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Music of John Cage

John Cage: Music for Marcel Duchamp (1947)
John Cage: Selection from Five Songs (1938)
John Cage: The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs (1942)
John Cage: For Paul Taylor and Anita Dencks (1957)
John Cage: 4'33" (1952)
John Cage: Theater Piece (1960)
John Cage: One5 (1990)

ellsworth snyder, piano
Patricia Thimmig, contralto
Brian Schultz, piano


Had he lived three and a half weeks longer, John Cage would have reached his 80th birthday last Sunday. Had he been at the First Unitarian Society Meeting House that evening, he could have enjoyed an evocative and delightfully varied program memorializing his extraordinarily fertile and productive life as a key figure in the musical avant garde of this century.

Organized by ellsworth snyder, who for many years was Cage's friend, the concert was remarkably serious even in its lighter moments. snyder, a long-time Madison resident, is well known here and elsewhere as a pianist, a teacher, and a dedicated champion of modern music and art. He is also a witty and most engaging person, generously providing informative spoken introductions to each of the evening's seven works and answering questions from the audience after the concert. Together with the musical works and the theater piece presented, snyder's comments accentuated the complete integrity of Cage's artistic concepts, chiefest of which was perhaps that the entire universe enters into a piece of music at the time of its performance. In addition, for music that includes chance as a major element, the scores, which provide instructions for a performance, are invariably complex and quite precise.

Probably the best-known aspect of Cage's work is that he invented the "prepared piano." Introducing Music for Marcel Duchamp (1947), written for a prepared instrument, snyder explained that very detailed instructions are given for inserting felts, rubber dampers, metal screws and other paraphernalia at precise places inside the instrument. The result is a huge expansion of the acoustic potentials of the inherently percussive sound of the piano. Cage was always intensely interested in Zen, and much of his music has a soft, meditative or a repetitive, trance-like quality. This piece is especially haunting, as though somewhere over the next hill there were a temple in which the performance is occurring.

Two contrasting sets of pieces for voice and piano gave further evidence of Cage's boundless search for unique expressivity. Performing three of the Five Songs (1938), contralto Patricia Thimmig and pianist Brian Schultz showed a rather parlando singing style in puckish texts by e. e. cummings, accompanied by ambiguous atonality, about as close as Cage came to traditional styles. But in The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs (1942), the text is cryptic as befits its source, Joyce's Finnegan's Wake, while the pianist plays on the closed lid and other parts of the instrument, rather than on the keys. The overall effect is quite jazz-like.

Following a short but highly effective piano work, For Paul Taylor and Anita Dencks (1957), in which snyder played mostly inside in the instrument by plucking or stroking the strings, bouncing rubber balls on them, and using a beater on them, we arrived at the central work on the program, probably the most celebrated and controversial of Cage's works, 4'33" (1952).

As snyder explained before performing the work, it has been broadly misunderstood; audiences have laughed and indulged in all sorts of ego-demonstrating outbursts during the specified time the piece lasts, four minutes and 33 seconds. This goes against the most basic notion of the work, which is that silence is sound, but non-notated sound. The player is to concentrate on not making any intentional sounds, thus allowing the universe around the performance temporal and acoustic space in which to exist. This confirms the most central of all of Cage's artistic credos, that music is sound passing through circumstance. Amazingly, here it is, forty years (plus a couple weeks) since the work's first performance, and this was my first hearing of it. As snyder eyed the stopwatch to give each of the three movements its allotted time (signalled by opening and closing the keyboard lid), the universe did indeed enter the room through the open windows of the Meeting House: crickets, footfalls outside, the conversation of passersby, the noises of traffic on University Avenue and University Bay Drive, and so forth. Since the idea is Zen-like quiet, I thought it was fortunate no trains passed on the nearby tracks and that no ambulances (or the Med Flight helicopter!) arrived at the hospital across the street! It was surprising how intense it becomes when you consciously make the effort to be really quiet.

The Theater Piece (1960) was something of a completely different order. The actors (six of snyder's students) each create their parts by choosing a list of 20 nouns and 20 verbs, using materials, time brackets, and rulers provided by the score, and acting accordingly. The results are hard to describe, of course, since all manner of madcap was going on in this very kinetic performance, a lot of it quite hilarious.

To close the program, snyder performed the 20-minute, 40-second work One5 (1990), written expressly for him. Cage attended the premier performance here in 1991, and later sent snyder a letter, which snyder shared after the performance, detailing a completely different idea about how to realize the work. The score specifies 21 events for the left hand and 24 events for the right hand plus a series of time brackets for each event, selected by a computerized casting of the I Ching oracle. The result is an amazing series of sounds punctuating sometimes very long silences or decays, providing much space for meditative endeavors. This is very much to the point, as Cage's letter explains. He suggests that "everything should in fact be completely inaudible ... such that you would have to try very hard and still fail to catch the music."

I think the whole event was an enormous success, and I think the attentive audience enthusiastically agreed. It was no less than a new high-water mark on the scale of musical triumphs in the town. Bravo snyder, bravo Cage!

Isthmus, January, 1992
Copyright 1992 Jess Anderson

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