On Variations V—Mode 258, 2013

John Cage’s work took a profound turn in the 1960s. Having discovered, in the previous decade, the promise of composing with the assistance of chance, and even creating strategies that rendered music indeterminate and thus incapable of replication from one performance to another, he began to pursue the implications of his discovery to their logical conclusion. Throughout the decade, he made a number of works that, with only a few exceptions, violated the notion of what music was in every detail. The extreme works 0′00″ (1962) and Variations III (1963) are emblematic. In the earlier work, the score requires the performer simply to execute a disciplined action with extreme amplification that verges upon creating feedback. (Only later did Cage add a series of codicils that clarified the action to be performed—for instance, that it should not instantiate a musical performance and that it should fulfill a social obligation to others.) And while Variations III requires the use of circles inscribed on transparent plastic to create a particular design that represents the barest outlines of a performance score, nothing explains how to interpret definitively the resulting design, what sounds will populate it, or even how long the work should last—indeed, he includes a remark that a performer can fulfill her obligation simply by paying attention to events as they occur—as he remarked to Richard Kostelanetz, “We could be performing Variations III right now, if we decided to do so” (quoted in Kostelanetz 1991, 195–96).

Cage did not make these extraordinary compositions out of a need to enact a game of avant-garde one-upmanship, but rather from the sense that then-current technological and social conditions demanded a radically new approach to art and artworks. Following Marshall McLuhan, he believed that fundamental changes in electronic media had created a heightened awareness of the world and of its impermanency; art now needed to reflect this so that it better served the flexible and volatile nature of reality that technology had brokered. It also served to change the minds of people in the way Cage believed accorded with Zen Buddhism.

The aim of musical art had moved away from finished objects—symphonies and concertos and so on—to more open environments where audiences could observe ongoing processes whose individual components interacted with each other in countless ways, whose resulting impressions could never satisfactorily be explained by a single observer. For that matter, Cage seemed to doubt that such a goal could even be accomplished by a musical composition alone, as when he observed of serial composers that “The question of the relation of this music to themselves and to society never enters their minds” (Kostelanetz 1991, 10). That’s why, among all his works from the 1960s, Variations V most closely realized his hope for art that used technology to respond creatively to the society around him.

For the premiere on July 23, 1965—which took place during the ninth concert that was part of the French-American Festival at New York’s Lincoln Center—the dancers (Merce Cunningham, Carolyn Brown, Barbara Dilley Lloyd, Sandra Neels, Albert Reid, Peter Saul, and Gus Solomons) performed on stage, their movements interacting with twelve antennas built by Robert Moog and a set of photocells designed by Bell Labs research scientist Billy Klüver in such a way as to trigger the transmission of sounds to a 50-channel mixer whose output was heard from six speakers around the hall. The actual sound sources—a battery of tape recorders and radios—were supervised by Cage and the composers James Tenney, Malcolm Goldstein, and Fredric Lieberman; Cage and David Tudor operated the mixer. The mise-en-scène was supplemented by a film collage by Stan VanDerBeek that included processed television images by Nam June Paik and footage of the dancers shot by VanDerBeek during rehearsals. Brown recalls that the equipment never functioned as intended, singling out Cage and Tudor for their lack of preparation:

I wrote at the time: “[Lewis Lloyd, then manager of the Cunningham Company] is absolutely FURIOUS with John and David’s ineptness. He said they should have figured out all the wiring on paper before coming into the hall . . . but no, they were doing it there—like high-school physics kids.” (Brown 2007, 459)

Leta E. Miller, who has documented the collaboration in great detail (2001), assigns the blame more widely, agreeing that all the technology needed careful testing well before the final rehearsals in the hall.

The score for Variations V also gives the impression of a series of possibilities colliding with each other to suggest an ongoing experience rather than a fixed series of instructions, for it consists of a series of 37 remarks that not only document the work’s premiere and offer guidance on how others might realize it, but cannily allude to Cage’s immediate milieu of the 1960s and his perception of his place within it. Examples of the former include his description of the sound system, its components and designers, and the important remark that dancers influence the audibility of the sound system as they move through the space and activate the technology around them. Other remarks suggest the attitude of performers to their work, for instance “Perform at control panels in the role of research worker,” “Variations III,” “Lighting . . . as the solution of a problem,” and “Conversation, consultations (not as sound-sources).” Still others seem more personal and range from the ridiculous to the sublime: “E.g., kitchen sink (‘bad plumbing’)” and “‘Breakthrough’ by means of collaboration into the ‘unorganized areas in the rear’ of the unknown.” Taken together, the remarks constituting the Variations V score suggest a creative act itself, one that actually exemplifies Cage’s approach to his new conception of composition and music as a continuing process (just as his famous “Lecture on Nothing” demonstrates a micro-macrocosmic piece of music where words function as the sole sonic content).

A year after the first performances, the company brought Variations V along for its European tour and filmed it in Hamburg; with the assistance of Gordon Mumma, much (but not all) of the original technology was packed up, and he joined Tudor and Cage at the controls for the film (Miller 2001, 558–59). On that occasion—as Mumma recalls in his reminiscence printed elsewhere in this booklet—the company’s lighting designer, Beverly Emmons, supervised the stage direction, all the décor, and the balance of the film collage with the onstage activity. Thus, her role in the visual component of Variations V should not be underestimated, just as her later work with the American director Robert Wilson was instrumental in establishing the full realization of Wilson’s painterly approach to the theater.

Variations V reveals its potential only when—as here—one sees and hears at least a portion of what an audience would have. Indeed, Elizabeth Hoover has persuasively invoked Derrida’s concept of différance to interpret the fluid play of meanings conjured by the overlapping sounds and images in the work; she offers a close reading of Cunningham’s choreography for the final two minutes in order to destabilize a sense that Cage’s authority was primary and to exemplify the Derridean reading of signification within the piece (Hoover 2010). But this interplay of meaning is further fragmented by the filmed production, which frequently superimposes images from the film collage over the dancers and inserts many close-ups of the dancers’ bodies and faces as well as the décor; it includes several cutaways to Cage, Tudor, and Mumma manning the tape recorders and other technology. The effect of seeing Brown or Solomons in extreme close-up as they concentrate on the difficult movements both humanizes the inscrutable character of Cunningham’s choreography and reminds the viewer of the enduring impact of Zen on the work’s aesthetic. (Brown herself attended Suzuki’s lectures and read, on Cage’s recommendation, The Huang Po Doctrine of Universal Mind.) In particular, the performers of Variations V exist within an environment of competing, contradictory content; people are not the only actors of import here, but take their place as equals beside light, film images, bicycles, and flower pots: the infinitude of the Dharmadhatu.


Reference List

Brown, Carolyn. 2007. Chance and circumstance: Twenty years with Cage and Cunningham. New York: Knopf.

Hoover, Elizabeth. 2010. Variations V: “Escaping stagnation” through movement of signification. Current Musicology 90 (Fall): 57–75.

Kostelanetz, Richard, ed. 1991. John Cage: An anthology. New York: Da Capo.

Miller, Leta E. 2001. Cage, Cunningham, and collaborators: The odyssey of Variations V. Musical Quarterly 85, no. 3 (Fall): 545–67.

John Cage’s Organ Music (Mode 253–54, 2013)

I sometimes find myself wondering why John Cage produced, comparatively speaking, so little organ music. He fondly recalled that David Tudor, having learned all of the organ repertoire by the time he was in his teens, decided to turn all his attention to the piano. Knowing how much Cage esteemed Tudor, I might suppose that he took Tudor’s rejection of the organ as evidence that the instrument couldn’t offer anything truly modern—that it wasn’t, as Cage was fond of saying, useful. Perhaps, too, Cage felt that churches, the usual venues for organ recitals, suggest a certain sense of mystery and ritual that make performances of organ music dangerously beautiful by remaining too separate from everyday life. Or perhaps Cage, ever mindful to ensure a performance for any music he made, simply lacked for organists willing and able to champion his music and commission new works. The four organ pieces he made—Some of “The Harmony of Maine” (Supply Belcher) (1978), Souvenir (1983), ASLSP (1985), and Organ2/ASLSP (1987)—all date from a time when he fulfilled many commissions for musicians and organizations that often lacked the familiarity with his music Cage could expect from Tudor and other close friends and colleagues. Of these, the 1978 and 1987 works were made for the German organist Gerd Zacher, an important and very sympathetic champion of new music.

