John Cage: The Piano Concertos

Collected on this disc are the three works John Cage created for piano solo accompanied by chamber orchestra. But "accompanied" is hardly the right word, for in these works the orchestra assumes a role of equal importance, surrounding, amplifying, and providing a context for the soloist. Indeed, in the Concerto for Prepared Piano and Chamber Orchestra, the orchestra seems almost to lead the pianist. In each of these works, the orchestra consists of an ensemble of soloists.

For the Concert for Piano and Orchestra, Cage created a huge collection of material from which performers can select any amount, depending not only on the duration of the pro-posed performance but also on the number of performers available. Each orchestral player independently constructs his or her part from the material available for that instrument. Not every instrument for which Cage wrote a part need be represented in a given performance. In extreme cases, a version may be performed by, say, a solo flute, leaving out even the "solo" piano part. Cage explores the widest possible array of sounds that each instrument is capable of producing - not only using the entire range of standard techniques such as tremolo, flutter tonguing, playing on the bridge of the violin or with the wood of the bow, and various mutes, but also (for example) singing through the flute, bowing on the violin's tailpiece, even to the point of "deconstructing" the instrument -e.g., removing and playing only the mouthpiece. The "theme" of the Concert for Piano and Orchestra (and, as both James Pritchett and Peter Yates point out, it is rightly titled "concert" rather than "concerto") is this ever-expanding galaxy of sonic possibilities. Alongside this proliferation of abundance is the principle of independence. There is no master score; a player may start anywhere in his or her part according to that player's independently derived timetable. One has no way of knowing which sounds from which players will happen to coincide or follow each other in a given performance.

Adding yet one more level of unpredictability, Cage provides a "part" for a conductor which translates notated time into real time. In performance, the players read the conductor (whose arms move in large circles) like a clock. Thus a player's part may specify ten sounds to be made in thirty seconds, but following the conductor's motions (the speed of which have been distorted by the conductor's part), that player is given only fifteen seconds to perform those ten sounds.

The part for solo piano is a massive assemblage of notational experiments, sixty-three 11x17" pages containing eighty-four different types of compositional fragments. Nearly every fragment can be realized in a great number of ways. Often several fragments overlap. The pianist swims in (or rather creates) the same sort of musical aquarium as the orchestra, not only producing traditional sounds on the keyboard, but also reaching inside the instrument to play directly on the strings, soundboard and, frame, and even bringing into play unspecified auxiliary noise sources. Cage's comment on the expansive and contradictory nature of the sound universe in the Concert is telling: "The only thing I was being consistent to in this piece was that I did not need to be consistent."

In contrast to the Concert, the Concerto for Prepared Piano and Chamber Orchestra is created from a rigorously limited universe of sounds. This comes as a consequence of Cage's predominant method of working in the late '40s, a method which is an extension of the prepared piano itself. On this instrument, a normal grand piano altered by the insertion of screws, bolts, strips of rubber, and other materials between the strings, the pressing of a key yields not a single tone but a complex sonority combining several different pitches and timbres along with unpitched buzzes or thumps. A conventional harmonic approach is out of the question, as each different piano key sounds its own fixed, non-modulating harmonic object. The writing for orchestra reflects this hallmark of the solo instrument. Thus, for example, the opening chord, with the violin sitting on top of the clarinet and horn to sound a D-minor chord, always returns in exactly this configuration, never exchanging voices, never modulating to (say) an A-major inversion. The sonorities follow each other as "a melodic line without accompaniment", in Cage's phrase. At the core of the orchestra is a large array of percussion under the control of four players. Conventional instruments such as cymbals and tympani are found alongside an amplified slinky, a "water gong" (another Cage invention), and a radio. The orchestra is, in effect, a continuation of the prepared piano by other means.

Cage composed the Concerto for Prepared Piano with the help of a two-dimensional chart of these sonorities, 14 by 16. The Concerto is about the conflict between structure and freedom, between improvisation and order. In For the Birds Cage described the piece as "a drama between the piano, which remains romantic, expressive, and the orchestra, which itself follows the principles of oriental philosophy. And the third movement signifies the coming together of things which were opposed to one another in the first movement." In his virtuoso analysis of the piece, James Pritchett describes how in the first movement, while the piano's gestures are clearly improvisatory in nature and more conventionally "musical" in shape, the orchestra, following rules and diagrams on Cage's compositional charts, "is elusive and cryptic; it does not speak, it simply exists." In the second movement Cage brings the piano under the control of a second, parallel but distinct chart, creating an increasing sense of confluence between the soloist and the ensemble.

The final movement is one of the great revelations of Cage's oeuvre. Throughout the concerto, two governing systems have been at work: the charts containing the sonorities (which control the pitches and orchestration), and a rhythmic structure (which controls the density and phrasing). Although no more discernable by the listener than the pitch charts, there has been throughout the piece a steady rhythmic proportion of 3, 2, 4; 4, 2, 3; 5 (expressed in numbers of measures) cycling over and over. The first movement made up of nine of these 23-measure-long cycles (3 cycles plus 2 cycles plus 4 cycles); likewise the second movement (4+2+3). In the extraordinary third movement these two governing systems both reach their apotheosis. The prepared piano is brought under the control of the same chart which guides the orchestra, releasing it from the hunger for self-expression. The unified ensemble is then free to reveal the rhythmic structure which has been underlying the entire work: the five-bar phrase which comes at the end of each rhythmic cycle is expressed by total silence. In both Zen philosophy and contemporary theoretical physics, one peels away layers of appearance to discover that at the heart of "reality" lies emptiness. In the Concerto for Prepared Piano and Chamber Orchestra, Cage, in stripping away the sounds of the piece and reducing it to silence, shows us the heart of the music. Form is shown to indeed be emptiness.

As Cage's artistic journey continued, silence became a starting point, a governing principle, a trademark or leitmotif. In his final compositions, the extreme sparseness of the written music takes on a dramatic, almost shocking character. Threatening to leave "art" behind (not unlike the late quartets of Beethoven), the "number" pieces are very nearly no longer music as we know it. In this world a single sound is a major event, and the luminescent immobility of the sustained tones becomes a metaphor for the stillness of death.

As in the Concert, the thirteen instruments plus solo piano called for in Fourteen play independently from each other; but here each instrument produces only simple pitches, which due to Cage's use of flexible time brackets tend to be either very long or isolated, brief events. Dynamics are left to the players' discretion with the understanding that loud sounds will be short. Except for the piano solo, the parts are missing several time brackets, yielding long stretches of silence from individual players and unpredictable variations of texture.

The solo piano, whose strings are bowed with rosined nylon fishing line rather than struck with hammers activated from the keyboard, is "an unaccompanied solo, one which is heard in an anarchic society of sounds." The characteristics of the bowed piano which mark it as the solo instrument are the unpredictable morphology of its tones and unique, almost ethereal and mysterious nature of sound. Repeating his feat from fifty years earlier (when he created an entire literature for a profoundly re-configured and re-imagined piano), Cage in his late works returns again and again to the bowed piano, drawn to the way in which the sound seems to arise from nowhere, "brushed into existence". Using the bowed piano as a focus and a vehicle, and bracketing and mirroring the achievement of the Concerto for Prepared Piano, Cage creates in Fourteen a music which defines silence and is defined by silence.

-- Stephen Drury