet to vote for Bush in any election!
glenn, i really love this cd too - 'three2-twentythree-six-twentysix'. was listening to it the other night in fact. i think its my favorite of your number pieces cds so far...

listening forward to more of the ogreogress number pieces cds. especially the works for sho and conch shell. 'inlets' is such a fabulous piece.

i wonder how governor bush would react to john cage's music?
Greg, my favorite of our Cage releases to date is "One4, Four, Tweny-Nine". "32, 23, 6, 26" is a strong second. The cello CD "One7 [from One13], One8" is my favorite of our single instrument releases. We've delayed the release of "Inlets, Two3, Two4" due to two other projects we need to complete first. We plan to release as a 96/24-bit high resolution DVD. It will be worth the wait. Tamami Tono is a fantastic Sho player with a totally different sound and approach as compared with her teacher, Mayumi Miyata.
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