It’s a pity, though, that Cage hadn’t been asked for new organ works sooner. The King of Instruments seems to me an instrument ideally suited to Cage’s aesthetic. With all its various stops (found in countless dispositions on as many organs), one can think of it as the ultimate prepared instrument. Also, the very fact that sound emanates from a number of pipes all placed at discrete locations in space nicely accords with Cage’s idea that the separation of sounds in space proved desirable for new music. It surely represented a vast multiplicity of possibilities that could be released into sound through the use of chance operations. For this reason, I believe that Cage’s organ music occupies a small but quite important place within his output.

Some of “The Harmony of Maine” forms part of a family of pieces that Cage made beginning with Apartment House 1776 (1976). In the earlier work, one element consisted of a series of pieces Cage dubbed “harmonies”; he selected eighteenth-century hymns by William Billings, Andrew Law, and Supply Belcher and altered them by extending certain tones and removing others through chance operations so as to attenuate the functional harmony underlying them. The process fixes a listener’s attention on the individual pitches so that they become self-sufficient, each—as in Buddhist thought—the most honored of all, and likewise the heightened presence of silence in the music reaffirms the important role of ambience in Cage’s work: not so much a lack of sound that articulates or makes more dramatic the sounds around it, but rather (again, borrowing from Buddhism) a nosound that forms, alongside sound, an eternal unity: perceiving the Śūnyatā (emptiness) in the world facilitates the awareness of the world’s Tathatā (suchness). Here and there, melodic fragments from the original hymns remain; these further underscore the fact that, in Cage, the sounding music continues to present the unpredictable, no matter how it is made.

Each of the thirteen separate pieces in Cage’s organ work draws exclusively from the 1794 collection The Harmony of Maine by the American composer Supply Belcher (1751–1836). The titles in the original, which Cage retains, include in most instances an abbreviation that refers to the metrical structure of the words (useful when one wants to use the musical setting of one hymn for the text of another): thus, C.M. (common meter) refers to a quatrain with a syllable count of 8–6–8–6; L.M. (long meter), to one of 8–8–8–8; S.M. (short meter), to one of 6–6–8–6; and the especially Cagean P.M. (peculiar meter), to one that is irregular. An awareness of meter (interpreted as phrase length) is helpful in this work since Cage tended to respect the phrase boundaries of his source material in his compositional process and probably does so in the organ work as well.

In order to capitalize on the organ’s innate ability to create an extraordinary variety of timbres, Cage also employed chance operations in Some of “The Harmony of Maine” to make a complex series of registration changes, which must be effected by no fewer than six registrants. (However, Gary Verkade recalls that he performed as one of only three registrants in the first German performance, noting that the number of registrants depends on such factors as the size of instrument and the amount of space found in the organ loft.) Stops are referred to only by number, allowing the work to be performed on a great number of instruments. This aspect is very much in keeping with Cage’s approach to composition: to learn all the possibilities of an instrument (or device, in the case of, say, the film One11) and then use chance to select new and previously unimagined combinations of those possibilities.

Cage made Souvenir (1983) in response to a commission by the American Guild of Organists. After receiving half of the commission fee, he learned that the organist who would premiere the work wanted him to make a piece that was similar to the 1948 piano composition Dream. Never one to repeat himself literally, he returned the commission fee, but it was remailed to him with assurances that he could make whatever kind of piece he wished. Thus liberated, he decided to comply with the original request, which he later claimed (in an interview with the English composer and pianist Peter Dickinson) resulted in “a rather poor piece.” Cage was too hard on himself; although Souvenir does indeed resemble many of his earlier works, other factors—among them the threefold repetition of the entire piece and the unexpected intrusion of harsh tone clusters—make the piece sound new, rather as if Cage treats the material of his earlier work as he might a found object, calling attention to its anachronisms in order to reveal an unexpected freshness in the material.

An aside: Some viewers of the DVD following the recording with score in hand might notice that Professor Verkade plays one pedal passage on the manuals instead. As he explains, “The short, and only, reason is range: the pedals in many parts of Europe only go up to high f, most American organs include the f-sharp and g above that f and Cage uses that more-American (also French) range. In order to render the passage as a whole (not just looking for a solution to that single high g), I made the decision to register the main manual as I might have registered the pedals and to play the entire passage on that sound.”

The title of ASLSP (1985)—originally written as the twentieth-century test piece for the University of Maryland’s William Kapell International Piano Competition in that year—refers to a passage from the last paragraph in James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (“Soft morning, city! Lsp!”) and also the tempo designation for the work, “as slow as possible.” It contains eight pieces that must be performed in the order given, with the caveat that one of these must be omitted and that another must be repeated at any point in the series of seven remaining ones (possibly even before its numbered appearance in the series). The notation follows that of Cage’s masterpiece for solo piano, Etudes Australes (1974–75); as in that work, Cage treats right and left hands as separate from each other and disallows one from assisting the other to simplify the separate musical parts that he creates for them. In the one new refinement to Cage’s notation, the precise length of a sound is indicated by extending a straight line from the notehead; the performer reads his score as a succession of proportionate time points (“just as maps give proportional distances,” Cage observes). Since the organ can sustain a tone as long as an organist’s finger remains on the key, Cage’s refinement concerning note length has an important effect on the way the piece sounds when played on this instrument. The sounds for each hand—single tones and chords containing as many as five notes in total—range widely in character: highly dissonant sonorities co-exist with very traditionally consonant ones, demonstrating, once again, Cage’s wish to include and honor every kind of sound in his music.

Cage returned to the compositional method of ASLSP to make his final organ work, Organ2/ASLSP (1987). This piece is not simply a variation or arrangement of the old one, but rather a completely new work that retains many elements from ASLSP. As before, the work comprises eight movements, but now all eight must be played and the performer has the option to repeat one of them anywhere within the series of eight. On the whole, sustained sounds appear more frequently (and last longer), and Cage treats right and left feet as separate performers in the same way he treats the right and left hands. As in ASLSP, dynamics and registrations are not indicated, which allows for any number of possibilities (particularly if an organist wishes to avail himself of many registrants as in Some of “The Harmony of Maine”).

Naturally, duration isn’t indicated, either; indeed, Organ2/ASLSP has become one of Cage’s best-known works in recent years because of a provocative performance in the German city of Halberstadt that began on September 5, 2001 and is scheduled to conclude in the year 2640: a performance, in other words, lasting 639 years and involving human beings only to the extent that they are required to add and remove weights for the organ keys that activate the sounds. I have written elsewhere about this event (see my John Cage [London: Reaktion Books, 2012]), criticizing it as an exasperating instance of the mantra “Cage would have approved” and reminding readers that Cage always intended his music to be performed by human beings; but if, as he hoped, the world becomes a very different place in 2640—one in which people finally have what they need to live and are no longer afraid of the oppression created by economic want or harsh political systems—then perhaps a 639-year performance would be the best possible way to celebrate its advent.

John Cage, One9 and 108

The history of Western music shows us that a few composers distinguished themselves in other fields of creative endeavor: Guillaume de Machaut’s poetry is as famous as his music, for instance, and Carl Ruggles supported himself during his final years as a painter. John Cage (1912-1992) wrote poems and prose every bit as distinguished as his music for most of his career.  After producing isolated examples of visual art (notably the plexigram/lithograph series Not Wanting to Say Anything About Marcel of 1969), he turned decisively to printmaking and watercolor in 1978 thanks to invitations from Kathan Brown of Crown Point Press and Ray Kass of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.  As the distinguished appointee of Harvard’s Norton Professorship in the 1988-89 academic year, Cage produced the imposing and diverse poems of I-VI, the crowning achievement in a series of literary works that exemplified “a way of writing which comes from ideas, is not about them, but which produces them.”[1]

There certainly are examples in which Cage’s compositional procedures carry over from music to painting or vice versa—for instance, the series of works inspired by the Ryoanji garden in Kyoto.  But more generally, both the writings and prints from his late years offer a helpful context for his final musical compositions—above all, the forty-seven completed works known collectively as the Number Pieces.

