John Cage: The Piano Works Volume 3

The Seasons
Cheap Imitation

The three very different solo piano works on this recording reveal three distinct ways John Cage dealt with the question of melody. Cheap Imitation is clearly a single melodic line; but so in its way is The Seasons, and ASLSP is in effect two simultaneous melodic lines, each played by a single hand. In both The Seasons and ASLSP the melodies consist not only of single notes, hut also of chords and, in The Seasons, the quick runs or flurries Cage called aggregates. Coming out of his experience with the prepared piano, where the striking of a single key on the keyboard can produce a number of clearly distinguishable pitches and timbres at once, Cage developed the technique of selecting a collection of notes, chords, and aggregates prior to the actual composing of a piece. This "gamut" of sounds gives pieces such as the String Quartet, the Concerto for Prepared Piano, and The Seasons each a special flavor, in spite of the fact that all of these pieces are in effect monophonic – melodies made up of combinations of single notes, chords, and aggregates. As James Pritchett points out, "collecting the sounds to be used was a crucial compositional action." (Pritchett, The Music of John Cage, Cambridge University Press)

The Seasons was created in response to a commission from The Ballet Society of New York (alongside choreography by Merce Cunningham and decor by Isamu Noguchi) during a period when Cage was beginning to explore a number of philosophical traditions, mostly Eastern. In traditional Indian philosophy, the annual rotation of the seasons is viewed as a metaphor for the larger cycle of dormancy (winter), birth or creation (spring), continuing life (summer), and death or destruction (fall). In Cage's music (which was eventually orchestrated), each season is preceded by a prelude, and the whole piece concludes with a repeat of the opening prelude to winter. The Seasons is also an example of Cage's idiosyncratic use of a self-reflecting rhythmic structure, in which the construction of the entire piece is mirrored in the phraseology of the individual movements. For example, the overall rhythmic structure of 2, 2, 1, 3, 2, 4, 1, 3, 1 is expressed by the relative lengths of the nine individual movements (counting the preludes). Winter, the second movement, has two large sections, each of which is made up of nine subdivisions varying in length according to the above rhythmic structure (two bars, two bars, one bar, three bars, and so on). Summer (apparently a very tropical, sultry summer), the sixth and longest of the movements, has four such sections. (The number of bars is changed in some of the movements to reflect shifting tempi and keep the absolute durations in the proper proportion.) The final prelude recapitulates the opening movement without the original repeats.

Cheap Imitation, like The Seasons, was written for the dance by Merce Cunningham, but with a more convoluted history. After many years of Cage's gentle urging, Cunningham created a dance to the music of Erik Satie's "symphonic drama" Socrate. Satie's cryptic comment best describes his own composition: "How white it is! no painting ornaments it; it is all of a piece." In three movements, Satie's music creates a portrait of the most famous of Western philosophers, using as text selected fragments of Plato, including (the final movement) the famous death scene.

The original plan to use Cage's transcription of Socrate for two pianos was thwarted when, at nearly the last minute, the French publisher of Socrate refused to grant permission for the performance. Since the invention of the prepared piano, Cage had responded to difficult compositional problems with true Yankee ingenuity, discovering creative and unorthodox solutions (perhaps this is why his teacher Arnold Schoenberg once referred to Cage as "not a composer, but an inventor – of genius". Taking the rhythm of Satie's vocal lines as a basis (and occasionally using the rhythm of the orchestral accompaniment as well), Cage created new melodic shapes which, through the use of chance operations, deconstructed, distorted, refracted and reassembled in an almost Cubist fashion Satie's music. (Cage had by this time been using chance operations for many years as a compositional tool to free his music from expressing the intention or will of the composer). The result was a single line in three movements, rhythmically identical to the original Socrate, which could then be used to accompany Cunningham's unaltered choreography. The wandering melodic line of Cheap Imitation, while remaining absolutely true to the spirit of the original Socrate (which Satie himself called "an act of piety, an artist's dream, a humble homage") locates itself firmly within Cage's aesthetic of non-intention. This newly discovered technique of imitation was to prove fruitful for the composer, employed in the Songbooks and modified for compositions such as Apartment House 1776 and the Chorals for solo violin.

ASLSP, written sixteen years after Cheap Imitation, was the result of a commission from the University of Maryland International Piano Competition. One can only shake one's head in wonder and merriment at the thought of the semi-finalists, drilled to the point of obsessiveness in the standard way of reproducing all the "old classics" at lightning speed and top volume, trying one after the other to make sense of Cage's pointillistic, chance-generated melodies (one for each hand, unrelated but played simultaneously) and his oblique reference: "The title is an abbreviation of 'as slow as possible.' It also refers to 'Soft morning, city! Lsp!' the first exclamations in the last paragraph of Finnegans Wake (James Joyce)." (from the score) The concession granted by Cage to the nature of the competition was to allow each performer to create his or her own version of the piece by leaving out any one of the eight movements and inserting at some point a repeat performance of any of the other movements. Cage included this "open form" aspect in the piece partly out of an expressed concern for the judges, who would be confronted with fifty or sixty performances of the music in the course of the competition. For this recording, I have included all eight movements in their original order, leaving it to the listener to program his or her own CD player "at will" and create new versions of the piece.

One of Cage's most striking keyboard effects, used throughout The Seasons (especially in Fall) and again in a radically different context in ASLSP, is a staccato chord out of which a single pitch is sustained. This technique also has its roots in the sound of the prepared piano, where (like certain percussion instruments) certain sounds will begin with a brief rattle, buzz, or metallic pop which is then followed by a long, sustained tone. In ASLSP the chance operations used by Cage's compositional method frequently yield tones which are held for so long that they die away to the level of complete inaudibility. These open strings, sustained by the fingers of the pianist and free to resonate sympathetically with newly sounded pitches, often produce a gentle cloud of harmonics and overtones which give a faint halo to the music. In its tendency towards extreme slowness, sparse texture, and great delicacy, ASLSP looks forward to the visionary and lonely works of Cage's last period.

-- Stephen Drury