The Number Pieces JOHN CAGE ANNIVERSARY 1912-2012 BOX 4 CD
Performer The Barton Workshop
CD MDC 7793 40€ / order
About JOHN CAGE
The Number Pieces JOHN CAGE ANNIVERSARY 1912-2012 BOX 4 CD
When I look at the Number pieces scores themselves, I see them as a form of conceptual art – instructions which define an attitude and/or an approach with which to make sounds or to select materials. Indeed, I enjoy this approach to these scores beyond words… but I also enjoy the other activities which such scores offer, namely rehearsing (which means initially a discussion of what the texts actually mean, permit, forbid, to define with all other performers the attitude constructed by this score) and finally performing and/or listening to a performance (contemplation). As I describe these experiences of studying, preparing, performing and listening to you, I remain, once again profoundly aware that this thing called music is a non-verbal activity. A recording obviously allows every listener the opportunity of listening, of contemplating these experiences but presenting the instructions for each of the scores allows every listener the initial (and rich) experience of imagining the sound world which the instructions define. This experience coincides with the initial experience of the composer and performer by defining the initial state-of-being of the composer or performer. As in the study of geometry, this knowledge/experience is the same for everyone (creator, discoverer, performer, student).
Fourteen (1990) [for piano, flute/piccolo, bass flute, clarinet, bass clarinet, horn, trumpet, 2 percussion, 2 violins, viola, cello, bass] is sometimes referred to as a Concerto for Bowed Piano. Fourteen was commissioned by the Musikkollegium Zürcher Oberland for Werner Bärtschi and René Müller.
Dynamics are not given. If durations are medium or long, let the dynamics be on the soft and very soft side, particularly in the case of the woodwinds, brass, and sustained percussion sounds; if durations are short or very short the dynamics may be loud. Each part has its own series of time brackets, of which many, except those of the bowed piano, have been omitted. The bowed piano part is not to be covered up except on occasion very briefly. Let the bowed piano part be an unaccompanied solo, one which is heard in an anarchic society of sounds. Bracket times are in lightface when they overlap adjacent brackets. At such points the performer must find a solution that accommodates one bracket to the other. The percussion instruments are distinguished from one another but not named. They should all be very resonant and are bowed or played with a tremolo such that the individual attacks are not noticeable. Suitable instruments are like the following: Chinese and Turkish cymbals, Japanese temple gongs, tamtams, thunder sheets, bass marimba tones and Balinese gongs (upside down on pads).
Seven (1988) [parts without score for flute, clarinet, percussion, piano, violin, viola, cello] was composed for the Boston Musica Viva, The Voices of Change in Dallas and The San Francisco Contemporary Chamber Players. The instructions for this score are notable in that they instruct the players to create sounds in ways which they may appear to lack the requisite physical control or an adequate traditional playing technique. This ‘need to show that one plays well’ is something which many performers cannot relinquish!
There are twenty time-brackets, nineteen of which are flexible with respect to beginning and ending and one, a different one for each part, which is fixed. For the piano: each ictus (chord) in a single staff is to be played in the order given, but in any relation to the icti in the other staff. Some notes are held from one ictus to the following one. A tone in parentheses is not to be played if it is already sounding. One hand may assist the other. For the percussion: use four different frictional sound producing means: long bamboo or other sticks, metal rods or thick wires, chairs or tables etc moved while in contact with the floor; plastic cups or pots against walls or doors; cymbals, gongs, piano strings, etc. bowed; bowls including Japanese temple gongs, and goblets, set into vibration by friction around the edges; etc. For the flute and clarinet; Rather than being switched on or off, let the tones be “brushed” into existence as in oriental calligraphy where the ink (“the sound”) is not always seen or, if so, with changes of intensity. Use unconventional fingerings. For the strings: Play col legno tratto, the fingers holding and turning the bow with fairly loose hair.
Ten (1991) [for flute, oboe, clarinet, trombone, percussion, piano, 2 violins, viola, cello] was composed for the Ives Ensemble.
Single tones or any numbers of them in flexible time brackets. The time brackets overlap (the sounds may be long or short, rapidly played or slower). For the percussion: instruments numbered but not specified. In choosing an instrument try it for both short and for long sounds (within which long sounds individual attacks are not heard). For the piano: the single low strings may be normally plucked; the higher strings will need a plectrum. Numbered parts of the piano construction (bars and box) are not specified but are chosen by the pianist. The keyboard aggregates may be sounded together, partly sustained unsounded by pedal (as in Winter Music), or entirely sustained by pedal and sounded by manual gliss. on strings as in the piano music of Henry Cowell. All other instruments play micro tonally. Between two half steps six degrees are notated. Phrasing, use of silence, articulation is free. But only play the tones that are written once. Search with them for melisma, florid song. When durations or phrases are long, keep the amplitude low. Short sounds can be of any amplitude.