From 1985 until 1992, the date of his last session at Crown Point, Cage used smoked paper for his prints—a fire was built on the bed of the press and damp paper ran through it, which extinguished the fire and left elegant, swirling patterns on the paper. The images then added to this paper came from a variety of sources. For instance, teapots were used to brand circular shapes onto the paper in the series called Fire (1985), while the 1991 group called Smoke Weather Stone Weather shows tracings of stones. In these works particularly, we can see a striking continuity between the gestural quality of the tracings and the more neutral environment of the smoked paper. Cage admired this continuity very much:

I wanted to have an ambiguity between the smoke and the images. I was afraid at the beginning some of the marks were going to be too strong. But as we continue . . . even the strong marks lose anything that you could compare with impact.[2]

The twenty-second print from the series shows this ambiguity very clearly. Cage’s tracings, while they show the degree of his skill and keen visual sense, has a certain muted quality that asserts itself as surely as time’s passing. The gentle swirls of the paper, though unobtrusive, make an unforgettable impression.

Turning to Cage’s late poetry, we see that the incredible heterogeneity of I-VI echoes another important theme in his work: the bringing together of elements conventionally considered incompatible. Compare this remark from Silence: “It goes without saying that dissonances and noises are welcome in this new music. But so is the dominant seventh chord if it happens to put in an appearance.”[3] The presence of so much variety helped Cage to guarantee that no one component of his work could dominate and overshadow the importance of the rest. His art is like a map in which every path taken leads to a marvelous destination.

Cage realized variety in I-VI with a library of found sources including newspapers and writings by Wittgenstein, Emerson, Thoreau, and himself, among others. A combination of chance operations and his own choices determined the final content of the work. Although there are moments that approach the pattern and gesture of conventional poetry–notably the final section of Part IV with its repetition of the words “equally loud and in the same tempo”–the majority of I-VI has an unusual mixture of the prosaic and the profound, an almost disconcerting blankness:

           alwayS ’
               iT is
        not pullEd
        philippiNes would ’
          talks Convert
  something alwaYs
      all ’ prevIous
        circle aNother
        from whiCh
  bullfighting tO
               iN nature ’

Analogies with Cage’s Number Pieces show themselves readily. The sounds emerge from and recede into a silence as neutral and as elegant as the swirls of smoked paper in the final prints. Indeed, silence does not so much articulate the musical material of the Number Pieces as it offers another kind of sound to listen to—or put another way, the sounds of Cage’s music are only something considerably easier to hear than the silence which surrounds them. And just as I-VI alternates between the evocative and the everyday, so too the Number Pieces generally alternate simple pitches and even conventional chords with inexplicable noises and dissonances. The transparency that characterizes most of the works in the series even allows us to pay attention—with an unusual level of awareness—to the attacks of sounds, their tunings, or their particular timbre. All in all, they demonstrate Cage’s quiet reconciliation with harmony, which he now defined as “several sounds . . . being noticed at the same time.”[5]

Of course, the Number Pieces differ from Cage’s printed poetry and his visual pieces in the amount of variability that can occur from performance to performance—variability made possible by the composer’s use of time brackets specifying ranges of start- and end-times for every sound in one of the works. So long as the performer observes these ranges, she can make a sound as short, long, loud, or soft as she wants. The unchanging durations of the time brackets ensure that the playing time of the composition remain the same and that the events of those pieces occur in more or less the same order.

Short, loud sounds in performances of Cage’s Number Pieces always remind me of the brandings or tracings in Cage’s prints—they are more gestural, more demonstrative than the longer sounds and silences. Sometimes I find the loud sounds annoy me—they remind me too much of another kind of modern music that seems at odds with the Number Pieces. But their presence helps to keep the music unpredictable and astonishing, qualities Cage surely sought in his composition. And in the best performances of these works—almost magically—they somehow join with everything else to create a continuity, an environment in which every type of sound has its place.

Cage scored 108 (1991) for the largest number of players in any of the Number Pieces. Its duration of 43’30” makes an oblique reference to his groundbreaking 4’33” (1952). And the work can be played on its own or with either of two solo works from the same year, One8 (for cello) and One9 for the sho, a mouth organ with bamboo pipes that acts as one of the harmony-producing instruments in Japanese gagaku. Both solo works were composed for artists very important in Cage’s final years. The cellist Michael Bach had invented a curved bow that permitted him to play sustained chords, while Mayumi Miyata had pioneered the sho as a contemporary concert instrument. Cage first met Miyata during his historic return to the 1990 Darmstadt summer course; the composer was enchanted with the sound of her instrument and produced in all three works for her. (The second of these works, Two4, has been released on Mode 88.)

As was his habit, Cage wanted to learn as many possibilities for a new instrument or medium as he could before composing a work, and among his papers are copious notes indicating all of the single tones and clusters (aitake) that the sho could play, both familiar and unfamiliar. Once this material was in place, he could then use chance operations to choose which of all these possibilities would become the sounds for his new pieces, thus producing results that he hoped would surprise and interest him when he finally heard them performed.

As I mentioned, when either One8 or One9 are performed with 108, they become concertos much in the same manner as Fourteen (1990), for bowed piano and instruments. Even so, the concerto formed by One9 and 108 is a very unusual one indeed, and a fine example of Cage’s aesthetic. The delicate sounds of the sho enter almost imperceptibly, reminding me of Cage’s suggestion (in the performance notes for 101) that tones be “brushed into existence as in oriental calligraphy where the ink (the sound) is not always seen, or if so, is streaked with white (silence).”[6] Both orchestra and soloist remain completely silent for the first minute and a half of the piece.  The orchestra disappears again in other two sections, but not to herald a grand cadenza: the sho music continues much as it had before, a quiet, serene, almost timeless utterance. Indeed, the regal simplicity of the sho makes it an ideal instrument for Cage, who tried to make his final work like writing on water—an action, incomparably graceful, that would leave no traces.[7]

Reprinted from the Mode Records CD: John Cage: One9 and 108. Mode 108 (www.mode.com)

[1]Cage records this idea for the first time as part of the “Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse) Continued 1973-1982, published in X: Writings ’79-’82 (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1983), 163.

[2]Quoted in Kathan Brown, John Cage Visual Art: To Sober and Quiet the Mind (San Francisco: Crown Point Pres, 2000), 117. For more on the technique of smoking paper and Cage’s visual works from 1985 onward, see pp. 97–124. Cage probably would have disagreed with my characterization of the tracings as gestural. He thought of them as something neither non-gestural nor gestural, but rather “something else.” See Joan Retallack, ed., Musicage: Cage Muses on Words, Art, Music. John Cage in Conversation with Joan Retallack (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1996), 127–28.

[3]From “Experimental Music,” in Silence: Lectures and Writings (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1961), 11.

[4]John Cage, I-VI (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1990), 73.

[5]Musicage, 108.

[6]Reproduced in Richard Kostelanetz, ed., John Cage: Writer (New York: Limelight Editions, 1993), 198.

[7]This principle is one of the “whispered truths” in Tibetan Buddhism. Cage discusses the idea with Joan Retallack in Musicage, 163 and 189–91. Read more

The Harmony of Emptiness: John Cage’s Two2 (Mode Records 193, 2008)

In most of Cage’s Number Pieces, a series of works that occupied the composer’s attention between 1987 and his death in 1992, pitch—even harmony—takes pride of place.  This fact poses a paradox, even a contradiction, because harmony as such had hardly ever been central to his concerns.  In fact, while Cage’s early studies of harmony and counterpoint with Adolph Weiss and Arnold Schoenberg between 1933 and 1936 proceeded satisfactorily enough, there came a time when his development as a composer reached a point of crisis.  One of his anecdotes about his work with Schoenberg stands, probably, as his most famous expression of that crisis:

After I had been studying with him for two years, Schoenberg said, “In order to write music, you must have a feeling for harmony.”  I explained to him that I had no feeling for harmony.  He then said that I would always encounter an obstacle, that it would be as though I came to a wall through which I could not pass.  I said, “In that case I shall devote my life to beating my head against that wall.[1]

To understand what harmony meant to Cage in his final years, one needs to understand what it meant to him earlier.  I have spent some time locating all of the remarks Cage made about harmony in his published writings and some of his interviews.  Taken in toto, these remarks show a richer—and what at first seems contradictory—viewpoint than has been generally assumed.  First and foremost, Cage saw himself in opposition to tonal harmony, with its predictable (and arbitrary) rules of voice-leading and harmonic progressions.  By learning these rules, listeners condition themselves to expect the harmonic progressions that establish tonality; any deviations from those progressions—for instance, an unexpected modulation or a deceptive cadence—would be understood in terms of the “expected” norms.[2]  To Cage, listeners so conditioned would never hear sounds as sufficient in themselves—would not, in other words, be able to hear with the kind of open mind that he felt was essential.  What’s more, as Cage wrote, the rules of tonal harmony foster “old-style” European thinking which stresses understanding all single events as the causes or consequences of other single events: Cage called the succession of musical events in a composition a “continuity,” and this old-fashioned way of thinking simply “making that particular continuity that excludes all others.”[3]

In the 1940s, in particular, Cage began to criticize harmony on other counts too, especially for its capacity to move music away from the ideal of tranquility to which he thought music should aspire: “I now saw harmony, for which I had never had any natural feeling, as a device to make music impressive, loud and big, in order to enlarge audiences and increase box-office returns.”[4]  For Cage, harmony was a device that composers used to manipulate the audience, to make them feel certain emotions instead of others; for that reason it served the personality of the composer more than it did the sounds themselves.

