The Harmony of Emptiness: John Cage’s Two2 (Mode Records 193, 2008)

In most of Cage’s Number Pieces, a series of works that occupied the composer’s attention between 1987 and his death in 1992, pitch—even harmony—takes pride of place.  This fact poses a paradox, even a contradiction, because harmony as such had hardly ever been central to his concerns.  In fact, while Cage’s early studies of harmony and counterpoint with Adolph Weiss and Arnold Schoenberg between 1933 and 1936 proceeded satisfactorily enough, there came a time when his development as a composer reached a point of crisis.  One of his anecdotes about his work with Schoenberg stands, probably, as his most famous expression of that crisis:

After I had been studying with him for two years, Schoenberg said, “In order to write music, you must have a feeling for harmony.”  I explained to him that I had no feeling for harmony.  He then said that I would always encounter an obstacle, that it would be as though I came to a wall through which I could not pass.  I said, “In that case I shall devote my life to beating my head against that wall.[1]

To understand what harmony meant to Cage in his final years, one needs to understand what it meant to him earlier.  I have spent some time locating all of the remarks Cage made about harmony in his published writings and some of his interviews.  Taken in toto, these remarks show a richer—and what at first seems contradictory—viewpoint than has been generally assumed.  First and foremost, Cage saw himself in opposition to tonal harmony, with its predictable (and arbitrary) rules of voice-leading and harmonic progressions.  By learning these rules, listeners condition themselves to expect the harmonic progressions that establish tonality; any deviations from those progressions—for instance, an unexpected modulation or a deceptive cadence—would be understood in terms of the “expected” norms.[2]  To Cage, listeners so conditioned would never hear sounds as sufficient in themselves—would not, in other words, be able to hear with the kind of open mind that he felt was essential.  What’s more, as Cage wrote, the rules of tonal harmony foster “old-style” European thinking which stresses understanding all single events as the causes or consequences of other single events: Cage called the succession of musical events in a composition a “continuity,” and this old-fashioned way of thinking simply “making that particular continuity that excludes all others.”[3]

In the 1940s, in particular, Cage began to criticize harmony on other counts too, especially for its capacity to move music away from the ideal of tranquility to which he thought music should aspire: “I now saw harmony, for which I had never had any natural feeling, as a device to make music impressive, loud and big, in order to enlarge audiences and increase box-office returns.”[4]  For Cage, harmony was a device that composers used to manipulate the audience, to make them feel certain emotions instead of others; for that reason it served the personality of the composer more than it did the sounds themselves.

Cage proposed replacing this type of thinking with the Oriental concept of interpenetration.  He explained the idea in his lecture “Composition as Process” by recalling one of Daisetz Suzuki’s references to it in his lectures at Columbia, which he attended:

Interpenetration means that each [idea] is moving out in all directions penetrating and being penetrated by every other one no matter what the time or what the space.  So that when one says that there is no cause and effect, what is meant is that there are an incalculable infinity of causes and effects, that in fact each and every thing in all of time and space is related to each and every other thing in all of time and space.[5]

Each sound, pitched or otherwise, carries with it the same amount of significance as all other sounds.  When we hear them, we are overwhelmed by the infinite complexity of their interrelatedness; our awareness might focus on a fractional part of this complexity but never apprehend it entirely.  In another hearing, we might choose to focus our attention on something else yet again.  Cage pursued these ideas with far-reaching implications in the late 1950s and ’60s—for example, by separating instruments spatially so as to help ensure their sounds would be perceived as “sounds in themselves” and, in several works from the Variations series, by leaving undefined the types of sound chosen for a given performance.

