Sunday, February 05, 2006


Concert for Piano and Orchestra

Concert for Piano and Orchestra
This is among the most central works in all of Cage’s output, an example of individuals acting as individuals but producing a work as a whole, a kind of functional anarchy (although each part is specified in detail). All the parts were completed in 1958. Parts exist for piano, 3 violins, 2 violias, cello, double bass, flute, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, tuba and conductor. The music combines a lot of the ideas Cage had been experimenting with up until that point. To begin with, the music has parts but no overall score, and the parts may be played in any combination, thus it is indeterminate. Secondly, the parts themselves were written using chance operations, including paper imperfections. The conductor has his own part, in fact, and emulates a clock. All of the solos involve a wide array of performance techniques, and the piano is the highlight: its score is in 63 pages with 84 different forms of notation, and is a bauty to look at.

The Mode performance I heard is interesting, mostly because it seems to involve percussion sounds that I didn’t realize were called for in the score. I appreciate that each of the instruments in the performance can be heard easily. The music certainly has a chance-determined feel to it; the various wind instruments interact in a most distrubing way, screaming and squeaking at each other (often sounding like howling animals). The string sounds are less easy to hear, and seem to consist mostly of short, quick strokes and plucks. The piano is heard through tone cluster, individual tones and chords, and what sound like actions on the piano body itself. Overall, none of the tones are held very long, which is a significant difference between this and Cage’s later works involving large groups of instruments. Maybe the most exciting sound of all are the stranges, banshee-like noise produced by playing the strings inside the piano directly.

I’m still a little confused about the percussion and the voices I hear, maybe this is a combined performance and I didn’t realize it. At one point it sounds as if someone went and threw the piano down a flight of stairs!

Music for Piano No. 53-68
From 1956 comes another in the long series of Music for Piano. This is perhaps a bit more indeterminate than the others in the series, since the performer chooses how to produce the indicated sounds.

The performance is generally sparse, with ocassional use of the strings inside the piano. Single tones are heard, without clusters or chords. Their duration and the use of pedaling seems to vary a lot. No doub every performance of this work will sound different; for all I know, performers could choose to use chords and so on if they wished.

A Room for prepared piano
I heard this 1943 work some time ago in a version for piano. Now I’ll hear a prepared piano version. It’s pretty much the same before: a rumbling sound, this time well prepared, and miscellanous other unprepared notes sprinkled in. I’d say the preparations help the music, because it makes the low rumbling mush together and sound a bit more like an engine than it did before.

Eight Whiskus for violin
Supposedly this is a 1985 transliteration of the text of the vocal work into the language of the violin, trying to make the vowel and consonant sounds observable. I obviously can’t quote the lyrics based on the violin sounds, but it’s an interesting effort nonetheless. I can definitely hear all kinds of scrapings and somewhat percussive sounds. It sounds an awful lot like the Freeman Etudes but slightly more melodious. Still not something I’d want to spend a great deal of time listening to, though.

Four Solos for Voice
This work was written in 1988, and actually might be called solos for voice 93, 94, 95 and 96. There are overlapping time brackets and the source text is from random books in Cage’s own home library.

The performance is very peculiar, with opera-style singing, spoken word singing, and other styles. Some of the lyrics strike out at me, “You know, I live in three dimensions” for example. Right. They are in various languages, and some of the singing sounds more like wailing and crying. It’s pretty fun to listen to, just to hear some of the more off the wall texts sung in such a dramatic and interesting manner: “America the telegraph...”

This composition begun in 1983 was named after the rock garden in Japan, which Cage famously said was beautiful because the sand between the stones allowed the stones to exist and that the actual orientation of the stones was irrelevent. The music features solos for oboe, flute, contrabass, voice, and trombone with percussion (parts were added as the years went by). Each solo has 9 songs with retangles featuring tracings od stones; the curves are played. The percussion part features a metal and wood sound.

This performance, donated by Lothat, was evidently Cage’s favorite performance of the piece. Unfortunately it only includes the parts for bass and percussion (this is from the disc John Cage a Firenze), but it's also the only performance I have here that features the percussion (performers of this work have the odd habit of performing it on additional instruments, I might add). Anyway, it's mostly a low groaning sound, with a repetitive but fairly consistent percussive beat. It's not exactly consistant, but it's close enough. The groanings of the bass resemble a haunting of some kind, or perhaps the creaking of trees in a strong wind. I understand Cage's fondness for this performance. I think I definitely prefer the versions with percussion to the ones without; it gives the music a context.

In fact, I would go so far to say that performances without the percussion (or a similar orchestral accompaniment) miss the point entirely, providing the stones without the sand, so to speak.

In a Landscape for piano
I heard the harp version of this work from1948 and was a little dissatisfied, but the piano version comes off as very relaxing. Still, it seems like this music reminds me a little bit too much of tedious New Age piano music I hear in, say, elevators. Cage no doubt was inspired by Satie when he wrote this.

Th texture of the music is an awful lot like Dream, and it certainly feels dreamy. I think it's a bit more complicated though, with more surprises. For example, there is a familiar pattern of two notes that is repeated (although the tones change), yet the pattern is inturrupted sometimes by a three-note sequence. The overall feeling is restful and meditative, but with maybe a slightly ominous sense to the music, especially when it dips into the lower notes...

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