John Cage

This biography is taken from the Auckland Library - Naxos Music Library collection

About this Recording

John Cage (1912-1992)
Music for Prepared Piano

John Cage, ‘an inventor of genius’ according to his teacher Schoenberg, was the most controversial and influential American composer of the twentieth century. His first works dating from the 1930s were based on the twelve-note (or serial) technique, a method of composing that Schoenberg had introduced in the previous decade. Throughout the 1940s Cage wrote almost entirely for the medium of percussion or prepared piano (prepared by inserting objects between the piano strings so that each note could be given its own unique timbre). In 1946 he embarked upon a study of Indian philosophy with Gita Sarabhai and of Zen Buddhism with Daisetz T. Suzuki at Columbia University in New York, and it was this burgeoning interest in Eastern schools of thought that was to revolutionise his compositional aesthetic. Cage's studies helped to nurture his belief in the philosophy of non-involvement in which a renunciation of control is made possible by the use of chance and random procedures.

Beginning with his works of the 1950s Cage, together with three younger American composers with whom he formed a close association – Earle Brown, Morton Feldman and Christian Wolff – explored the seemingly endless possibilities that chance procedures offered. Cage chose from a wealth of randomising means, notably the ancient Chinese 'Book of Changes' (the I Ching) in both the four-volume Music of Changes (1951) for solo piano and Imaginary Landscape IV (1951) for twelve radios; maps of the heavens in Atlas Eclipticalis (1961-2) for orchestra; the computer in HPSCHD (1967-69) for seven players and tape, and the imperfections on pieces of paper in Music for Piano (1952-6).

The most notorious piece of this period was 4'33" (1952) for any instrument or group of instruments, a three-movement work each of which is marked 'tacet' (the performer is to remain silent). Any sounds that may or may not be heard during the course of the piece – noises made by the audience, environmental sounds, and so on – are left entirely to chance. Regarding his use of chance procedures in making compositional decisions, Cage, in an essay entitled 'Composition' (1952) published in his seminal work Silence (1961), argued that: 'It is thus possible to make a musical composition the continuity of which is free of individual taste and memory (psychology) and also of the literature and "traditions" of the art'.

Cage's many other innovations included the first live electronic piece Imaginary Landscape No. I (1939) for two variable speed gramophone turntables, frequency recordings, muted piano and cymbal, and also the first mixed-media event at Black Mountain College in 1952. This so-called 'happening' combined a series of simultaneous, yet completely independent, activities involving poetry readings, slide projections, music (both live and from a gramophone), dance, and Cage himself giving a lecture. This provided Cage with the blueprint for future works such as Musicircus (1968) and Roaratorio (1979). Closely related to Cage's music is a large and important body of collected writings which, in addition to Silence, includes A Year from Monday (1967), M (1973) and Empty Word, (1979).

Cage's invention of the prepared piano dates from the late 1930s when he was based in Seattle as accompanist for Bonnie Bird's contemporary dance classes at the Cornish School (Bird had been a former member of Martha Graham's company). In 1938 one of Bird's students, Syvilla Fort, asked Cage to compose the music for her Bacchanale. Cage would ideally have liked to employ a large percussion section but as the performance area was small – no space in the wings and no pit – he had to make do with a piano placed to one side in front of the stage. Undeterred, he recalled how another former teacher, Henry Cowell, had transformed the sound of the piano by plucking its strings with his fingernails or by brushing across several strings with the palm of his hand. Cage first experimented with muting the strings by placing a plate across them but this tended to bounce around too much. Nails were then used but they tended to slip through. Needing objects that would stay in place he eventually hit upon the solution by using wooden screws, nuts and weather stripping. This muting of the piano strings served to alter completely both pitch, timbre and dynamic, and provided Cage with what was effectively his own percussion orchestra.

The twelve works featured on this disc were all composed over a six-year period, 1942 to 1947 The Perilous Night (1944) features an enormous range of timbres with each of its six movements possessing its own distinct mood, such as the moto perpetuo second movement or the fiendish rhythmic complexities of the concluding sixth movement. The changing metrical stresses and melodic characteristics of Tossed as it is Untroubled (1943), dedicated to Merce Cunningham, endows it with a peculiar folk-like quality. For the nineteen continuous sections of the ghostly Daughters of the Lonesome Isle (1945) the piano requires a particularly complex preparation involving a total of thirty-nine pitches. The work was composed for Jean Erdman, and the intermittent use of spread chords and glissandos is extremely effective. The singular Root of an Unfocus (1944), again dedicated to Cunningham, is followed by Primitive (1942), whose beguiling legatissimo opening melody of which could not provide a starker contrast to the orgiastic climax. The extraordinary sound world of Mysterious Adventure (1945) evokes any number of instruments including woodblock, marimba, xylophone and steel pan. The turbulent And the Earth Shall Bear Again (1942) demonstrates a close kinship with the explosive Primitive composed the same year. The Unavailable Memory of (1944) represents its polar opposite: static and contemplative, it is written entirely in the bass clef and consists of various arpeggiations of the same five pitches. In Music for Marcel Duchamp (1947), written for the Duchamp sequence of the film 'Dreams That Money Can Buy' (Hans Richter), silence assumes an almost thematic function, whilst the repeating melodic cells and ostinato patterns of Totem Ancestor (1943) and A Room (1943) offer an intriguing foretaste of Minimalism. This remarkably varied collection is rounded off by the crystalline beauty of the tiny Prelude for Meditation (1944).

Peter Quinn

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