Recorded between 1986 and 1994 in New York City
Vol I, Vol II, Vol III, Works For Percussion
========= from the cover ==========
Cage described the sequence of his early work as follows: composition with fixed rhythmic patterns or tone-row fragments (1935-38),composition within rhythmic structures (the whole having as many parts as each unit has small parts, and these, large and small, in the same proportion) (1939-56), and intentionally expressive composition (1938-51). After 1951, charts, chance and indeterminacy - intentionally unexpressive composition - take over.
The range of this evolution is here starting with the Five Songs for Contralto, written in July 1938 in Seattle, Washington, where the composer had gone in 1936 to teach and work with dancers. Cage himself describes these settings of e.e. cummings as chromatic songs employing unorthodox uses of twelve-tone composing means - an outgrowth, therefore, of his earlier studies with Adolph Weiss and Arnold Schoenberg. This description is perhaps more austere and difficult-sounding than the music itself which is motivic in a perfectly recognizable way. Much the same can be said about the poetry which is superficially modern and "difficult" but actually catchy (and almost kitschy) in its subject matter: a kitten (major thirds, tritone, step-wise figures first heard in the piano, then in the voice); a Christmas tree (minor and major thirds; harmonies made out of fifths and major seconds); spring (one of cummings's most famous and often-set poems in a brilliant repeated-note setting that emphasizes rhythm); a Halloween piece (made out of little running scale patches); picking flowers (half- and whole-step melodic figures, harmonies in thirds and fifths). [The original texts as they appear in cummings's Collected Works appear below.]
Metamorphosis, written and performed (by Cage himself) in Seattle in 1938, might have been subtitled Farewell to Schoenberg; it belongs to Cage's category of intentionally expressive composition: a big, expressionist five-movement keyboard piece written in a fairly advanced twelve-tone technique. The work displays Cage's somewhat surprising compositional virtuosity and, if he actually played it himself, a considerable technique as a pianist. It is, in his own words, wholly composed of row fragments never subjected to variation. The transpositions of the fragments follow the intervals of the series. The first movement starts out in the style of a passacaglia with a five-note left-hand figure, repeated and varied on different levels and then made to serve as the accompaniment to a wide-leaping melody. There is a chordal middle and a return to the passacaglia theme, this time in the right hand accompanying the wide-leaping tune now in the left. Part II is based on a striking two-note repeated figure which occurs throughout. In section III, the passacaglia idea returns in a very distinctive form beginning with a repeated note and this figure dominates virtually every measure of the piece even against a return of the two-note idea from movement II. The fourth movement is dominated by eighth-note figures which turn out to be closely related to the two-note motif. Two-note figures continue to occur throughout most of the last movement set against a rhythmic idea, which occurs in virtually every bar of the piece. The idea of basing a large, multi-movement composition on the evolution or metamorphosis of some basic elements is ultra-Schoenbergian and Cage carries it through at every level. This is a major work in its genre and a kind of "graduation" piece from the direct influence of Schoenberg and serialism. His next composition was to take him in an entirely new direction.
The origins of Bacchanale have already been described. The originality of the piece is not merely in the little pieces of metal and weather stripping that are used to alter the sounds of some of the piano strings. There is an economy of means in the Bacchanale; only twelve notes are used covering a range of less than two octaves from F above middle C down to the A at the bottom of the bass clef. Ten of these notes are prepared with weather stripping; only the top note, F above middle C, uses a small bolt and the B flat two notes down (just below middle C) uses a screw with nuts in addition to the weather stripping. Bacchanale was performed by Syvilla Fort with Cage at the Cornish Theater in Seattle on April 28 and June 5, 1940.
Between 1943 and 1945, the use of the prepared piano and the composition within rhythmic structures matured in a series of pieces connected with Merce Cunningham's dances but independently conceived. These pieces, enigmatic, exquisite, inspired by Eastern art but typically Cageian, were and are among his freshest and most original works.
