To John Cage, music was simply the organization of sound. By recognizing valid musical material in what others discarded as noise, by transforming the sounds of instruments through physical or electronic means, and by leaving critical aspects of his compositions open to the judgment of performers (or the vagaries of chance), Cage freed his sounds from traditional requirements of composition and interpretation.
Cage composed his Song Books in a spurt of creativity from August to October 1970, and the work was promptly published in three volumes. Michael Tilson Thomas has described these as “basically a kind of kit from which you, the performer, can come up with songs, speeches, actions, performances on other instruments, which all add up together to create a musical event.”
As a general directive, Cage indicates: “Each solo belongs to one of four categories: 1) song; 2) song using electronics; 3) theatre; 4) theatre using electronics.” A footnote clarifies what he had in mind for electronics: “Wireless throat microphones permit the amplification and transformation of vocal sounds. Contact microphones amplify non-vocal sounds, e.g. activities on a table or typewriter, etc.”
Cage allows interpreters complete freedom in the choice of material they will perform on a given occasion. Nor does he consider the music contained in Song Books to be necessarily self-contained: “The solos may be sung with or without other indeterminate music.” In these performances, other music by Cage is interlaced or superimposed: his Concert for Piano and Orchestra (from 1958), Winter Music (1957), and Fontana Mix (1959, a tape work composed in Milan and named after Cage’s landlady there, Signora Fontana). The score may be taken to provide basic material (ideas, music, actions, suggestions) that the performers can offer in a straightforward manner or superimpose in an infinite number of ways. Cage offers this all-embracing guidance: “To prepare for a performance, the actor will make a numbered list of verbs (actions) and/or nouns (things) not to exceed 64 with which he or she is willing to be involved and which are theatrically feasible (those may include stage properties, clothes, etc.; actions may be ‘real’ or mimed, etc.).”
This evening we explore three worlds that John Cage creates in his Song Books: Cage’s own world, as represented in theater/action numbers; a world populated by eccentric and avant-garde French composer Erik Satie (1866–1925) and Dada icon Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968); and the world of Cage idol Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862).
Some numbers are mini-dramas. For example, No. 36. Cage’s directions: “Number given is number of things eaten or drunk.” Assume the “number given” is 3. The song text: “I can drink without eating, but I certainly can’t eat without drinking.”
No. 54 includes only this direction: “Leave the stage by going up (flying) or by going down through a trap door. Return in the same way wearing an animal’s head.”
No. 79 instructs the soloist to “breathe as though you had lost your voice”; the score consists of squiggles that rise and fall, along with indications of where the soloist is to inhale and exhale as she follows the pattern.
No. 88 directs the singer: “Leave the stage through the audience returning to the stage without leaving the theatre. Do this very slowly.”
No. 89 asks the singer to locate an audience member by dropping a transparency with two intersecting lines on a seating chart. The person seated where the lines intersect is to receive a gift—an apple or some cranberries. “If no one is seated there, simply place gift on empty seat.”
No. 25 applies electronics to a song of Erik Satie’s.
No. 91 pays homage to Marcel Duchamp. In his text, Cage uses large uppercase letters to spell Marcel and Duchamp. This, he emphasizes, has “no musical significance.” These are the first lines:
a utility aMong swAllows is theiR musiC.
thEy produce it midair to avoid coLliding.
aDvanced stUdy: suitCases.
Home’ll be Africa.
crèMe fraiche followed by three kinds of Potatoes.
No. 27 is homage to Thoreau: “Lusty growth of oaks and pines, Phoebe came to find its nest radiant as gems on weeds. Trees are losing their leaves. Sparkles in clear cool air. The cowslip in blossom. March, November fifty-three, how could patient pine have known? Birds’ nests, tracks of animals outside the wall, indication of water.”
No. 30 sets a fractured passage from Thoreau’s Journal. It opens like this: “Wasps are building summer squashes, saw a fish hawk, when I hear this both bushes and trees are thinly leaved, few ripe ones on sandy banks, rose right up high into the air, like trick of some pleasant demon to entertain me.”
