John Cage

Imaginary Landscape No. 1 (1939)

The piece starts with a pure electronic sound sliding up and down between two notes an octave and a minor third apart.  A muted, percussive sounding piano plays some mysterious sounding glissandos low down in the bass notes, together with a cymbal.  Later on the piano plays a repeated phrase walking up and down the three notes in a minor third.  The electronic sounds reminded me somewhat of hearing tests, entering and leaving at seemingly random intervals and pitches, and at times were quite uncomfortable to listen to in their full intensity.  The combination of effects creates quite an eerie atmosphere.

Number Pieces: Four3

This is one of a set of pieces written between 1987 and 1992 (the year Cage died).  The name of each piece relates to the number of performers: this is the third piece he wrote for four players.

This particular piece opens with single, slow notes on the piano, and an accompanying effect which sounds like running water.  It is aleatoric music, based on a system called time brackets which are short fragments of music together with indications in the score of how long they are to be played for (sometimes fixed and sometimes at the performer’s discretion).  This technique has attracted quite a bit of research, and I found a published paper which actually does a statistical analysis on the score!

The version I listened to is a very slowly progressing piece; different effects entering and leaving after long intervals, over a period of almost half an hour.  The melody in the piano is atonal and has a desperate, lonely quality to it.

Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano

‘Prepared piano’ refers to a piano which has had objects placed on or between its strings, often creating percussive effects.  Invention of this technique is generally credited to John Cage, but other composers have since also used it.  As a pianist I’m afraid I do cringe at the idea of interfering with the piano’s beautiful sound (and possibly causing damage in the process!).  However I found the resulting effects quite interesting to listen to, and not jarring or unpleasant like some of the electronic sounds in Cage’s other works.

This set of pieces was written between 1946 and 1948, considerably earlier than the Number Pieces.  The sonatas in the set are in the form of early Classical sonatas (binary or ternary form).  To create the structure Cage uses another technique called nested proportions, in which the music is based on a series of numbers both to create each section (the ‘microscopic’), and the structure as a whole (the ‘macroscopic’).

Sonata no. 5 is based on a repeating, rhythmical phrase which sounds like some form of African drumming.  After listening to the previous very non rhythmical pieces, this was quite refreshing.  Others, such as sonata no. 8 are less rhythmical and more atmospheric.  The effects of the prepared piano create pitches which are not tuned as normal for Western music, reminiscent of Eastern cultures.

Music of Changes (1951)

This chance piece was composed using the Chinese I Ching method to determine almost all aspects of the music from large charts.  It was written for piano, and appears to be a series of random notes, silences, dissonant chords and percussive effects, at random dynamics.  It genuinely sounds like a cat walking up and down the piano to me.  There is nothing at all to hook you in as there is no thread or continuity to the music – just stark, random sounds.

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