Cage proposed replacing this type of thinking with the Oriental concept of interpenetration.  He explained the idea in his lecture “Composition as Process” by recalling one of Daisetz Suzuki’s references to it in his lectures at Columbia, which he attended:

Interpenetration means that each [idea] is moving out in all directions penetrating and being penetrated by every other one no matter what the time or what the space.  So that when one says that there is no cause and effect, what is meant is that there are an incalculable infinity of causes and effects, that in fact each and every thing in all of time and space is related to each and every other thing in all of time and space.[5]

Each sound, pitched or otherwise, carries with it the same amount of significance as all other sounds.  When we hear them, we are overwhelmed by the infinite complexity of their interrelatedness; our awareness might focus on a fractional part of this complexity but never apprehend it entirely.  In another hearing, we might choose to focus our attention on something else yet again.  Cage pursued these ideas with far-reaching implications in the late 1950s and ’60s—for example, by separating instruments spatially so as to help ensure their sounds would be perceived as “sounds in themselves” and, in several works from the Variations series, by leaving undefined the types of sound chosen for a given performance.

Too often, I feel, we have been admonished that paying attention is beyond the point in Cage’s music—that because all events cause all other events, it’s unnecessary to focus our attention too specifically.  But if we don’t pay attention, surely we run the risk of coming to the superficial conclusion that all of Cage’s chance music sounds alike. Furthermore, it’s worth recalling that Cage occasionally admitted the possibility of finding relationships or continuity in his music, an activity that can only take place when we pay attention:

I would assume that relations would exist between sounds as they would exist between people and these relationships are more complex than any I would be able to prescribe.  So by simply dropping that responsibility of making relationships I don’t lose the relationship.  I keep the situation in what you might call a natural complexity that can be observed in one way or another.[6]

The awesome complexity of interpenetrating sounds set in motion can never be comprehended in its entirety.  But by observing that complexity “in one way or another,” we experience what we can; we might even share that experience with others, without suggesting that our experience is superior to anyone else’s.[7]  What pleased Cage was the way in which his chance operations prevented him from imposing a single continuity of his own design in the music, and thus opened up the possibility for any number of equally valid continuities.  A given performance would reveal different patterns to different listeners; indeed, the same listener might make different connections in a subsequent performance—further approaching, but never totally comprehending, “the incalculable infinity of causes and effects.”

In later years, Cage extended his interest in all the sounds around him to tonal harmony itself—for instance, he tried to liberate such harmony from its rigid syntax in works like Hymns and Variations (1979).  In this and similar works, Cage took traditional pieces by William Billings and other eighteenth-century American composers and subjected them to chance operations so that certain tones were prolonged and others removed altogether, replaced with silence.  In this way Cage retained the “flavor” of the original music but made it possible for listeners to hear it in a new way—to hear the individual sounds and silences as equally important, relating to each other in countless ways that could not be explained or predicted by rules and habit.

Finally, in the Number Pieces—particularly those involving the piano—Cage returned to harmonies entirely produced by chance operations and unrelated to past music.  More important, Cage discovered a way to use harmonies in such a way that they could not suggest any single pattern of coherence.  In most of the Number Pieces, all the performers have some freedom through Cage’s use of time brackets, flexible measures that show a range of possible starting and ending times.  The time bracket system of notation used in these works allows a certain amount of flexibility in the performance: individual notes or chords may always occur in the same general time frame, but their specific order and duration varies slightly and unpredictably from performance to performance.  In this way Cage could create a new kind of harmony, a harmony that, as he described in a 1991 interview, simply “means that there are several sounds . . . being noticed at the same time.”[8]

Though Cage had pursued the idea of multiple unusual and flexible connections between elements in many ways during his career, his literary works of the 1980s supply some elegant examples of the principle—examples that I believe are particularly relevant to the Number Pieces.  One form that he referred to over and over again was renga, a Japanese poetic design of five, seven, five, seven, and seven syllables expressed at least thirty-six times.  In the introduction to Themes and Variations (1978), Cage’s description of renga shows the powerful affinity that it shares with his own work:

Traditionally renga is written by a group of poets finding themselves of an evening together and having nothing better to do. Successive lines are written by different poets.  Each poet tries to make his line as distant in possible meanings from the preceding line as he can take it.  This is no doubt an attempt to open the minds of the poets and listeners or readers to other relationships than those ordinarily perceived.[9]

While Cage did not adhere to the syllabic structure of renga, he clearly embraced the idea that sequences of words which did not make conventional sense could, nevertheless, be meaningful.  To help create the illusion of the many poets characteristic to renga, he began his work by writing a “library” of source mesostic poems.  (Cage’s mesostics have a central vertical string of letters, all capitalized, which spell out a name or idea that may or may not be connected with the horizontal lines of poetry.)  Once he had written a large number of poems, Cage selected individual lines through chance operations to form new mesostics that make a fuzzy kind of sense.  His method also allowed certain lines of poetry to reappear; recurring lines from the first and second sections of Themes and Variations are underlined in the excerpt below:

path’s Just

whAt did you say

clearing the Mind of music
wE accept
if i gave up my Sense of accomplishment
and Just
of anYthing else

we are in yuCatan
out thE window
past’s Just
As unstable

bE invented
if i gave up my Sense of accomplishment
what’d you Just
anything in frOnt
without anY waiting
we are in yuCatan
and Every unpredicted thing[10]

Cage’s late poetry exploits an ineffable and arresting alchemy of the noble and the common.  Particularly fascinating in this passage is the juxtaposition of such phrases as “we are in yuCatan / and Every unpredicted thing.”

In Two2 (1989), written for the pianists Edmund Niemann and Nurit Tilles performing together as the piano duo Double Edge, Cage unites these two themes—a new kind of harmony and renga—in a marvelous way.  One finds all manner of sonorities in this work: various triads and seventh chords, triads with other added notes, dissonances with two, three, or more notes, even single tones.  More interesting, however, is the fact that so many chords—even identical successions of chords—recur in the piece.  The manner of their overall succession, of course, is determined by chance procedures and performance, which guarantee a nebulous ordering that offers a modicum of coherence without any predictability whatsoever.[11]  And so the logic of recurrence in Two2 resembles the way that our different friends and acquaintances pass in and out of our lives—a continuity that doesn’t make conventional sense but is meaningful nevertheless.

Cage expresses the renga idea in Two2 in several ways: first, each line of music is divided into five measures, just like the five lines of the poetry.  The first measure contains five separate musical events—chords or single tones, usually shared between the two pianists—which correspond to the five syllables of the first line; the second measure has seven events, and so on.  And there are a total of thirty-six such five-measure sections in the piece.  The pianists proceed one measure at a time.  They must read the music in their respective measures from left to right; and while they can take any amount of time to perform each measure, each pianist must wait until both have finished the same measure before proceeding to the next.  In this way, the order of the “syllables” composing one “line” almost always occurs in an unpredictable order.[12]  Cage also respects the analogy with renga by keeping one line of poetry—expressed as one measure—separate from another.

