Having written an essay on Cage discography, included a list of recommended recordings in my book on Cage and reviewed a number of Cage CDs for the American Record Guide, I thought it might be useful to include on my blog a number of posts on some indispensable Cage recordings. My choices would not only identify what I think are his finest works, but also comment on which performances are better than others.
For those who haven’t read my Cage reviews, you might wonder how one could speak about superior (or inferior) Cage performances. What could possibly make for a bad performance of 4′33″, for instance? Visual shenanigans aside—as in this ridiculous video by the Music Group of EBU Radio—how could I possibly fault the sounds of any performance or recording?
4′33″—a piece whose sounds consist entirely of whatever sounds occur in or near the space where a performance occurs—is an extreme case, of course, but even when I get to that piece I think you’ll agree that not all performances are uniformly good. To introduce this series of posts, I thought I’d begin by discussing the aspects I consider when I review recordings of his music. Since Cage’s music was so diverse, some of the considerations below will not apply to every single piece, but many of them will. As I went about writing this list, I came to see that Cage’s music is, in many ways, not much different from the music of other composers.
- Fidelity to the text. Obviously this applies more to the works that are strictly notated, like the Sonatas and Interludes or the Freeman Etudes. In these works, while one make certain choices about tempo or phrasing, about shading of dynamics, the score carries the expectation that the music will unfold in the given order with the given pitches (sometimes sounding differently than they look because of preparations) and more or less at the speed that the notation suggests. The notation of the Sonatas is very conventional and fairly easy to understand; the notation in the Etudes, by contrast, is proportional (events at the left-hand side of the staff occur before the ones further right, and the closer the events are to each other, the faster they will occur). In the works with conventional notation, I’d expect the player to do more than simply play the notes with metronomically correct rhythms; I’d want the rhythms inflected, the phrases shaped, as with most music. In the proportional notation ones, I’ve found that quite literal performances can be quite effective but are by no means necessary or even preferable.
- Where the notation allows for a greater degree of choice, the performer should make novel choices. A colleague who shall remain nameless once introduced a burp in his or her performance of one of the solos from the Concert for Piano and Orchestra. That choice was deliberate. I observed that, in reading Cage, it seemed one of his interests concerned introducing sounds that had never been heard before; a burp seemed, somehow, too obvious. There might have been a time when a burp was a novel sound (or, to employ Cage’s term, a useful sound) and hence served an important purpose, for instance to remind us that any sound we make is music and that no one sound is better (or worse) than another. But just as Cage lamented, in performances of Winter Music, that everything became a melody—sounds formerly giving the impression of self-sufficiency seemed more connected to other sounds as the performer and audience heard the piece again and again—certain sounds become clichéd through overuse. Bodily sounds fall into this category, at least for me.
- Glenn Gould famously observed that the only reason to record a work is to record it differently. I’ve always thought that practice is more likely to lead to a worthwhile result, if for no other reason that it reveals the limits of what a composition can sustain interpretatively. Many Cage pieces invite radically different approaches. Even so, a radically different approach that violates the instructions of the score can often end up merely sounding stupid—this is particularly the case when performers know very little of Cage’s music or haven’t bothered to acquaint themselves fully with his ideas.
- This one has more to do with performances than recordings, but I think it’s appropriate to mention it here. Does the performance allow you to pay attention to other sounds in your environment as you listen? Another way of saying the same thing: do the ambient sounds around you seem, after a while, to contribute to what you’re hearing on the recording, even seem as important? If so, this is a performance of Cage that is in keeping with his post-1950 aesthetics. Naturally this applies only to the music composed after around 1952; the music of the ’30s and ’40s were not intended to point out the importance of all sounds within earshot, but rather to be enjoyed as most music was: by giving it our attention. At the same time, the principle applies in different ways to different pieces: think, say, of Sixteen Dances, one of the Number Pieces, and Europera 3.
- Cage’s music often suggests devotion more than emotion. But that doesn’t mean that the music must be played coldly or without expression. I’ll go farther: that doesn’t mean it should be played that way. The trick is to find an emotional approach that isn’t too overtly manipulative; that’s probably why so many people default to a senza espressione approach; it works, but it’s not very imaginative, especially in 2014.
- The music seems to demand an approach in which one does not become too wedded to habits. This is easier to gauge, perhaps, in a performance than a recording. Take a piece like Cheap Imitation, the content of which derives from Satie’s Socrate—when I played this piece a couple of years ago, I tried to shape the phrases in as many different ways as I could imagine; I think all of his music benefits from a variety of approaches applied, insofar as possible, without too much advance planning (and without falling back on habits).
- The performance should not be an excuse for the exploration of a concept or a gimmick, but at all times should aim for a simple, straightforward connection between musicians and an audience. (This observation applies, in particular, to performances of 4′33″ and several of the extreme indeterminate works of the 1960s.)
- If the work has been recorded before, do I want to hear the older recording instead of the one I’m currently listening to? And a corollary: am I too attached to an older favorite recording and not giving the newer one the attention it needs?
- Once I’ve heard the recording for the first time, I should want to listen to it again—sometimes as soon as it’s over. Once heard again, the recording should continue to surprise, move, give pleasure, etc.