Three2 (1991) [for 3 percussionists] was composed for Michael Pugliese and The Talking Drums. This performance was realized entirely by Tobias Liebezeit by means of multi-track recording.
Ten time brackets, all but one with flexible beginnings and endings, for three numbered but not specified instruments. Dynamics are free for short sounds, on the soft side for long ones.
The first three scores are reasonably clear examples of what I described initially. I will look more closely at Three2. There are three different players, each with ten opportunities to play on ten occasions using three instruments of their own choosing. Cage doesn’t select the instruments to be played nor the lengths and when to play has been selected randomly by a computer program. What is the composer doing? What does he seek to create? He seems to relinquish the decisions that one expects from the composer? He can’t suggest that this “structure” is somehow special since at best, it ensures a random sequence of occurrences. His actions, in fact, guarantee that I will hear a random collection of sounds. Any ‘meaning’ that I find here qua structure or some other significance is something created by my own mind – not the composer’s (or performer’s?). I am permitted to “note” to myself events which are occurring. Can there be such a thing as a good or bad performance? Is there a difference between listening to my environment and listening to this performance? Will I listen differently to my environment after the experience of this music? And what of the fact that this interpretation is made by multi-tracking one player? James Fulkerson, 2006
1. The Number pieces of John Cage are performed without a conductor. Each player is responsible for following his/her set of instructions, his/her individual part, performing within his/her individual time schema – indeed, Cage’s own brand of anarchy! Two sets of numbers located at the beginning and end of each activity or pitch module indicate the duration within which an event / pitch must occur.
FIVE : Player 5 – [for Event #1] 0’00” – 0’45” [Music stave containing one note] 0’30” – 1’15”
0’00” – 0’45” would indicate that one begins the material/ action within the boundaries of these time points. 0’30” – 1’15” would indicate that one stops the material/ action within the boundaries of these time points.
2. Performance instructions in each of the Number pieces are similar to those in all of the others – but also contain slight differences.
JOHN CAGE EIGHT-TWO-ONE 4 The Number* pieces of John Cage are often exceptionally beautiful works. For the listener who has heard of John Cage as the “enfant terrible” of music, this may come as a surprise. Seen within the total of Cage’s work they are in fact, not exceptions –many, many of Cage’s works convey extraordinary beauty in a conventional musical sense. The Number pieces of John Cage are performed without a conductor. Each player is responsible for following his/her set of instructions, his/her individual part, performing within his/her individual time schema –indeed, Cage’s own brand of anarchy! Two sets of numbers located at the beginning and end of each activity or pitch module indicate the duration within which event/pitch must occur.
FIVE : Player 5 – [for Event #1] 0’00” – 0’45” [Music] 0’30” – 1’15”
0’00” – 0’45” would indicate that one begins the material/action within the boundaries of these time points.
0’30” – 1’15” would indicate that one stops the material/action within the boundaries of these time points.
Performance instructions in each of the Numbers pieces are similar to those in all of the others – but also contain slight differences. Most often, it is within these subtle differences that the very striking aspects of performances arises, aspects which most often distinguish not only each of the Numbers piece from the others but which also distinguish Cage’s music from that of nearly all other composers. For instance, in Eight, Cage wrote:
Intonation need not be agreed-upon.
The sentence suspends one of the continuous concerns of a musician performing in an ensemble – making their pitch “in-tune” with the pitches which are played immediately before or simultaneously with theirs. For the listener, it creates a shock of hearing pitches which are clearly not “in-tune” with these other pitches while raising a question about good or bad performance and indeed –is this music? In time, I think the listener begins to simply observe sounds occurring in time and noting some characteristics of one versus another, making no judgments per se but merely noting …. [similarities/differences?].
In a sense, all of Cage’s Number pieces form a single work with many different parts (or “movements” in conventional terms). In this instance, each “movement” has a different instrumentation but the new movement/piece is nevertheless related to all others in the series just as in earlier music – suites, for instance – differing dance styles were utilized for each movement to nonetheless create a totality. In a suite, however, the instrumentation was always constant. For me, in the Number pieces, the interest for a listener seems to reside, long term, in beginning to appreciate the subtle difference of character, choices and organization within — and between — each of these works. The sensibility is the same as viewing/ knowing a series of prints by a visual artist – there is an understanding of the whole series but also an appreciation of the variation within each single print with respect to the others.
