Recorded 1976 through 1989
Joshua Pierce - piano, toy piano
Maro Ajemian - piano
Marilyn Crispell & Joe Kubera - toy pianos
Vol I, Vol II, Vol IV, Works For Percussion
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It may come as a surprise but one of the leading creators of Keyboard music in the twentieth century is a composer by the name of John Cage. Cage's reputation is so deeply associated with the avantgarde, with chance music, graphic notation, performance art, technology and Zen Buddhism that his early, conventionally-notated music for percussion ensemble and keyboards is sometimes neglected. Or was until recently. In the last few years - with the advent of performances and recordings like this one-there has been a renewed appreciation of Cage's achievements in the earlier part of his creative life.
Of course, Cage's keyboard music is not just keyboard music. Cage's once infamous 'prepared piano' - born out of need as well as desire - is a keyboard instrument unto itself, as different from the romantic piano as that instrument is from the baroque harpsichord. But even in his 'unprepared' piano music, Cage shows his individuality and distance from European tradition.
Cage, who was born in Los Angeles in 1912, began his career on the West Coast in the Thirties as an organizer of and composer for percussion ensemble - still a new and radical idea in Western music. His interest in Eastern art and philosophy as well as his long and fruitful collaboration with the dancer-choreographer, Merce Cunningham, also date from this period.
From 1937 to 1939, Cage was employed as a dance accompanist at the Cornish School in Seattle, Washington. Dance accompanists traditionally accompany dancers on the piano usually dismal upright, out-of-tune, well-beaten instruments. For Cage this was a real challenge and, partly under the influence of his innovative teacher, Henry Cowell, but also out of a real fascination with the sounds of the broken-down instruments at his disposal, he began to tinker. The idea of stuffing material, metal, rubber, wood and such into or between the strings of a standard piano led to the creation of the 'prepared piano' as a one-man percussion ensemble.
Cage and Cunningham moved to New York in the early 1940s and embarked on a remarkable series of one-on-one collaborations. Cage's scores for these works were mostly for piano, altered or unaltered. This was obviously a practical choice but it was also an artistic decision. Although Cage was hardly a virtuoso pianist, he developed a unique art of writing for and playing the instrument. Cage was not the first modern composer to react against the romantics and treat the piano as a percussion instrument but he certainly explored the idea to its full potential. Cage put rhythm, accent and percussive attack - 'noise' as opposed to melody and harmony - at the center of his musical universe. Of all the elements of music, rhythm and percussion are the least rational, the least European, the most ancient and, in a way, the most elusive. Not that 'noise' need always be noisy. Cage's percussion and related keyboard music is, in many ways, the most oriental, the most Zen of all his work and often the most elegant. Cage sometimes called these pieces Landscapes, and his keyboard works in particular show the influence of Eastern ideas about landscape art. These are, in effect, black-and-white works made with sparse brush strokes; the external world is only suggested not mirrored or described (as it would be in, say, a Dutch landscape or a Strauss tone poem). These landscapes, visual or musical, can be easily grasped but not really explained in the traditional analytic European manner. The prepared piano - the 'ill-tempered clavichord' as one classical wag dubbed it - suggests the sound of a Balinese or Javanese gamalan, the highly developed percussion orchestra of southeast Asia. Just as every gamalan is different, so each Cage piece has its own set of preparations, indicated in the score with great and precise detail. Preparing a piano opens up the sound world of the Western instrument in many ways but also restricts it in others. Cage's piano music is the work of a Western artist and philosopher meditating on Eastern ideas about art and the world. As an alternative to the piano, prepared or unprepared, Cage also composed a few works for toy piano! What may have started out as a typical Cagean gesture of defiance towards conventional music making ends up as a characteristically Cagean artistic challenge: that of finding a musical universe in a handful of tinny notes.
In the end, Cage's ideas about keyboards and percussion, about the suppression of will and the landscape of chance, came to be altered and extended in very different directions by the processes of electronic amplification which, anticipated in the Thirties, came to play a major role in his work in the 1960s and after.