Too often, I feel, we have been admonished that paying attention is beyond the point in Cage’s music—that because all events cause all other events, it’s unnecessary to focus our attention too specifically.  But if we don’t pay attention, surely we run the risk of coming to the superficial conclusion that all of Cage’s chance music sounds alike. Furthermore, it’s worth recalling that Cage occasionally admitted the possibility of finding relationships or continuity in his music, an activity that can only take place when we pay attention:

I would assume that relations would exist between sounds as they would exist between people and these relationships are more complex than any I would be able to prescribe.  So by simply dropping that responsibility of making relationships I don’t lose the relationship.  I keep the situation in what you might call a natural complexity that can be observed in one way or another.[6]

The awesome complexity of interpenetrating sounds set in motion can never be comprehended in its entirety.  But by observing that complexity “in one way or another,” we experience what we can; we might even share that experience with others, without suggesting that our experience is superior to anyone else’s.[7]  What pleased Cage was the way in which his chance operations prevented him from imposing a single continuity of his own design in the music, and thus opened up the possibility for any number of equally valid continuities.  A given performance would reveal different patterns to different listeners; indeed, the same listener might make different connections in a subsequent performance—further approaching, but never totally comprehending, “the incalculable infinity of causes and effects.”

In later years, Cage extended his interest in all the sounds around him to tonal harmony itself—for instance, he tried to liberate such harmony from its rigid syntax in works like Hymns and Variations (1979).  In this and similar works, Cage took traditional pieces by William Billings and other eighteenth-century American composers and subjected them to chance operations so that certain tones were prolonged and others removed altogether, replaced with silence.  In this way Cage retained the “flavor” of the original music but made it possible for listeners to hear it in a new way—to hear the individual sounds and silences as equally important, relating to each other in countless ways that could not be explained or predicted by rules and habit.

Finally, in the Number Pieces—particularly those involving the piano—Cage returned to harmonies entirely produced by chance operations and unrelated to past music.  More important, Cage discovered a way to use harmonies in such a way that they could not suggest any single pattern of coherence.  In most of the Number Pieces, all the performers have some freedom through Cage’s use of time brackets, flexible measures that show a range of possible starting and ending times.  The time bracket system of notation used in these works allows a certain amount of flexibility in the performance: individual notes or chords may always occur in the same general time frame, but their specific order and duration varies slightly and unpredictably from performance to performance.  In this way Cage could create a new kind of harmony, a harmony that, as he described in a 1991 interview, simply “means that there are several sounds . . . being noticed at the same time.”[8]

Though Cage had pursued the idea of multiple unusual and flexible connections between elements in many ways during his career, his literary works of the 1980s supply some elegant examples of the principle—examples that I believe are particularly relevant to the Number Pieces.  One form that he referred to over and over again was renga, a Japanese poetic design of five, seven, five, seven, and seven syllables expressed at least thirty-six times.  In the introduction to Themes and Variations (1978), Cage’s description of renga shows the powerful affinity that it shares with his own work:

Traditionally renga is written by a group of poets finding themselves of an evening together and having nothing better to do. Successive lines are written by different poets.  Each poet tries to make his line as distant in possible meanings from the preceding line as he can take it.  This is no doubt an attempt to open the minds of the poets and listeners or readers to other relationships than those ordinarily perceived.[9]

While Cage did not adhere to the syllabic structure of renga, he clearly embraced the idea that sequences of words which did not make conventional sense could, nevertheless, be meaningful.  To help create the illusion of the many poets characteristic to renga, he began his work by writing a “library” of source mesostic poems.  (Cage’s mesostics have a central vertical string of letters, all capitalized, which spell out a name or idea that may or may not be connected with the horizontal lines of poetry.)  Once he had written a large number of poems, Cage selected individual lines through chance operations to form new mesostics that make a fuzzy kind of sense.  His method also allowed certain lines of poetry to reappear; recurring lines from the first and second sections of Themes and Variations are underlined in the excerpt below:

path’s Just

whAt did you say

clearing the Mind of music
wE accept
if i gave up my Sense of accomplishment
and Just
of anYthing else

we are in yuCatan
out thE window
past’s Just
As unstable

bE invented
if i gave up my Sense of accomplishment
what’d you Just
anything in frOnt
without anY waiting
we are in yuCatan
and Every unpredicted thing[10]

Cage’s late poetry exploits an ineffable and arresting alchemy of the noble and the common.  Particularly fascinating in this passage is the juxtaposition of such phrases as “we are in yuCatan / and Every unpredicted thing.”

