John Cage’s Organ Music (Mode 253–54, 2013)

I sometimes find myself wondering why John Cage produced, comparatively speaking, so little organ music. He fondly recalled that David Tudor, having learned all of the organ repertoire by the time he was in his teens, decided to turn all his attention to the piano. Knowing how much Cage esteemed Tudor, I might suppose that he took Tudor’s rejection of the organ as evidence that the instrument couldn’t offer anything truly modern—that it wasn’t, as Cage was fond of saying, useful. Perhaps, too, Cage felt that churches, the usual venues for organ recitals, suggest a certain sense of mystery and ritual that make performances of organ music dangerously beautiful by remaining too separate from everyday life. Or perhaps Cage, ever mindful to ensure a performance for any music he made, simply lacked for organists willing and able to champion his music and commission new works. The four organ pieces he made—Some of “The Harmony of Maine” (Supply Belcher) (1978), Souvenir (1983), ASLSP (1985), and Organ2/ASLSP (1987)—all date from a time when he fulfilled many commissions for musicians and organizations that often lacked the familiarity with his music Cage could expect from Tudor and other close friends and colleagues. Of these, the 1978 and 1987 works were made for the German organist Gerd Zacher, an important and very sympathetic champion of new music.

It’s a pity, though, that Cage hadn’t been asked for new organ works sooner. The King of Instruments seems to me an instrument ideally suited to Cage’s aesthetic. With all its various stops (found in countless dispositions on as many organs), one can think of it as the ultimate prepared instrument. Also, the very fact that sound emanates from a number of pipes all placed at discrete locations in space nicely accords with Cage’s idea that the separation of sounds in space proved desirable for new music. It surely represented a vast multiplicity of possibilities that could be released into sound through the use of chance operations. For this reason, I believe that Cage’s organ music occupies a small but quite important place within his output.

Some of “The Harmony of Maine” forms part of a family of pieces that Cage made beginning with Apartment House 1776 (1976). In the earlier work, one element consisted of a series of pieces Cage dubbed “harmonies”; he selected eighteenth-century hymns by William Billings, Andrew Law, and Supply Belcher and altered them by extending certain tones and removing others through chance operations so as to attenuate the functional harmony underlying them. The process fixes a listener’s attention on the individual pitches so that they become self-sufficient, each—as in Buddhist thought—the most honored of all, and likewise the heightened presence of silence in the music reaffirms the important role of ambience in Cage’s work: not so much a lack of sound that articulates or makes more dramatic the sounds around it, but rather (again, borrowing from Buddhism) a nosound that forms, alongside sound, an eternal unity: perceiving the Śūnyatā (emptiness) in the world facilitates the awareness of the world’s Tathatā (suchness). Here and there, melodic fragments from the original hymns remain; these further underscore the fact that, in Cage, the sounding music continues to present the unpredictable, no matter how it is made.

Each of the thirteen separate pieces in Cage’s organ work draws exclusively from the 1794 collection The Harmony of Maine by the American composer Supply Belcher (1751–1836). The titles in the original, which Cage retains, include in most instances an abbreviation that refers to the metrical structure of the words (useful when one wants to use the musical setting of one hymn for the text of another): thus, C.M. (common meter) refers to a quatrain with a syllable count of 8–6–8–6; L.M. (long meter), to one of 8–8–8–8; S.M. (short meter), to one of 6–6–8–6; and the especially Cagean P.M. (peculiar meter), to one that is irregular. An awareness of meter (interpreted as phrase length) is helpful in this work since Cage tended to respect the phrase boundaries of his source material in his compositional process and probably does so in the organ work as well.

In order to capitalize on the organ’s innate ability to create an extraordinary variety of timbres, Cage also employed chance operations in Some of “The Harmony of Maine” to make a complex series of registration changes, which must be effected by no fewer than six registrants. (However, Gary Verkade recalls that he performed as one of only three registrants in the first German performance, noting that the number of registrants depends on such factors as the size of instrument and the amount of space found in the organ loft.) Stops are referred to only by number, allowing the work to be performed on a great number of instruments. This aspect is very much in keeping with Cage’s approach to composition: to learn all the possibilities of an instrument (or device, in the case of, say, the film One11) and then use chance to select new and previously unimagined combinations of those possibilities.