I would like to quote the final paragraph from James Pritchett’s marvelous book wherein he concludes about the Number* pieces : “These works are so beautiful because they return to John Cage’s compositional strengths: concentration, spaciousness, simplicity. Because each bracket contains a single sound, there is an intensity to each and every note, a focused concentration to every event. Nothing here is “filler,” every note is meant deeply. The silence surrounding the sounds is crucial: it provides both the floating quality of the time brackets and the spaciousness that Cage loved and had sought out ever since the Concerto for Prepared Piano. Finally, because the materials are so simple – single long tones – the relationships among them can arise of themselves, can spring forth from silence. The music is effortless and transparent. These are all qualities found in some of Cage’s most inspired music over the course of his sixty year career as a composer:
Music for Marcel Duchamp, Sonatas and Interludes, String Quartet in Four Parts, the third movement of the Concerto for Prepared Piano, Variations II, 0’00”, Cheap Imitation, Inlets, Ryoanji (to name my personal favorites). In these final works we continue to hear John Cage, the composer, speaking with his own unique and marvelous musical voice.”
*When speaking about John Cage and his work, the Number pieces refer to a series of works begun in 1987 on which he continued to work until his death in 1992. The titles refer to the number of instruments in the ensemble and a superscript refers to the number this work in the series for that number of instruments, for instance there are five pieces for five instruments in the series. The second work for five instruments is entitled Five2 ”, the third = Five3 “, etcetera – James Pritchett: The Music of John Cage, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge,UK 1993 – page 204
Eight (1991) which was commissioned by The Trisha Brown “Dance Company, is composed for a double quartet of 4 woodwinds (flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon) and 4 brass (trumpet, horn, tenor trombone and tuba). The instructions (complete) are: Time–brackets with flexible beginnings and endings which overlap enabling a sound to be any duration between very short and very long. Dynamics are free, crescendi, diminuendi, etc. Intonation need not be agreed-upon.
Two (1987) for flute and piano is dedicated to Roberto Fabbriciani and Carlo Neri. The instructions are: Each part has ten time brackets, nine which are flexible with respect to beginning and ending, and one, the eighth, which is fixed. No sound is to be repeated in a bracket. In the piano part each ictus in a single staff is to be played in the order given, but can be played in any relation to the sounds in the other staff. Some notes are held from one ictus to the next. A tone in parentheses is not to be played if it is already sounding. One hand may assist the other.
ONE4 (1990) for solo drummer is dedicated to Fritz Hauser. The instructions are: Six time brackets for the “left hand” and eight for the “right”. Bracket times are in light face when they overlap adjacent brackets. At such points the performer must find a solution that accommodates one bracket with the other. Either hand may help the other. Numerals on staves are cymbals and/or drums chosen by the drummer. The sounds to be made are either long (a tremolo with individual attacks that are not noticeable) or very short (without resonance, completely stopped). Dynamics are free. Only one sound per bracket. © James Fulkerson, 2002/2005
JOHN CAGE AND THE NUMBER PIECES
John Cage’s (1912-1992) “number pieces”, fortyeight in all, belong to the final six years of his life. They are so called because their titles, plus the actual construction of each composition, are based on numbers. They were created with the aid of software designed by Andrew Culver who had worked with Cage on many occasions previously. This enabled Cage to work quickly and thus fulfil the many commissions that came his way as a father figure of experimental music. This CD presents three of these compositions.
The number pieces as a whole suggest a strange kind of alchemy. The raw materials are: single sounds usually made on musical instruments, time brackets in which performers are invited to place sounds where they chose within prescribed limits, fairly prescriptive performative tasks which never the less allow some freedom of action, either continuous undifferentiated textures (in the larger pieces such as Fifty-eight from 1992 or One Hundred and One from 1988) or pieces for smaller ensembles involving appreciable silences. These materials, fluidly fixed and thus inviting interpretation, are placed in a crucible which consists of the overall length of the piece, the performers and thus, of course, the performance itself. The uncompromising raw materials – hardly the stuff of the instrumental and multimedia circuses Cage was known for from the late 1950s onwards (Piano Concert -1958, HPSCHD –1967-9, Roaratorio – 1979) – somehow come alive, each piece in its own special way. Given the similarity of method, and often materials too, the diversity of these number pieces is remarkable.