No. 35 sets text from Thoreau’s essay “On Civil Disobedience”: “The best form of government is no government at all, and that will be what we will have when we are ready for it.”
—James M. Keller and Larry Rothe
Henry Cowell grew up free of the assumption that all worthwhile culture came from the other side
of the Atlantic. Nearby San Francisco was full of Asian music, and Cowell’s fantasy was drawn to sounds from across the Pacific. He explored the piano, absorbed whatever was in the air in San Francisco’s Chinese and Japanese neighborhoods, developed a love of Irish folk music, and came to include in his concept of “music” virtually all sounds natural and human.
This composer of about 1,000 pieces was more than just a composer. In Berlin he studied comparative musicology; during World War II he was the Office of War Information’s resident expert on Asian music. He edited the symposium American Composers on American Music, and with his wife, Sidney Robertson Cowell, he wrote Charles Ives and His Music, the first book on that great pioneer. He founded and edited the quarterly New Music. He found time to teach at schools across the country, and among those who learned from him were John Cage, Lou Harrison, George Gershwin, and Burt Bacharach.
Synchrony was intended for Martha Graham, whose striking presence had already been noted in the dance world, but the hoped-for collaboration did not materialize. Cowell begins with about a minute of music for trumpet alone. It is not so much music as flight and soaring translated into music. What the trumpet plays is source material for everything else. Its intervals and melodic shapes are redeployed in new rhythms, and the latent harmonic potential of the long melody is realized. From time to time we are reminded that Cowell had heard Debussy and Stravinsky, but the overwhelming impression is of a new voice. There is even some suggestion of the tone cluster—the simultaneous sounding of a bunch of adjacent or close-together notes on a keyboard—a device for which Cowell became famous. Here, half a minute after the trumpet solo, three piccolos play more or less the same tune, one beginning on D, the second on C, and the third on B; but with sustained tones taking the place of the piano’s percussive attack-and-diminuendo, the acoustic effect is quite different than clusters sounded on a keyboard. The clusters fan out into true harmony, so to speak. The orchestral texture is varied, the pace even more so. Solo instruments remind us of the trumpet’s solo flight, but Synchrony ends with a vigorous tutti, crescendo e accelerando to the last offbeat crash of timpani, cymbals, and gong.
In Absolute Jest, Adams explores how his affinity for Beethoven leads down surprising new creative paths. “I frequently have these powerful, archetypal experiences with Beethoven,” says Adams, “but with the piano sonatas and the quartets, which for me are the most vivid, rather than with the symphonies and the public music that gets heard all the time.” Comprising a large, widely spanning single movement, Absolute Jest incorporates more than a half-dozen Beethoven fragments, mostly from the late string quartets. These fragments, however, are not simply rearranged “quotations,” but provide the raw material for a score that could be by none other than John Adams.
The unifying factor here is the composer’s attraction to what he calls “the ecstatic energy of Beethoven, who was the master of taking the minimal amount of information and turning it into fantastic, expressive, and energized structures.” Adams, however, restricts himself in Absolute Jest to using brief, isolated, and originally unrelated fragments. These he uses as building blocks to construct a single movement of large proportions, recombining and transferring Beethovenian musical DNA to create something with distinctively new properties.
Several of the Beethoven fragments in Absolute Jest originate from scherzos from the composer’s late period: in particular, those of the Op. 131 and Op. 135 quartets. Indeed, Beethoven’s genius for unleashing unsuspected power from “minimal information” is especially pronounced in his scherzos. Here he uses elementary musical impulses as the seeds of immensely inventive movements. By the same token, Beethoven’s own label for these movements—scherzo, or joke—suggests the irony of such rough magic, by which the trivial is transformed into something cosmic and profound. Adams juxtaposes these scherzo fragments (including a winking reference to Beethoven’s “public” music in the scherzo of the Ninth) with a fragment from the opening fugal movement of Op. 131 as well as a brief bit of the imposing Grosse Fuge. Indeed, a newfound fascination with age-old countrapuntal techniques is a hallmark of Absolute Jest.