The Suite for Toy Piano was written for a Merce Cunningham dance entitled Diversion or A Diversion and first performed in August, 1948, at the legendary Black Mountain College, North Carolina - arguably the country's leading center for avantgarde art at the time and a major influence on new work everywhere after World War II. The five movements or sections are based on a rhythmic structure which uses divisions of 30 -usually 7+7+6+6+4. The limited resources of a toy piano are the actual "subject" of the work and, in fact, Cage starts out by restricting the range even further: to five diatonic or white notes around middle C-G to D. Afterwards, in successive movements, he opens up a little more - to E below and F above, reverting back to the original handful of notes at the end. Cage himself played the work at Black Mountain in 1948 and at the concert premiere at the Living Theater in New York in 1 960. The score specifies that the work may be played on either toy or grown-up piano and it is here performed both ways by Joshua Pierce as the opening and closing music of the recording.
In 1947, Lincoln Kirstein and the Ballet Society commissioned Cage and Cunningham to create a ballet on the subject of the four seasons for a dance season at, of all places, the old Ziegfeld Theater in New York. The Seasons is, in fact, a very traditional theme for dance and, curiously enough, Cage's score seems to catch some resonance of traditional ballet
music; it has a sweetness and a lyricism that is quite European and very unusual in Cage's work. Nevertheless, the subject is treated in a manner that is essentially inspired by Eastern ideas, especially the Indian interpretation of winter, spring, summer and fall as, respectively, quiescence, creation, preservation and destruction. Each seasonal section is preceded by a prelude and the opening Prelude to Winter recurs at the end, suggesting the eternal rhythm of the cycle. As always in his works of this period, Cage uses a firm underlying rhythmic structure, this one based on 2+2+1+3 + 2+4+1+3+1. The composer describes the work as made up of sounds in a gamut of single tones, intervals and aggregates - the last word referring to what most of us would call chords. In spite of all this rather daunting terminology, the mood of the piece is actually quite lyrical and pastoral. This is, by the way, Cage's own piano version which is, in its way, quite as authentic as the orchestral original.
In one way, preparation 'amplifies' the sound of the concert piano and perhaps it was not such a big step from the prepared piano to the electronically amplified piano, grand or toy. Another kind of 'amplification' involved the use of actual percussion instruments by the players. And, by 1 960, Cage had also added the element of indeterminacy to performances of certain works by instructing the performer to make varying realizations of his scores. In Music for Amplified Toy Pianos, all of the above innovations are used. The score consists of eight transparent sheets marked with points, circles and dots within circles which indicate, respectively, toy-piano sounds, amplification and noise-makers. The performer is instructed to prepare a score - for any number of toy pianos and auxiliary percussion - by superimposing the transparent sheets in any manner! The pianos are additionally fitted out with contact microphones and, in a live performance, the loud speakers are to be placed all around the audience. The first performances of this work were realized by the pianist David Tudor - long associated with Cage - at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, at the Living Theater in New York and in Cologne, Germany, all in 1 960. The present version was realized by Joshua Pierce for three toy pianos. The earliest work on this recording and possibly Cage's magnum keyboard opus is A Book of Music written in 1944 for the duo-piano team of Robert Fizdale and Arthur Gold. This is a work that was conceived from the start as a virtuoso, prepared-piano concert piece. It is a large scale conception in two main parts each subdivided into several smaller sections. Part 1, in four short movements, is dominated by a tempo of d=66 and a rhythmic structure expressed as 2+7+2+3 and 2+7+2+3+3. Part II, much longer and more complex, has three major sections for the two keyboards in a tempo of d=176 and a rhythmic structure of 5+21+5+7 and 5+21+5+7+7. The second and third or these sections are interrupted by a series of five shorter movements for alternating solo keyboards in the slower tempo of d=l 32. The effect is that of a very colorful, fantastic music that alternates with highly energetic, rhythmic and virtuosic sections intended to show off the brilliance of the players as well as the range, color and dynamic of the medium.
One does not think of Cage in connection with this kind of music-making but this is not the only exceptional feature of the work. Cage's own description is, for him, unusual: The expression concerns feelings, both personal and musical. There is nothing indeterminate here. The musical notation is precise as are the instructions for preparing the pianos with rubber, weather stripping, wood, metal screws and bolts, copper pennies and bamboo (slit or wedged in).
A Book of Music was written in New York in the late spring and summer of 1944 and received its premiere by Gold and Fizdale at the New School for Social Research on January 21,1945.