On this CD, for example, Four6 calls for extended techniques and non-standard sounds, whereas Thirteen is played by conventional chamber/ orchestral instruments producing standard musical sounds some combinations of which are extraordinarily beautiful by any yardstick. Four3 calls for a number of rainsticks, but also gives performers scraps of melody extracted, by chance methods, from Erik Satie’s Vexations – a single page of meditative music repeated 840 times, thus lasting roughly eighteen hours, and a spiritual favourite of Cages.
Cage’s aesthetic, based as it was from the early 1950s onwards on the use of chance, was extraordinarily fertile but also creatively contradictory. His practice was to objectify sounds so that personal taste (his own or a performer’s) was removed from the equation. Yet, with the exception of a few tape pieces, his music has to be performed by human beings who, as it happens, are nearly always called upon to do more than simply read off a score. (Exceptions would be Music of Changes of 1951/2 or the various virtuoso etudes written in the late 1970s). Performers are not asked to improvise – Cage was suspicious of the expressionist tendencies of freeform improvisers in particular – but neither are they automatons obeying orders. For example, pianists playing the elaborate graphics of the solo part of the Piano Concert actually bring much of themselves to the realisation of Cage’s complex instructions which, with familiarity, often turn out to be imprecise. The result – and this is true of many of his pieces from the 1950s through to the early ‘80s – is a strange agreement between on the one hand constructivist, objectified sound and, on the other, audibly subjective human agency. The term “abstract expressionism” actually springs to mind no matter how much Cage would have rejected the idea of expression in his music. It also suggests the “all over” approach to composition typical of painters Mark Tobey or Jackson Pollock.
Before the number pieces Cage’s compositions tended to veer one-way or the other – tightly objective (Freeman Etudes – 1977-90) or subjective (the Variations series). The highly subjective Piano Concert is a theatrically ironic kidnapping of concert tradition in which the performers have a ball in a tsunami of extended techniques – slides, squeaks, harmonics, rasps, bangs, grunts and farts – all best played deadpan although clearly hilarious at times. Likewise the Variations series, with their assemble-yourself kit-like scores, only superficially suggest a cooler, constructivist approach. The well-known Cage-David Tudor recording of Variations IV (1963) demonstrates a clear case of choices being made outside the orbit of the musical score. No actual sounds are proscribed in the score, only the placement of sounds in space. Therefore the inventive human agencies of Cage and Tudor were brought into full force resulting in a riot of simultaneous broadcasts, gramophone records, and other supposedly neutral sound sources.
The number pieces offer all some solutions to some of Cage’s dilemmas as a composer. Although performers are not invited to improvise, the narrowly proscribed notated limits to their actions turn out to be quite broad. The placement of a sound within a time bracket, for example (i.e. play a sound to begin after 1.00 and finish before 1.57) may be read as a chance to consciously participate in the formation of texture and thus the general effect and aesthetic of the piece. It is impractical to take taste, memory and ego out of this. Thus the expressive nature of music makes an open return to Cage’s works rather than being guiltily snuck in via the back door. It is this sense of a highly controlled framework populated by sounds that audibly “breathe” that characterises the number pieces.
Thirteen in particular, illustrates another reconciliation arrived at by the late Cage – his final acceptance of harmony. He called it “anarchic harmony”. Functional harmony, the kind that was the motive force of classical music, always led somewhere. Due to its elaborate system of leading tones, one chord inevitably implied the next – or, at least, a range of possibilities. For Cage this meant that the music never rested in the present but was always going somewhere, pressing on and on. His dislike of this suggests a world of alternative spirituality and anti-political critique. In the number pieces the simultaneous sounding of long held notes does create harmony (chords) often sensuous and pleasurable, but not a drive towards the next moment. Cage referred to what he called: “A changed definition of harmony; one that doesn’t involve any rules or laws. You might call it an anarchic harmony. Just sounds being together.”
He was delighted to find that “everything is harmonious and, furthermore, that noises harmonize with musical tones. (So he did see the difference!) And that gives me – I can’t tell you – almost as much pleasure as the macrobiotic diet”.
These two elements – some performer choice alongside anarchic harmony – make the number pieces a metaphor for Cage’s ideal society – freedom within agreed limits, activities of all individuals “interpenetrating but not obstructing” as he often said, and these leading to a general absence of striving or competition and thus centralised power. Unlike political composers such as Hans Eisler, Cornelius Cardew or Ewan MacColl, Cage embodied his political visions and beliefs in the very construction and realisation of the music rather than in propagandist texts.