Of course, one can also hear the music itself as renga: dissonant chords cohabitate amicably with simple triads and ambiguous, neutral single tones: some sonorities are sublime, while others seem the product of harsh, even unformed technique.  Every time we think we settle into the mode of Cage’s discourse, some unexpected sound—a simple seventh chord or even a seemingly banal augmented triad—suddenly intrudes, throwing us off balance and disorienting our reactions.  And yet that mingling of “incompatible” elements is fundamental to Cage’s aesthetic and the very source of its magic.  This mixture of the generic and the exquisite evokes what Cage admired in Duchamp’s work, its ability to resist becoming a mere “art object,” though Cage was rarely able to achieve a Duchampian ideal.[13]

Two2 stands apart in the sequence of Number Pieces because it has no time brackets; the two pianists are directed simply to play the music in their respective measures at their own speed, taking care (as noted above) not to continue to the next measure until both have finished playing the music for that particular measure.  As Cage explained in his performance notes for the work, his decision not to incorporate time brackets owed itself to a remark made by the soviet composer Sofia Gubaidulina, whom he had met in 1988 at the Third International Festival of Contemporary Music in Leningrad: “There is an inner clock.”[14]  This gives the pianists the luxury of playing the piece at the speed that suits them best; in the finest performances, the freedom also allows them to discover surprising new relationships between the sounds—relationships unexpected even to them, no matter how much rehearsal time they spend preparing.

There is one final topic to discuss in Two2, and that is the relationship of the two performers.  I have always sensed something intimate—even erotic—in all of Cage’s Number Pieces for two musicians.  More than other works in the series, I think, they act as a metaphor for a healthy, loving relationship between two people.  In connection with this theme, we might turn to Cage’s own (few) words on the subject to deduce the nature of that relationship.  As early as 1966, Cage wrote, “The most, the best, we can do, we believe (wanting to give evidence of love), is to get out of the way, leave space around whomever or whatever it is.”[15]  He later simplified this formulation to “love = space around loved one.”[16]  The composer discussed intimate human relationships rarely, but when he did, it was clear that he had considered such relationships deeply all of his life.  In a conversation with Joan Retallack from October 1991, he described friendship using similar thoughts: “It isn’t a fixed thing that you come to and keep.  It’s something which is not dependable.  Even if you think it is, it isn’t, hmm?  And it gets richer as it encounters obstacles and surmounts them.”[17]

To leave space around loved ones, we must learn to let people live their own lives wherever that life may take them—that having or possessing the person is beside the point.  Similarly in the Number Pieces for two individuals, and perhaps Two2 above all others, our performance is a time in which we agree to come together and be in each other’s company—a time which we expect to be happy but which holds no guarantees.


[1]   John Cage, “Indeterminacy,” in Silence: Lectures and Writings (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1961), 261.  For more on Cage’s early studies, see Robert Stevenson, “John Cage on his 70th Birthday: West Coast Background,” Inter–American Music Review 5, no. 1 (Fall 1982): 3–17; Michael Hicks, “Cage’s Studies with Schoenberg,” American Music 8 (1990): 125–40; and David W. Bernstein, “John Cage, Arnold Schoenberg, and the Musical Idea,” in John Cage; Music, Philosophy, and Intention, 1933–1950, ed. David W. Patterson (New York: Routledge, 2002), 15–45.

[2]   See, for instance, Cage, “Lecture on Nothing,” in Silence, 116.

[3]   Cage, “Lecture on Something,” in Silence, 132.

[4]   Cage, “A Composer’s Confessions,” in John Cage: Writer, ed. Richard Kostelanetz (New York: Limelight Editions, 1993), 29.

[5]   Cage, “Composition as Process,” in Silence, 46–47.  David Patterson discusses historical problems in Cage’s recollections of Suzuki and his influence in “Cage and Asia: History and Sources,” in The Cambridge Companion to John Cage, ed. David Nicholls (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 53–55.

[6]   Cage quoted in Michael Nyman, Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond (New York: Schirmer Books, 1974), 25.  Nyman can no longer remember the source for this quotation, but believed he cited a printed source (e-mail to the author, 21 November 2002).

[7]   See, for example, “Where Are We Going?  And What Are We Doing,” in Silence, 250–52.

[8]   John Cage and Joan Retallack, Musicage: Cage Muses on Words, Art, Music.  John Cage in Conversation with Joan Retallack, ed. Joan Retallack (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1996), 108.

[9]   John Cage, “Introduction to Themes and Variations,” in Composition in Retrospect (Cambridge: Exact Change, 1993), 64.  My emphasis.

[10]  Cage, Themes and Variations, in Composition in Retrospect, 74 and 100.Composition in Retrospect, 133.  The mesostic string spells the name of James Joyce.

[11]  For a description of the compositional process of Two2, see Rob Haskins, “‘An Anarchic Society of Sounds’: The Number Pieces of John Cage” (Ph. D. dissertation, University of Rochester, Eastman School of Music, 2004), 119–21 and 214–19.

[12]  There are a few occasions when, probably as the result of the chance operations Cage used, one pianist has a silent measure and all the “syllables” for that “line” are performed by a single pianist.

[13]  For more on Cage’s thoughts on this aspect of Duchamp’s work, see Cage and Retallack, Musicage, 103–5.

[14]  John Cage, performance notes for Two2 (New York: Henmar Press [C. F. Peters], 1989), n.p.

[15]  In the “Diary: How To Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse) Continued 1966” in Cage, A Year from Monday: New Lectures and Writings (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1967), 52.

[16]  As part of the introduction to Themes and Variations; see Composition in Retrospect, 61.

[17]  Cage and Retallack, Musicage, 151.

Liner Notes for John Cage, One4, Four, Twenty-Nine—OgreOgress (2002)

Sources for quotations (in order of appearance): Laura Fletcher and Thomas Moore, “An Interview [John Cage],” Sonus 3, no. 2 (Spring 1983): 19; John Cage, I–VI: MethodStructureIntentionDisciplineNotationIndeterminacyInterpenetrationImita-tionDevotionCircumstancesVariableStructureNonunderstandingContingencyIncon-sistencyPerformance (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990), 177–78; John Cage, Composition in Retrospect (Cambridge: Exact Change, 1993), 6; John Cage and Joan Retallack, Musicage: Cage Muses on Words, Art, Music (Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 1996), 218; Joan Retallack, “Poethics of a Complex Realism” in John Cage: Composed in America, ed. Marjorie Perloff and Charles Junkerman (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 260.

¶ Recording technology makes it possible for one person to record all the parts of a Number Piece by herself.  The question arises: is one person the best example of an anarchic society?

¶ Even the titles of the Number Pieces bespeak a quiet simplicity—a number written as a word indicates the number of performers involved; superscript Arabic numerals indicate (as necessary) the position of that particular piece with respect to all the other pieces composed for the same number of players.  Cage liked the titles because they were like the simple clothes he wore, the style of which never changed from day to day.

¶ It is in this sense that one can speak of harmony in the works—each one has an established universe of sounds that we hear at various points, but Cage doesn’t strictly order them because of the time brackets.

¶ Cage’s attitude toward the Number Pieces offers a fitting conclusion to a period that began around 1980 during which the composer’s long-famous optimism had given way to a doubt that music could do anything whatsoever to change people’s minds.  In time, however, Cage would find new musical metaphors for the overwhelming social problems of our time.  The extraordinary difficulty of the Freeman Etudes, for example, came to symbolize for the composer “the practicality of the impossible,” the courageous act of the individual in the face of desperate and seemingly insurmountable circumstances.  Similarly, the Number Pieces were a metaphor for “the type of world in which we could live.”

¶ At the end of his life, Cage wanted his music to be like writing on water—an act that left no traces.  The flexibility that the time brackets provided him helped to give this impression: no two performances of the Number Pieces will ever be exactly the same, although one can usually distinguish one Number Piece from another on the basis of its sounds alone.

¶ But the number pieces concern more than just lengths of time, however.  There are sounds, too, and almost always a group of fixed sounds that recur unpredictably throughout the piece—a nonhierarchical gamut of elements “to Each/elemenT of wHich/equal hOnor/coulD be given.”

¶ Thus, harmony occurs not as an intentional design to be followed step by step through a piece.  Rather, the listener is a “tourist,” observing the landscape around her, creating private connections or ignoring connections altogether.

¶ Joan Retallack tells the story of a person who asked Cage the initial idea he’d had for one of the Number Pieces.  As I remember it, Cage said, “I began with the idea of thirty minutes,” saying nothing further.