A Valentine out of Season, written in 1944, is dedicated to Cage's wife Xenia; the valentine is "out of season" because it was not written in February but also, perhaps, because they were in the process of separation and divorce. Cage described it as a suite of three pieces of varying character with the more dance-like movement in the middle. This music is extraordinary in its utter simplicity; it is easy to set the piano up and it is easy to play it. If it was written as a purely musical work - Cage himself gave the premiere at Carnegie Recital Hall in New York in 1948 - it soon became the music for Merce Cunningham's Games (Theatre de Vieux Colombier, Paris, 1949; Hunter College Playhouse, New York, 1950).
Cage's prepared keyboard "Meditation" of 1943, dedicated to Merce Cunningham, became a Cunningham dance work under the title Tossed as it is Untroubled in which form it had its premiere at the Studio Theatre, New York City, in 1944. Cage described it as a lively dance in periodic rhythm written in the rhythm structure 7 times 7. What is particularly unusual about the piece, however, is that, except for a single repeated chord which punctuates a middle section, the piece is otherwise entirely monophonic: that is, it consists of a single, virtually unadorned melody.
Root of an Unfocus, again dedicated to Cunningham, is based on the rhythmic structure created by the choreographer for his dance. Cage described the work as dramatic in character although this is certainly not the conventional idea of drama. The music is made up of a tiny handful of repeated elements, all played very loudly or very softly. Typically for Cage's work of the time, the music does not concern itself with forward motion in time; on the contrary, it begins in stasis and ends in absolute stasis.
Experiences I for two pianos and Experiences II for solo voice are dated 1945-48 but the keyboard section-first performed for the Merce Cunningham dance of the same name by Cage with Maro Ajemian at the Hunter College Playhouse in 1945 - must have been written on the earlier date. In 1949 the solo vocal version was performed at Hunter by mezzo-soprano Vivian Bower with the dance (but whether with Experiences I or replacing it is unclear). Both works use the same modal melodic line and both are based on the rhythmic structure of Cunningham's dance, I in a simple two-part counterpoint, II in a purely melodic form. The text of II is again a poem by e.e. cummings, one of the sonnets from the 1923 Tulips and Chimneys with the last two lines omitted [the full original text is given below].
In view of the fact that Cage later expressed reservations about jazz, it is surprising to discover that he had written a Jazz Study in the early 1940s. There is no record of its having been performed at the time; Joshua Pierce gave the world premiere in 1992 and this is its recorded debut. It represents a previously unknown side to Cage's work but it also has some characteristically Cageian elements, notably the way a limited number of elements are repeated over and over and tossed up and back in a block-like form based on absolute harmonic stasis. This is not jazz but rather a sketch for a jazz-inspired musical style of a kind that has only recently reappeared in contemporary music. The connections are fortuitous but in this, as in many other things, Cage was ahead of everybody.
Music Walk of 1958 comes from a very different period of Cage's life work - the intentionally unexpressive composition based on charts, chance and indeterminacy described above. Cage called Music Walk a composition indeterminate of its performance by which he meant that the method of its performance is specified by the composer but the actual results in sound are controlled by the actions of the performers and can vary almost without limit. The work is for one or more pianists who also play radios and produce auxiliary sounds by singing or other means (including recordings). The score consists of a transparent rectangle containing five parallel lines placed over sheets marked (or not marked) with points or dots. The lines refer to
(1) plucking or muting the piano strings or altering the radio sounds,
(2) playing on the keyboard, string glissandi inside the piano or radio music,
(3) making percussion noises inside the piano or radio static,
(4) percussion noises outside the piano or radio speech, and
(5) auxiliary sounds including voice.
What the relationship of dots to the lines might signify and the actual length of the piece is decided by agreement between the performers. There are also five small plastic squares with five lines each which are used to determine various characteristics of the sounds such as pitch, length of sound and loudness. Music Walk, written in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1958 is dedicated to the German composer and critic, Heinz-Klaus Metzger; it was premiered that same year by Cage with Cornelius Cardew and David Tudor in Dusseldorf, Germany; by Lamont Young in San Francisco in 1960, and by Cage and Tudor at the Living Theatre in New York later that same year. Cunningham's dance version with Cage and Tudor appeared in 1960 at the Venice Biennale and the Berlin Festival. Two different versions, one for three pianists and the other for five, have been prepared for this recording by Joshua Pierce. In the true Cageian spirit, these two versions can be said to be very similar (and recognizable as the same piece) and yet completely different.