In many ways the number pieces are wise solutions to the challenges presented by Cage’s aesthetic and methods over a period of roughly thirty years since he adopted chance as his major compositional tool. Previous solutions had been provocative, jokey, complex, clever, curious, smart, never lazy. The number pieces display the wisdom of an elder. They lay open the truth of Cage’s use of chance – a truth he would never have denied – that he fixed his chance procedures to obtain the results he wanted. Thus each piece has a clear identity conceived and created by Cage doing what composers had always done:
imagining music and writing it down. Chance then governs the note-to-note details of each piece, but the performers’ subjectivity is then drawn in the complete the picture. Four3, for example, with its rainsticks, sine waves, violin, piano and scraps of melody is distinct and unique, and could never be confused with the entirely pitched anarchic harmonies of Thirteen.
How to listen to these pieces? I would put it this way. There are many types of Zen: Rinzai, Soto, beat, everyday cliché and Cage Zen. Cage Zen would regard each of his pieces as an object of contemplation in which the mind is invited to focus on but not grasp each sound as it drifts by. By providing no climaxes, no conclusion and no audible logic the mind and ears are free to appreciate what is. As Cage once punned: “Happy New Ears”
NOTES ABOUT THE WORKS ON THE RECORDING
THIRTEEN (1992) was commissioned by the City of Gütersloh (Germany) for Manfred Reichert and the Ensemble 13. It is scored for Flute, Oboe, Clarinet in Bb, Bassoon, Trumpet in C, Tenor Trombone, Tuba, 2 Percussion, 2 Violins, Viola, Cello. It was premiered on February 17, 1993 in Gütersloh by the Ensemble 13, conducted by Manfred Reichert.
The instructions (complete) are: Flexible time–brackets within which tone(s) are to be played. Long tones are soft. Short ones can have any dynamic. The two percussionists whose parts are identical should make no attempt to play in unison. Long tones extended by breath or bow should be so extended imperceptibly.
FOUR6 (1992) for any way of producing sounds (vocalization, singing, playing of an instrument or instruments, electronics, etc.) was composed for Pauline Oliveros to celebrate her sixtieth birthday and for Joan La Barbara, William Winant and Leonard Stein. It was premiered on July 23, 1992 at Central Park Summerstage in New York City by John Cage, Joan LaBarbara, William Winant and Leonard Stein. It was also used for the dances Tune in/Spin Out (1996) and Rondo (1996) by Merce Cunningham.
The instructions are: Choose twelve different sounds with fixed characteristics (amplitude, overtone structure, etc.) Play within the flexible time brackets given. When the time brackets are connected by a diagonal line they are relatively close together. When performed as a solo, the first player’s part is used and the piece is called ONE7 .
FOUR3 (1991) for four performers (one or two pianos, twelve rainsticks, viola or oscillator and silence). It was composed for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company for the choreographies Beach Birds/Beach Birds for Camera (1991) and was premiered on June 20, 1991 at the Theater 11 in Zurich, Switzerland. It was performed (with the choreography by Merce Cunningham) by David Tudor and others.
The instructions are: There are four activities for the four players that interpenetrate within the given time brackets:
- Silence (each player may do nothing) within a single time bracket.
- The sound of a rainstick non-agitated simply tilted (each player has three rainsticks). Extensions of one tilt by that of another on the same stick should be virtually imperceptible.
- One of the players has either the means to express a sine wave in the neighborhood of c’’’’ or to play in that frequency area, non vibrato, a violin harmonic with imperceptible bowing, very quietly.
- Excerpts (any length less than twelve quavers) from Extended Lullaby1- 6 and 7- 12 (chance determined variations of the cantus firmus and the counterpoints of Vexations, Erik Satie) very slowly and quietly played on one or two widely separated pianos (one “in” the auditorium, the other “outside.” Two pianos playing at the same time must not be in the same tempo, nor as though playing together.
The list of time brackets [ the same for all 4 players] within which the activities are to sound may be read from any beginning point provided each player has two stopwatches, with da capo. For a theatrical performance the end is brought with a curtain. For a concert performance, it is brought with a blackout (circa 30’).
This recording is labeled an [EXCERPT] inasmuch as it lasts only 19’27”. Given the ergodic nature of this work and the fact that the time scheme is circular, it is nevertheless a complete performance albeit one lasting >20’ instead of c. 30’.
© James Fulkerson, 2007