¶ The music of Cage’s Number Pieces generally occurs within little slices of time, each around a minute long.  Two indications at the left-hand side of these “time brackets” tell the performer the range of times during which she may begin; a similar pair of indications show her the range of times during which she must stop.

Liner Notes for John Cage, Two3; Inlets; Two4 (OgreOgress, 2004)

The role (or non-role) of emotion in John Cage’s music seems to me a particularly crucial question in the ongoing critical reception of the singular American composer, and indeed of much American music after 1945. Cage’s own remarks on this subject were characteristically ambivalent. He discovered early on that listeners did not always understand the emotions he was trying to express in his composition and gradually decided to avoid expressing them altogether: he felt that this decision allowed sounds to be themselves and left any emotions to be felt where they properly belonged, within the listeners themselves.

Some of Cage’s performers and critical admirers have understood this decision as a rejection of emotion altogether. There is some evidence that they are correct. Too often, however, they make their conclusion into a prescription for listening. But Cage never allowed his own convictions to devolve into a draconian manifesto that obligated listeners to hear his music in a certain way.

Still, it is evident that the experimental impulse to suppress emotion was widely felt by composers both within and without the Cage circle. Philip Glass hoped that audiences would experience his Music in Twelve Parts (1971–74) as a “‘presence,’ freed of dramatic structure, a pure medium of sound.[1]” His recent work has retreated quite far from that pronouncement and indeed has made it possible for listeners to savor the drama and emotional excitement of his earlier works as well.

Glass’s notion of a pure medium of sound without dramatic structure applies more readily to Cage’s work; it is particularly applicable to the series of late works which James Pritchett dubbed the Number Pieces. These works bear titles that consist only of the number of performers involved, often including a superscript number to distinguish, say, one duet in the series from another. Cage likened the titles to the simple clothes that he wore each day. But Cage took care to introduce subtle variation in the individual compositions so that each one retained some individuality even as they displayed similarities to other works in the series.

The instrumentation of Two3 (1991)—shō and conch shells—recalls two rather different groups of pieces from Cage’s career. Conch shells appeared most prominently in Inlets (1977), one of several improvisational pieces (another is Branches [1976] including amplified cactus) in which the performers play “instruments” that are unfamiliar and unpredictable. In an interview from 1980, Cage described the experience of performing these works:

In the case of the plant materials, you don’t know them; you’re discovering them. So the instrument is unfamiliar. If you become very familiar with a piece of cactus, it very shortly disintegrates, and you have to replace it with another one which you don’t know. . . . In the case of Inlets, you have no control whatsoever over the conch shell when it’s filled with water. You tip it and you get a gurgle, sometimes; not always. So the rhythm belongs to the instruments, and not to you.[2]

Both works are examples of what Cage called “music of contingency,” an approach to improvisation with unpredictable results that concerned the composer during this period.[3]

The full impact of these works has yet to be felt. That is because most musicians and music-lovers expect each of the instruments and voice types to possess a fundamental identity, a predictable idiom and technique. Some performers, such as Joan LaBarbara and Robert Dick, have pioneered extended techniques (for voice and flute, respectively). But even they have done so through the application of their own personalities and ingenuity. Inlets, on the other hand, represents a quite different proposition, one in which the performers cannot control their instruments fully. As a result, they continually discover the potential of their instruments and remain continually fascinated by its identity. From this example, it is easy for me to imagine a future musician who discovers a traditional instrument in the same manner and remains, in effect, marvelously ignorant of its characteristic technique.

On the other hand, Cage’s choice of the shō, a mouth organ with bamboo pipes that acts as one of the harmony-producing instruments in Japanese gagaku, represented a more recent interest. Mayumi Miyata had pioneered the shō as a contemporary concert instrument. Cage first met her during his historic return to the 1990 Darmstadt summer course; he was attracted to her artistry and to the sound of her instrument. Four Number Pieces from 1991 include her instrument: One9 is identical to the shō part for Two3 and can also be performed with the orchestral work 108; Two4 combines the shō with solo violin.

Cage approached composition by determining a number of possibilities for an instrument and then using chance to select which of these possibilities would appear and at what point during the composition. Among his musical sketches archived at the New York Public Library are copious notes indicating all of the single tones and clusters (aitake) that the shō could play, both familiar and unfamiliar. Audiences and performers of his music who are intimate with the shō would surely recognize some of the combinations, but the unusual ones would defamiliarize the familiar ones and allow them to be experienced as fresh and novel sounds on their own.

Throughout the Number Piece series, Cage repeatedly considered the perennial tension between process and object that had characterized his entire compositional output. His earlier compositions (up to the Concerto for Prepared Piano and Chamber Orchestra of 1950–51) resembled, more or less, musical works with their unchanging disposition of movements and completely notated musical material. With his work on the Music for Piano series (1952–1956), Cage began to envision another kind of music in which performers could choose the order and quantity of material to be played, the speed for performance, and many other aspects that give music a certain sonic and gestural profile. Even later works, such as those in the Variations series of the 1960s and ’70s, extend this idea still further, by obligating performers to create the piece they are to play by using tools and measuring devices that Cage created.

These and other works led Cage to think more in terms of process rather than in terms of an object, or a final rarefied artistic product. He sometimes disliked the polish of a finished art object, and on more than one occasion bemoaned dada works that had become simply beautiful art objects to be enshrined in museums. By embracing process, Cage felt he created through art a situation that was more like everyday life with its unpredictable qualities and its unabashed triviality.

However, Cage’s work after 1969 took a most unexpected turn back toward the musical object in a number of compositions using chance operations that resembled the more traditional musical works of his earlier years. Cheap Imitation (1969), Hymns and Variations (1979), the Freeman Etudes (1977–1980/1989–1990), Chorals (1978), and several others all have definite endings and beginnings, definite indications for tempo, articulation, and dynamics—in short, performers learn them as they might a Beethoven sonata. Cage continued to write more indeterminate music, of course, but seemed aware of this shift in his thinking. By the time he commenced work on the Number Pieces, Cage elevated this awareness into a guiding principle for the entire series. A program note for the first one, Two, describes the work as follows:

There are two parts which have no fixed relation, no score. They are written in a series of time-brackets (the same for each part), nine of which are flexible with respect to their beginnings and endings, one of which is shorter and fixed. This is the first of a series of works that bring aspects of process (weather) together with aspects of structure (object). Each piece will have as its title the written-out number of players.[4]

Although the reconciliation of process and object represented in the Number Pieces was the most elegant Cage achieved, he probably did not intend it as his final solution to the ongoing problem. Other works he was contemplating at the time of his death have nothing whatever to do with the premises of the Number Pieces. For example, in July 1992 he referred briefly to an unrealized new work for radios and television. His more extensive descriptions of a “Noh-opera” from the same time suggest something quite different: a major music-theater piece involving an extensive set whose construction would form much of the work’s sound.[5]

In Two3 and Two4, Cage addressed the tension between process and object in an interesting way, by creating suites of separate pieces. The shō part for Two3 consists of ten separate movements from which the performer makes choices when it is performed with 108; in addition, as mentioned above, it can be performed separately (as One9) or with a separate group of pieces for conch shells that constitutes the second part of Two3. The violin part for Two4 is divided into four connected movements, one for each of the violin’s strings. The shō part is divided into three movements: the division may address the need for the shō player to change instruments every ten to fifteen minutes and thus prevent moisture from collecting on the reeds, but Miyata has recalled that Cage determined the divisions into movements by using chance operations.[6]

With these two compositions, Cage crosses the boundaries between process and object in a number of ways. The three works—One9, 108, Two3—were all conceived separately but can be performed as if they are single works. In addition, the modular design of One9 guarantees a kind of indeterminacy when it is performed, for instance, with 108, since the soloist can choose which modules she plays and when she plays them. And the different dispositions of movements between violin and shō help the performers to maintain their own individuality in the work even though they perform at the same time.

All this background information scarcely prepares the listener for actually experience these pieces. Hearing them, I come as close as I think I can to becoming Glass’s ideal listener for Music in Twelve Parts, one who experiences the music as a presence freed of dramatic structure. Nevertheless, I don’t believe this music lacks expressive impact. The vast history of the shō or violin, the rich evocations of nature through the sight and the sound of conch shells—these things alone carry associations that have accumulated for the lifetimes of some listeners, and they cannot be ignored. Even those listeners who have never heard a shō before will, I imagine, quickly grow spellbound with the delicate, treble-only sounds of the instrument and its dependence on the human breath for its life and its phrasing. The stillness of Cage’s Number Pieces can always evoke a sense of tranquility and serenity to receptive listeners.