A striking feature of Absolute Jest’s scoring is the presence of a solo string quartet that weaves in and out of the orchestral fabric. In addition, Adams includes a sonority altogether foreign to Beethoven: the piquant “tintinnabulation” (as the composer terms it) of cowbells, harp, and piano tuned in non-Western mean temperament. Throughout, the composer notes, this trio of alternatively tuned instruments functions as a “consort in the medieval sense.”
In terms of its form, Adams suggests that Absolute Jest is “the closest thing I’ve written to variations—although in this case there is no single tune as in a classic set of variations like Bach’s ‘Goldberg’ Variations.” The first section percolates with fragments from the scherzos of the Ninth Symphony and the Op. 131 quartet. Unpredictable shifts in tempo and texture lead to a gloss on material from the Op. 135 scherzo, while Adams crafts an entirely new fugal passage from fragments of the opening of Op. 131, as well as from the quasi-atonal strain and pull of the Grosse Fuge.
Yet another fragment comes from middle-period Beethoven: the “Waldstein” Sonata, Op. 53. Absolute Jest’s highly dramatic coda “rides upon the harmonic changes” of the sonata’s opening measures, as a rousing, restless surge of energy reminiscent of Adams’s early Shaker Loops gathers power. No sooner does it gravitate to a powerfully anchored tonal goal of B-flat than the music dissolves for a final, enigmatic comment from the “detuned” percussion consort.
Varèse’s influence was not widely felt until long after his pieces were written. “An artist,” he observed, “is never ahead of his time, but most people are behind their own time.”
Varèse’s musical training reads like a resume for a properly schooled French musician at the turn of the 20th century. When he sailed for New York in December 1915, his catalogue included a couple of Strauss-sized symphonic poems and an incomplete opera. He had left most of his manuscripts in Berlin, where they disappeared in a fire. Apart from one early song, Varèse’s output comprises 13 works, all dating from his maturity. Amériques marks his rupture from mainstream European tradition and the beginning of his idiosyncratic modernism.
Amériques requires such gigantic forces that its airings still remain rare. But the 125 performers required in the revised version represent a considerable reduction from the original score’s 142 instrumentalists. In 1926, after 16 rehearsals, Leopold Stokowski introduced Amériques at a matinee performance by The Philadelphia Orchestra to one of the most conservative audiences on the East Coast. “It is indeed a powerful piece of music which can cause a Friday afternoon audience to indulge in hisses and catcalls,” reported one critic. A few days later, the forces reinstalled themselves at Carnegie Hall for a performance that left audience and critics divided.
Some listeners and commentators latched on to the sound of the siren and decided that Amériques depicted the bustling city of the new America. Indeed, the work’s original title was Amériques: Americas, New Worlds, but Varèse objected to any such interpretation, protesting that the name was to be understood as “symbolic of discoveries—new worlds on earth, in the sky, or in the minds of men.”
The piece is massively complicated. The instrumentation of the opening is as shocking as anything: In the midst of such a gigantic assemblage, a languorous theme is announced, mezzo-forte, by an alto flute. After a measure on its own, the alto flute is joined by two harps and little interjections from a bassoon—a texture that sounds like one of Debussy’s gentler moments. But Varèse soon shows his own colors when larger instrumental groups, sometimes operating as if unaware of each other’s existence, juxtapose their own material over the flute theme. Sonorities are often brash, and instruments play at the extremes of their registers and dynamics. Amériques proceeds with a generally sectional, almost arbitrary, flavor; it displays little of the traditional structure that listeners of 1926 would have expected. At the end, everything comes together into a single body of sound to yield one of the most exciting, Dionysian, and potentially deafening spans in the orchestral literature.
—James M. Keller