John Cage: Innovator, Part 1
May 4, 2014 by Christine Gengaro, Ph.D.
John Cage (1912-1992) was an influential figure of twentieth century music, and his work is so varied and multi-faceted that it defies easy classification. He was born in Los Angeles and graduated as the valedictorian of Los Angeles High School. After two years of college at Pomona in Claremont, he began traveling and learning about music, art, and architecture. He worked with dance companies, wrote in a serial style, and eventually explored several new and exciting avenues of composition and musical philosophy in the course of his life and career. He was an innovator and developer of some of the twentieth century’s most interesting movements, and it’s going to take me at least two blogs to outline some of them. One of his most important contributions, I think, was the development of the prepared piano—an instrument I’ll define in a second, but which rates just a mention in large list of Cage’s accomplishments over a long and fruitful career.
In 1938, Cage was commissioned to write a piece to accompany a dance by Syvilla Fort. Around this time, Cage had been occupied with the writing of works for percussion ensemble and had even formed a percussion orchestra in Seattle, where he was working. But in collaborating with Fort, he discovered that the hall where her dance was meant to be staged could not accommodate a large number of instruments, and certainly could not host a percussion orchestra. A grand piano was the only instrument in the hall, so Cage—with the percussive timbres still in mind—set about transforming that single piano into something new. He placed pieces of weather stripping in between the strings, essentially “preparing” twelve notes. In the score, he recommends that the pianist experiment with exact placement of the objects. Cage’s experiment worked perfectly; when the piano was played, it sounded like a percussion ensemble. “With just one musician,” Cage said later, “you can really do an unlimited number of things on the inside of a piano if you have at your disposal an exploded keyboard.”
Before Cage composed “Bacchanale,” the piece for Fort’s dance, the inside of the piano was being explored by a few intrepid musical minds. In the 1920s, American composer Henry Cowell began to think of the piano as an instrument whose strings could be played directly, rather than being hit by the hammers inside the instrument (which are of course activated by the playing of the black and white keys on the keyboard). In his pieces Aeolian Harp (1923) and The Banshee (1925), Cowell directed the player to reach inside the piano to pluck and sweep the strings. The latter piece, which takes its name from the wailing fairy of Irish mythology, uses fixed pitches and sliding pitches, something that is impossible if once plays only the piano keys. The result is eerie and otherworldly, and simply spectacular. In 1925 as well, composer Heitor Villa-Lobos composed Choros No. 8, a work for two pianos and orchestra. That score requires the piano to have paper placed in between the strings and the hammers to achieve a particular timbre. And even before that, French composer Maurice Delage used a piece of cardboard under a single string in his piece Ragamalika (1912-22) to cause that pitch to sound like an Indian drum.
Cage’s development of the prepared piano set his music apart from these early experiments. He used the technique in more than two dozen works, expanding the number of strings prepared and in some cases meticulously cataloguing the placement and nature of the objects between the strings. Sometimes Cage combined the prepared piano with other new experimental musical resources. For a 1942 dance called In the Name of the Holocaust by long time collaborator and partner Merce Cunningham, Cage used screws and bolts in the strings and called upon the player to pluck the strings and also play tone clusters on the keyboard, using the entire length of the player’s forearm to depress the keys. In 1945, Cage composed Daughters of the Lonesome Isle, a work in nineteen sections with thirty-nine prepared notes.
Over the years 1946-1948, Cage composed a collection of twenty short pieces called Sonatas and Interludes. The cycle consists of sixteen sonatas and four interludes and requires forty-five prepared notes. The preparation is rather involved and is aided by a table of instructions penned by Cage. The composer dedicated the piece to pianist Maro Ajemian, who performed Sonatas and Interludes at Carnegie Hall in 1949. That year, Cage was honored by both the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Academy of Arts and Letters. The latter group noted that Cage had, with his compositions, “extended the boundaries of musical art.”
If this was Cage’s only contribution to the musical world, it would still be astonishing and wonderful, but Cage was just at the beginning of his musical journey. And indeed, Cage would be extremely influenced by his experiences outside of the musical sphere. In the late 1940s, Cage had undertaken the study of Zen Buddhism with Columbia University’s Daisetz T. Suzuki; he had also begun the study of Eastern philosophies with Gita Sarabhai. These intellectual and philosophical explorations would affect Cage’s compositional art in profound ways.
In 1950 he began working with the I Ching, the Chinese Book of Changes. In using the book as an oracle, one must engage in a process of divination to determine a pattern of broken and unbroken lines (which are interpreted by descriptions in the book). The divination usually involves some chance operation like throwing coins to determine the patterns of the lines. Cage, inspired by these chance operations, developed methods of composition based on chance procedures. In 1951, Cage embarked upon a massive four-volume composition for pianist David Tudor called Music of Changes in which he used these chance procedures. In this way, “Cage as the composer relinquished at least some control over what the final sounds of the piece would be. In Music of Changes…pitches, durations, and timbres were determined not by a conscious decision on the part of the composer but by the use of charts derived from the I Ching and the tossing of three coins.”
This type of composition, called chance music or aleatoric music, was another development that Cage explored with all of his considerable intellect. The word “aleatoric,” actually comes from the Latin word “alea,” which means “dice” (or alternatively, “chance” or “risk”). Cage didn’t come up with the idea of musical “indeterminacy” as it’s called. Games of chance that determine the sequence of musical events had been played in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. But the idea of chance procedures as a guiding principle for composition truly came to fruition in the twentieth century with American composers Charles Ives and Henry Cowell. Once again, Cage’s contribution included taking the idea to incredible lengths and depths. As with the prepared piano, Cage’s development far outstripped the original concept. At the midpoint of the century, Cage was at the midpoint of his life, and there were still more musical adventures to be had. We’ll continue with some of them next week.