Cage made Souvenir (1983) in response to a commission by the American Guild of Organists. After receiving half of the commission fee, he learned that the organist who would premiere the work wanted him to make a piece that was similar to the 1948 piano composition Dream. Never one to repeat himself literally, he returned the commission fee, but it was remailed to him with assurances that he could make whatever kind of piece he wished. Thus liberated, he decided to comply with the original request, which he later claimed (in an interview with the English composer and pianist Peter Dickinson) resulted in “a rather poor piece.” Cage was too hard on himself; although Souvenir does indeed resemble many of his earlier works, other factors—among them the threefold repetition of the entire piece and the unexpected intrusion of harsh tone clusters—make the piece sound new, rather as if Cage treats the material of his earlier work as he might a found object, calling attention to its anachronisms in order to reveal an unexpected freshness in the material.

An aside: Some viewers of the DVD following the recording with score in hand might notice that Professor Verkade plays one pedal passage on the manuals instead. As he explains, “The short, and only, reason is range: the pedals in many parts of Europe only go up to high f, most American organs include the f-sharp and g above that f and Cage uses that more-American (also French) range. In order to render the passage as a whole (not just looking for a solution to that single high g), I made the decision to register the main manual as I might have registered the pedals and to play the entire passage on that sound.”

The title of ASLSP (1985)—originally written as the twentieth-century test piece for the University of Maryland’s William Kapell International Piano Competition in that year—refers to a passage from the last paragraph in James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (“Soft morning, city! Lsp!”) and also the tempo designation for the work, “as slow as possible.” It contains eight pieces that must be performed in the order given, with the caveat that one of these must be omitted and that another must be repeated at any point in the series of seven remaining ones (possibly even before its numbered appearance in the series). The notation follows that of Cage’s masterpiece for solo piano, Etudes Australes (1974–75); as in that work, Cage treats right and left hands as separate from each other and disallows one from assisting the other to simplify the separate musical parts that he creates for them. In the one new refinement to Cage’s notation, the precise length of a sound is indicated by extending a straight line from the notehead; the performer reads his score as a succession of proportionate time points (“just as maps give proportional distances,” Cage observes). Since the organ can sustain a tone as long as an organist’s finger remains on the key, Cage’s refinement concerning note length has an important effect on the way the piece sounds when played on this instrument. The sounds for each hand—single tones and chords containing as many as five notes in total—range widely in character: highly dissonant sonorities co-exist with very traditionally consonant ones, demonstrating, once again, Cage’s wish to include and honor every kind of sound in his music.

Cage returned to the compositional method of ASLSP to make his final organ work, Organ2/ASLSP (1987). This piece is not simply a variation or arrangement of the old one, but rather a completely new work that retains many elements from ASLSP. As before, the work comprises eight movements, but now all eight must be played and the performer has the option to repeat one of them anywhere within the series of eight. On the whole, sustained sounds appear more frequently (and last longer), and Cage treats right and left feet as separate performers in the same way he treats the right and left hands. As in ASLSP, dynamics and registrations are not indicated, which allows for any number of possibilities (particularly if an organist wishes to avail himself of many registrants as in Some of “The Harmony of Maine”).

Naturally, duration isn’t indicated, either; indeed, Organ2/ASLSP has become one of Cage’s best-known works in recent years because of a provocative performance in the German city of Halberstadt that began on September 5, 2001 and is scheduled to conclude in the year 2640: a performance, in other words, lasting 639 years and involving human beings only to the extent that they are required to add and remove weights for the organ keys that activate the sounds. I have written elsewhere about this event (see my John Cage [London: Reaktion Books, 2012]), criticizing it as an exasperating instance of the mantra “Cage would have approved” and reminding readers that Cage always intended his music to be performed by human beings; but if, as he hoped, the world becomes a very different place in 2640—one in which people finally have what they need to live and are no longer afraid of the oppression created by economic want or harsh political systems—then perhaps a 639-year performance would be the best possible way to celebrate its advent.

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