Monday, January 09, 2006


Music of Changes

Well, I have returned!  Back in the sleepy college town where I will hear Cage each night, not coincidentally just before sleeping.  I can’t exaggerate how much I have missed my speakers.  Hearing Cage on headphones is a lot different and less fun than playing it loudly while I sit around and eat spaghetti and cheese.  I am feeling glad to be back and feel like tackling something big, so I’ll hear a work that is central to Cage’s output, and because it is shorter than I remembered, I’ll throw in a surprise.  

Music of Changes
This is Cage’s first massive exploration of chance operations in compositions.  He allowed chance to dictate all the details of playing this piano music, from the keys pressed, the pedals, to the times when the performer should use the lid and the strings inside the piano.  It was written in 1951.

Of all the chance-driven piano music cage ever wrote, this is by far the most fun to listen to.  I think that’s because of the sheer array of different sounds: individual notes, chords, sustained and un-sustained sounds, plucks of the strings, tone clusters, glissandos, and even curious strings of fast notes that seem to me to be melodic.  It makes me wonder how Cage incorporated them into the music, or chose them in the first place.  

Sometimes music from Berio or other composers seems almost like it is purposefully harsh and painful to listen to, but I have never gotten that sense with Cage.  I guess the chance-determined nature of the music results in chords and tone progressions that are sometimes ear-pleasing and sometimes not, but I never feel like they are being thrust upon me, but rather just presented for my examination.  It is hard to describe better what I mean.  I would also separate this from my experience of his later works by saying that it does not bring to mind natural processes the way the later ones do; in fact, I would say it seems very artificially constructed and goes to an opposite extreme.  

Finally, the curious piano body noises are especially interesting in the Music of Changes because they are so rare.  

Water Walk
This is a recording provided from German radio by Lothar.  It’s one of two works Cage composed for the Italian quiz show he won back in 1959.  The score is a timeline of events in which objects are manipulated and sounds are made as a result.  Most of the sounds are water-oriented, and it should be fun for me to try and figure out what they are.  

Overall, I would describe the recording as a fair bit more successful than Water Music.  This is because I could readily identify most of the sounds, which were generally quite loud.  The bird whistles were obvious (waterfowl, I think) and the sounds of the blender crushing ice were also quite obvious.  The only thing I am unsure about is the loud blowing noise which seems to me to be an air horn.  The piece got especially interesting towards the end, with lots of noises from the radio and the ice crusher and so on.  Audience laughter suggests that the performance had some fun visual elements, too!

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