Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Listening - or not - to Cage


After hearing quite a decent piece of music by John Cage yesterday when we were driving to the supermarket, something that had lots of fun arpeggios on the piano and people clapping rhythmically at other times, I thought I'd give Cage another go and listen to today's episode in the series the Concert programme is running. 

So far I'm remaining almost complete underwhelmed. It was interesting to hear in the introductory talk about this series that Schoenberg thought Cage had little sense of harmonic structure.  Certainly in the piece playing now (Concerto for prepared piano & chamber orchestrahe just seems to add note after note without any obvious musical connection: though of course he was into music constructed by maths/graphs and whatever, so perhaps that explains why it sounds like it does...

And you can hear the music of his followers echoed in every bar: the long held notes crescendoing and descrecendoing but going nowhere in particular; the burps and sudden interruptions from the brass, always in dissonance; the percussion sounding as though they've lost one of their mallets and are banging their way around amongst the instruments trying to find it; the sudden squeaks from the high instruments as though someone had pinched their bottoms; the modified ('prepared') piano making various interesting but unconnected noises. (I bet some pianos aren't prepared for the indignities that are 'performed' upon them!) The only thing missing are plucked notes from an Ovation guitar - perhaps it hadn't been invented when Cage was writing. 

The current piece has been going on in this vein for several minutes.  It must be very unsatisfying to play.   I can't quite figure out where the concerto element comes into it: the piano doesn't seem to be doing anything more or less than the other instruments.  They're all being as random as each other.  According to the link above, the piano and orchestra never play together in parts one and two of the three parts, and the thing as a whole was originally worked out from a 14 x 16 chart.  You need to read the explanation - and hopefully you can make more sense of the phrase towards the end: 'thus the prepared piano is released from its hunger for self-expression.'   Apparently self-expression was banned from Cage's later works. 

The Concert programme is just about to start playing Hector Berlioz' Requiem.  This is a wonderful piece of music, and I've seen/heard it performed live twice, once in the Dunedin Town Hall way back in the sixties, and once in St Paul's Cathedral in London - only a few years later.  The walls of St Paul's were reverberating with the vibrations coming from the multiple timpani.  

I wonder what Berlioz would think of Cage's mechanically-made music? 


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