But there is something else. Cage’s music depends on a slow unfolding and a leisurely approach to time in order to make its full impact. That slow unfolding introduces a graininess or raggedness to the beauty of the sounds. There is no contrast, no epiphany, no drama, no point. The music simply continues with almost annoying steadfastness until its end. That steadfastness, stretched out to extraordinary lengths (seventy minutes or more), allows the music to avoid the trap of merely sounding beautiful. More and more I find the music taking equal precedence with the other events around me, gently enveloping me until I see and hear minute details of everyday life with a fresh, uncluttered clarity. Perhaps this experience transcends any emotional reaction I could have. Yet I do not feel it shares much with another musical tradition after 1945, an ultra-rational music that also viewed emotion askance. Cage’s music represents something altogether different, and I still find all my words absolutely ineffectual to describe it.

Rob Haskins
Durham, New Hampshire
October 2004


[1] Philip Glass, “Liner Notes, Music in 12 Parts: Parts 1 and 2” (London: Virgin Records, CA2010, 1977), n.p.

[2] Cole Gagne and Tracy Caras, Soundpieces: Interviews with American Composers (Metuchen: Scarecrow Press, 1981), 76–77.

[3] See “John Cage and Roger Reynolds: A Conversation.” Musical Quarterly 65 (1979): 580–84 (the interview took place in 1977); and Stuart Saunders Smith, “Having Words with John Cage,” Percussive Notes 30, no. 3 (February 1992): 52.

[4] Typescript in the Cage Correspondence Files at Northwestern University (C417–2.17). The description does not appear in the published version of the work, but might have been used as a program note at its first performance.

[5] See John Cage and Joan Retallack, Musicage: Cage Muses on Words, Art, Music. John Cage in Conversation with Joan Retallack, ed. Joan Retallack (Hanover, New Hampshire: University Press of New England [Wesleyan University Press], 1996), 227–34 and 341.

[6] See Stephen Drury, “Variation Pitch Structure Time: Two4 for Violin or Piano and Shō,” at <http://www.stephendrury.com/Writings/texts/two4layers.htm> (accessed 12 October 2004).

The Great Cage Recordings: Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano (1)

It makes sense for me to begin with Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes; I’m a keyboard player and most of the music I review is for one kind of keyboard or another. It’s one of the first Cage pieces I actually encountered—I must have heard them as early as high school, or certainly no later than my undergraduate years, and like almost everyone else, found the timbre of the prepared piano enchanting. My later difficulties with Cage—which extended through the rest of my undergraduate and graduate years up to 1992—resulted from bad information, shortsightedness on my part, and terrible recordings, all of which made me unwilling to grapple with most of his music for a long time. Even so, one of my last Master’s papers at Peabody was an analysis of The Perilous Night (in Margaret Leng Tan’s superb performance, still available on New Albion), which my professor thought showed promise.

When I began reviewing recordings for American Record Guide in 1993, I got some Cage recordings and became friendly with Brian Brandt, the owner of Mode Records; he gave me a number of the recordings. The fine Sibley Library at the Eastman School of Music, where I was completing my doctorates in harpsichord performance and musicology, had many others. Sometime during those years I rediscovered the Sonatas and Interludes and they became important to me as a music-lover and as someone who wanted to talk about the pitches in Cage’s music. They are for me Cage’s most important composition before 1950, and one whose greatness he usually only matched in all of the best music he made afterward. There’s that great line in the “Lecture on Nothing” on his deliberately choosing quiet sounds in the advent of World War II; this fact, plus Cage’s own acknowledgment that the work responded to the seven permanent emotions in Indian aesthetics—including the erotic, mirth, the odious, all of which tend toward the final one, tranquility—makes the Sonatas a kind of expressive line drawn in the sand: an eloquent statement in the face of other works from the time aiming for a much grander (and sometimes frankly patriotic statements) on both sides of the Atlantic: Americanist symphonists like Harris, Schuman, and Copland, Messiaen’s Turangalîla, Britten’s Peter Grimes. It poses the possibility of an avant-garde serenity, a possibility hardly considered in the 1940s. No wonder Cage won a citation from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a Guggenheim on the basis of this piece.

There are a number of fine recordings of the work. I’ll consider only one here; later entries will discuss others along with shorter critiques of ones that aren’t as successful.

My friend and colleague Louis Goldstein recorded the work on December 20, 1994; it was released as Greenseye Music 4794 in 1996, along with a concert performance of Dream from December 11, 1995. Louie can do anything, but his readings of Cage and Feldman are striking for their expansive but vital character.

In the Sonatas and Interludes, he plays a large piano, which results in deeper sounds and, at least to my mind, more heterogenous ones, too. He has a grand conception of the piece: the tempos are usually broad (but not overly so) and the gestures measured but also somehow noble. When the damper pedal is engaged the sounds can reverberate for a long time.

The performances are full of small details that lend to the piece the grandeur I noted above. In the first sonata he uses very subtle rubato: first a noticeable (but nonetheless slight) pause after the first unexpected thudding sound. Then, near the end, he speeds up a bit to make the sudden appearance of mostly unprepared A-minor triads more dramatic.

Sonata 2 contrasts with the first: it requires a more rhythmically incisive manner, and once more Goldstein responds brilliantly. The variety of sounds adds to the appeal. Rubato is present here, but much more moderated (It appears, for instance, midway through the second half after one of the most metronomic passages in the performance). The different sounds also have an effect on the ending of the sonata, which sounds more abrupt than it does in other recordings.

Another highlight is the First Interlude. The preparations give a microtonal flavor to many of the notes that suggest a definite pitch. Still, the overtones are rich and very complex, another reason to favor a larger instrument. Later in the piece, the music gives way to several groovy, asymmetric ostinatos. He doesn’t play these as mercilessly as others have: they sound more mysterious, somehow. This particular movement is one I find it very difficult to stop listening to (Always a sign of a good performance.)

As the cycle unfolds, Goldstein projects a very clear and compelling structure for the whole, which for me culminates in the dramatic arc for the pieces beginning with the Third Interlude. This he plays more aggressively than most of the other performances I know. Thereafter, Cage seems to become increasingly preoccupied with the interaction between prepared tones and unprepared ones: these pieces remind me of Schoenberg’s famous remark that Cage would come to a wall because he had no sense of harmony, to which Cage responded that he would spend the rest of his life beating his head against that wall. By juxtaposing prepared and unprepared tones, Cage poses (perhaps in spite of himself) a new possibility for harmony.

I described the final Sonata XVI as “a music box quietly playing in some distant reality” (John Cage, 51). No performance I know suggests that effect better than Goldstein’s. It begins in a Gouldian tempo with a Fürtwängleresque expression in the first half; but in the second, everything becomes otherworldly, motionless, and serene—all the more so because of his choices for the first half.

Checking today online, I don’t see any evidence that the recording is still available, but in the meantime, a 1982 performance gives a sense of his great artistry.

CD Review: Gabriel Fauré, The Complete Nocturnes—Richard Shuster, piano (Fleur de Son Classics 58023, 2014, 75 minutes)

Fauré’s piano nocturnes span his entire career: the first was competed around 1875, the last in 1921. I must confess his solo piano music is quite unexpected in sound to me when I compare it to all those lovely, limpid, elegant accompaniments for songs like “Lydia” and “Au bord de l’eau.” By contrast, Fauré’s solo piano music is texturally rich (indeed, usually highly polyphonic) and almost orchestral in conception. Though it has much of the characteristic virtuosic passagework that distinguishes Liszt, it is more controlled and thoroughly integrated into the texture, with the result that there seems to be little respite for the pianist willing to learn and perform his music.

Several pianists have released their own recordings of the Nocturnes (which fit very handily on a 75-minute CD), but I haven’t heard any release prior to this one. In any case, I can’t imagine a performance that would be better. I want to begin with the great piano sound: not too close, not too far away, resonant, never shrill. As I began listening, I initially felt that a bit of reverberation might have helped, but with repeated hearings I realized it’s perfectly fine as it is, and besides the added clarity is welcome for the many difficult passages.

