HERE’S ONE I PREPARED EARLIER

I

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.

II

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.

Photo by Irving Penn

III

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.

 

23 comments

  1. Reblogged this on A Miscellany Of Tasteful… and commented:
    Nice to see John Cage and his infamous 4’33” get its due in a proper article written about it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. pinklightsabre · · Reply

    Love your voice and precision in your writing, and the fun and energy you have with it. And especially “Pearly Dew-Drops Drops.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Bill. I aspire to titles as lofty as Pearly DDs’D, but Cocteau Twins set the bar pretty high.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh… this is curious. Obviously this isn’t the kinda thing that would ever enter my musical space, but I’m very intrigued. I’m gonna do one of those internet searches on this chap… I dare say I can wave goodbye to a few hours.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s wonderful to be able to sample different musics so effortlessly these days. Hope you enjoy(ed) the experience J.

      Like

  4. This made me want to spell iconoclast iconiclast (as in I knew nect to nothing until now about this iconiclastic composer) so you and cage must have done something to my brain. Maybe that can be fixed by seeking this one out and spending some time with it. Meanwhile the Lorikeets (or maybe they are Paracletes) are singing outside. Whoa! Do birds sing? Perhaps it is only singing when thry are not in Cages.
    Anyway, thanks Bruce, interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, is interesting stuff.
      Maybe I should buy 4’33”.
      But I’m getting a CD. I want to play it on an old player that no longer works.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Delighted you entered into the spirit of the dance, DD. The sonatas are really interesting tho!

        Like

  5. There’s a tragically hip song (Tiger The Lion) with 2 verses dedicated to John Cage:
    The first:
    ‘John Cage had come to feel
    That art in our time
    Was far less important
    Than our daily lives,
    To which so many’d become
    More or less inclined.
    The purpose of it’s not unique.
    Not to build masterpieces
    For a delectative elite
    But simply to wake to your life.’

    So when I think of Cage, I inevitably think of that & the brilliant idea of 4’33”
    Thanks for the reminder to explore more, it does sound like as an artist, he was able to create strangely beautiful worlds

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Do explore further when you have the space, Geoff. Cage is much much more than the clever distraction of 4’33”.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Screw that wag Martin Mull! We need music bloggers! Great post on a deserving musician who should get occasional sunshine. – Marty

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Marty. It’s my goal for 2018 to post on more left-field music. Perhaps even Leftfield!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. You know Soundgarden covered 4’33”? it’s a great version, they really added their own twist to it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, it is much covered. Supersilent did an extraordinary live version but I missed it as I was at the bar having mistakenly thought it was intermission.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Does this mean Cage’s estate can claim royalties on any accapella song ever? Music: Cage, Lyrics: whoever?

        I know a thing or two about the law, and shit like that and I reckon it’d be worth a fight.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Maybe approach one of those companies that fund class actions and see if they are interested? The only slight problem I foresee is that most accapella songs have a melody (ie: the musical bit).

          Liked by 1 person

        2. I wonder if you’d stand more of a legal chance challenging every spoken work record, arguing that Cage provided the backing music.

          Liked by 1 person

        3. I am pleased to be addressing a fellow legal professional.

          Liked by 1 person

  8. Interesting stuff! I knew of Cage’s 4’33”, but had never heard of the concept of the ‘prepared piano’ or of his Sonatas and Interludes for said instrument. Contemporary music (Cage, Philip Glass, Ligeti, Gorecki, etc.) is a tough, tough sell for me. I try to be open-minded, but I need a compelling melody to latch onto. I did listen to a handful of the sonatas on YouTube, but just wasn’t moved. Your palate is much more sophisticated than mine! (FYI: Boris Berman, who plays on your Naxos recording, is the head of the piano department at the Yale School of Music, just down the road). Love the ‘dancing about architecture’ quote; in fact, used it in my very first Augenblick post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good on you for giving it a try, JDB. I’m not sure I’d call my palate sophisticated, more ADD really.
      And yes, I think I’ve used that quote before too. Some things are worth a re-run, eh? 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  9. A passing acquaintance with JC. Thanks to you, CB is getting his musical horizons broadened, again.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s what the business card says!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I thought it said “Vinyl Connection”? I missed the small print.

        Liked by 1 person

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