Find somewhere to sit, it doesn’t matter where. Imagine a musician entering the space and preparing to perform. Count to two hundred and seventy-three in beats as close to a second apart as you can manage.
Applaud as the performer exits the space.
You have just created a mental facsimile of the most famous work of American composer John Milton Cage (1912–1992). It is called 4’33” and is not, as is commonly assumed, a piece of silence but rather a period of time to notice the sounds, the music if you will, of your environment.
The piece is one of many explorations of expectations and context that Cage undertook during his career, a musical life rooted in the European tradition but moulded and influenced profoundly by Cage’s interest in Eastern philosophy, particularly Zen Buddhism.
It has been said that all behaviour is communication, which certainly includes creating music, one would think. Yet by the mid-1940s, John Cage was experiencing considerable frustration in getting his intended message across.
“When I conscientiously wrote something sad, people and critics were apt to laugh,” he recalled. “I determined to give up composition unless I could find a better reason for doing it than communication”.*
At least in part, that “better reason” developed out of a reappraisal of what music is (and isn’t) and was influenced by the philosophical and spiritual challenges of Cage’s Eastern studies.
Everyone knows the cliché “Necessity is the mother of invention”. Substitute “innovation” or “creation” and you have John Cage’s solution to a challenging commission in early 1940. His task was to produce music for a dance performance yet the venue had precious little space. In fact, there was a piano and that was it. How, then, to create the percussive sounds needed for the dance? Mr Cage concluded that “what was wrong was not me, but the piano”.
“He had the idea of inserting various objects between the strings — weather stripping, bolts, screws, bamboo — which meant one pianist could produce a similar variety of sounds to a percussion group.”
Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome… the Prepared Piano!
For an introduction and a magically entertaining entry into the world of John Cage and his piano-mods, you could scarcely do better than Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano.
There are any number of recordings out there, and to be honest, I have nowhere near enough knowledge to recommend one over the other. But the inexpensive Naxos edition I’ve been spinning regularly these last few months seems fine to me.
How to describe these pieces for pianoforte and assorted objects? One evokes the limpid beauty of Debussy’s piano music, another sounds like a trebly study interrupted by a Balinese gamelan player who is not quite paying attention. There are even moments that will have some listeners gasping “New Age!” (while recalling that these nineteen pieces were written between 1946 and 1948).
What they have in common is a persistent focus on the upper octaves of the piano and constantly shifting rhythmic currents. As all—bar Sonata XIV—are under five minutes in duration (and eight are less than 3’), there’s no real opportunity to settle in. Conversely, none out-stay their welcome.
While listening, I found myself pondering how to describe individual pieces. After all, there’s no better reason for blogging about music than communication even though, as an enigmatic wag once observed**, writing about music is like dancing about architecture.
It was while driving, not dancing, that I started making up fanciful titles for the sonatas and interludes. During one of the pieces—I cannot recall which—the Cocteau Twins song “Pearly-Dewdrops’ Drops” popped into my head, not for the melody but for the fey, evocative name. Watching word-images arise from the piano music was fun, even though John Cage would probably have been appalled. Still, he’s dead. And we are alive (more or less). So find yourself a copy of Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano, sit down somewhere quiet, and enter this strangely beautiful world. You might even like to add some titles to this list…
Slightly Unhinged Musical Box
Hitherto Unknown Cloudforms
Clumsy Elf Pours Champagne
The Winged Boots of Johannes Koop
Imps With Water Pistols
Fragments of Snippets
The Skeletal Impressionist
* Quotes are from David Revill’s liner notes to the 1999 Naxos release John Cage — Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano, Boris Berman (Pianist)
** Some consider Martin Mull the prime suspect.