Next, of course, I should discuss the pianist himself. Richard Shuster is, in a word, superb. His technique makes possible an astonishing variety of tonal color (a must in French music) and unerring sense for voicing (again, essential given the polyphonic and textural richness of the music). Add to this abundant imagination in effecting the perfect phrasing for a melody (for instance, as in his performance of the fourth nocturne) and absolute security in even the most difficult passagework, as in the turbulent central section of the second nocturne.

Perhaps best of all, Mr. Shuster displays a truly intelligent approach to the music; that’s good, because Fauré’s formal designs abound in a number of novel variations to the basic A–B–A format of each piece and the harmonic vocabulary steadily increases in complexity—never approaching a complete lack of tonal center, it often gives the impression of Wagner’s suspension of tonal goals but with a flavor utterly unlike the German. Shuster gives many unusual progressions (for instance, in the tenth and thirteenth nocturnes), a perfectly understandable sense of direction. I should hasten to say, though, that Shuster’s intelligence never sacrifices the passion of the music, but rather only enhances its beauty and élan. I would love to hear him in Debussy, Chopin, or Bartók—three great pianists, also composers, who also understood how perfectly to blend the cerebral and the sensual.

The helpful notes are by Carlo Caballero, himself a distinguished scholar of Fauré’s music. A lovely pastel by Odilon Redon (1840–1916) graces the cover; called The Boat Maiden with a Halo, or (Redon’s own name) The Golden Prow, it is suffused with a rich dark blue color—its figural outlines are difficult to discern but seem strangely familiar, much like Fauré’s music. Fleur de son’s sound is exquisite. The CD is available from a number of websites, including HBDirect.

CD Review: Mahan Esfahani—Byrd, Bach, Ligeti (Wigmore Hall Live 66, 2014, 75 minutes)

Mahan Esfahani is the foremost young harpsichordist today and has the potential to reinvent the standards for artistic performance. I have already reviewed his excellent Hyperion recording of C. P. E. Bach’s Württemberg Sonatas in The American Record Guide and am currently preparing another ARG review discussing his fabulous performance of all Rameau’s harpsichord music. This 2014 CD also matches the high quality of all the others.

Esfahani is such a great player, first and foremost, because he is a musician who seems to value the experience of music and its performance from its beginnings to now. This is an unusual position to be in for a harpsichordist, made still more unusual because there is a strong and noble tradition in harpsichord and other early music performance to recreate, in so far as possible, the sound of the music as its composers might have heard it. I’m inclined to think that examining performance treatises and extant exemplars of historical instruments does tell us a great deal; however, those players who appeal, in particular, to performance treatises seem sometimes to ignore the intended audience for these works: many are intended for beginners or young performers who need guidance and advice on such things as phrasing and expression. But surely more seasoned players would go beyond the suggestions of treatises and inflect more of their own sensibility, musical awareness, and life-experience into the music, and in a manner that cannot be described in writing. Just as certainly, these aspects would vary considerably from one musician to another, making them equally impossible to capture in prescriptive prose.

I believe Esfhani draws on many musical experiences when he performs: I have described a Schubertian expressivity in his C. P. E. Bach, and he himself refers to “the sounds of American big bands and their particularly mellifluous saxophone sections” with respect to the last thirty-five measures of Ligeti’s Hungarian Rock. Such moments in his playing give me hope that early music performance can continue to evolve, just as other classical music performance has. I even dare to  hope that we will see more non-early-music performances of Bach, Handel, and others.

This disc documents a concert performance from Wigmore Hall on May 3, 2013. The program begins with a very large sampling of William Byrd’s music: three plainchant settings of “Clarifica me, Pater,” the first and fifth pavans and galliards from My Lady Nevells Booke, two fantasias, “The Marche Before the Battell” (from Nevell, appearing again in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book as “The Earl of Oxford’s Marche”), and three variation sets: “John, Come Kiss Me Now,” “Callino casturame,” and “Walsingham.”

“Jhon, Come Kiss Me Now” is a good example of what makes his playing so spectacular. It sparkles with vigorous phrasing and just the right amount of incisive staccato when needed. The harpsichord (a copy of a 1711 Pierre Donzelague double-manual) sounds quite nice uncoupled for several interior variations in succession. He also responds very sensitively to the figurations in Byrd’s music when they shift several times midway through a single variation, taking the change as an opportunity to adjust his own expression accordingly. This seems almost a commonsensical thing to do, of course, but it’s something I rarely hear in harpsichord performances, where a one-affect-approach per movement is the norm. The later virtuosic variations are all impeccably managed without sacrificing any bit of the particular character each one has.

The final two sets are shorter but no less substantial. In the first, Esfahani performs the three- and six-voice ricercars from Bach’s Musical Offering. The readings are a little more brisk than I’m used to (the six-voice ricercar often suggests a rather heroic bravado). Both choices are made clearer by Esfahani’s excellent notes; they suggest that perhaps Bach is having a bit of fun at the King’s expense by taking up and simultaneously critiquing the galant-style figurations that appear in the three-voice ricercar, while in the six-voice one he offers “a vision of eternity that is inexplicable in its scope.” He ends this set with a brilliant choice of the Canon per tonos, where each new modulation seems an opportunity to move into ever more intense expressive terrain.

The final set closes the recital nicely in the present, with the three masterly works by György Ligeti, Passacaglia ungherese, Continuum, and Hungarian Rock. Esfhani performs these works on a 1972 double-manual by Robert Goble & Son tuned in meantone. These three works, especially Continuum, are legendary for their difficulty; more overlooked, I think, is the psychological complexity in the other two works, which unfold far more fitfully and unpredictably. Esfahani seems perfectly attuned to these complexities, matching them to his blistering virtuosity to seal the deal. The disc includes the audience’s applause, including a full minute of appreciation after the final Ligeti piece. Hearing their excitement, I wish I could have been there too.

CD Review: Anne Vanschothorst, Ek is Eik (Big Round Records 8932, 53 minutes)

Ann Vanschothorst is a harpist and composer who creates music in a variety of styles and for different purposes. Her latest release, Ek is Eik (Google Translate tells me this is Afrikaans for “I Am Oak”—I’m inclined to believe it since three other tracks include trees in their titles), is a beautiful-sounding and quite unclassifiable collection of eleven miniatures. Most pair harp with another instrument or instruments, all wonderfully played by trumpeter Saskia Laroo, gambist Ernst Stolz, percussionist Arthur Bont, and bassists Thijs de Melker and Bob van Luijt (who also serves as co-composer for two tracks that add electronics into the mix).

The arresting opening track, “Where’s Mo?,” sets up an interesting hybrid between a mournful, somewhat sultry trumpet line with jazz inflections and a more minimal-style harp part that sounds like an updated Erik Satie. In other tracks, a jazz element is altogether missing. The next, a harp solo “Wandering,” is more pattern oriented and a bit more classical in approach. A later harp solo, “The Caged Owl,” is much more experimental with a low dissonant cluster alternating with more chromatic and unsettling middle-to-upper-register harmonies.

Vanschotorst’s strategy of disorienting the listener without alienating him continues throughout the remaining 9 tracks, which run a fine stylistic variety from another foreboding piece, “I Know My Way,” to the much more dramatic “Here Once Stood Trees.” Both of these tracks are the ones for which Bob van Luijt takes a co-composer credit—they’re lovely soundscapes counterpointing the harp with a very ornate and cinematic tapestry of bass and samples with other electronics. Much of the music, indeed, has an understated expression that would make it well suited to film, and it’s not surprising that Vanshothorst has done some work in this area.

Her music depends on the actual music-making from her collaborators, who improvise above the solo harp tracks to produce the finished product. Judging from the results here, her choice of colleagues is excellent. I have enjoyed percussionist Arthur Bont’s work with her before, and his new work is inventive regarding both the actual rhythms he fashions as well as the instruments he chooses. The gambist Erik Stoltz exploits an incredibly wide pitch range and is as much at home with pale, plaintive melodies as with more elusive, somewhat dissonant patterns. Ms. Laroo’s trumpet has perhaps the strongest presence next to Vanschothorst, and she is a very welcome addition to the closely related first and final tracks.

Ek is Eik, then, is an unobstrusive but highly expressive release that repays repeated hearings. The quality of the engineering and production is first-rate.