In Two2 (1989), written for the pianists Edmund Niemann and Nurit Tilles performing together as the piano duo Double Edge, Cage unites these two themes—a new kind of harmony and renga—in a marvelous way.  One finds all manner of sonorities in this work: various triads and seventh chords, triads with other added notes, dissonances with two, three, or more notes, even single tones.  More interesting, however, is the fact that so many chords—even identical successions of chords—recur in the piece.  The manner of their overall succession, of course, is determined by chance procedures and performance, which guarantee a nebulous ordering that offers a modicum of coherence without any predictability whatsoever.[11]  And so the logic of recurrence in Two2 resembles the way that our different friends and acquaintances pass in and out of our lives—a continuity that doesn’t make conventional sense but is meaningful nevertheless.

Cage expresses the renga idea in Two2 in several ways: first, each line of music is divided into five measures, just like the five lines of the poetry.  The first measure contains five separate musical events—chords or single tones, usually shared between the two pianists—which correspond to the five syllables of the first line; the second measure has seven events, and so on.  And there are a total of thirty-six such five-measure sections in the piece.  The pianists proceed one measure at a time.  They must read the music in their respective measures from left to right; and while they can take any amount of time to perform each measure, each pianist must wait until both have finished the same measure before proceeding to the next.  In this way, the order of the “syllables” composing one “line” almost always occurs in an unpredictable order.[12]  Cage also respects the analogy with renga by keeping one line of poetry—expressed as one measure—separate from another.

Of course, one can also hear the music itself as renga: dissonant chords cohabitate amicably with simple triads and ambiguous, neutral single tones: some sonorities are sublime, while others seem the product of harsh, even unformed technique.  Every time we think we settle into the mode of Cage’s discourse, some unexpected sound—a simple seventh chord or even a seemingly banal augmented triad—suddenly intrudes, throwing us off balance and disorienting our reactions.  And yet that mingling of “incompatible” elements is fundamental to Cage’s aesthetic and the very source of its magic.  This mixture of the generic and the exquisite evokes what Cage admired in Duchamp’s work, its ability to resist becoming a mere “art object,” though Cage was rarely able to achieve a Duchampian ideal.[13]

Two2 stands apart in the sequence of Number Pieces because it has no time brackets; the two pianists are directed simply to play the music in their respective measures at their own speed, taking care (as noted above) not to continue to the next measure until both have finished playing the music for that particular measure.  As Cage explained in his performance notes for the work, his decision not to incorporate time brackets owed itself to a remark made by the soviet composer Sofia Gubaidulina, whom he had met in 1988 at the Third International Festival of Contemporary Music in Leningrad: “There is an inner clock.”[14]  This gives the pianists the luxury of playing the piece at the speed that suits them best; in the finest performances, the freedom also allows them to discover surprising new relationships between the sounds—relationships unexpected even to them, no matter how much rehearsal time they spend preparing.

There is one final topic to discuss in Two2, and that is the relationship of the two performers.  I have always sensed something intimate—even erotic—in all of Cage’s Number Pieces for two musicians.  More than other works in the series, I think, they act as a metaphor for a healthy, loving relationship between two people.  In connection with this theme, we might turn to Cage’s own (few) words on the subject to deduce the nature of that relationship.  As early as 1966, Cage wrote, “The most, the best, we can do, we believe (wanting to give evidence of love), is to get out of the way, leave space around whomever or whatever it is.”[15]  He later simplified this formulation to “love = space around loved one.”[16]  The composer discussed intimate human relationships rarely, but when he did, it was clear that he had considered such relationships deeply all of his life.  In a conversation with Joan Retallack from October 1991, he described friendship using similar thoughts: “It isn’t a fixed thing that you come to and keep.  It’s something which is not dependable.  Even if you think it is, it isn’t, hmm?  And it gets richer as it encounters obstacles and surmounts them.”[17]

To leave space around loved ones, we must learn to let people live their own lives wherever that life may take them—that having or possessing the person is beside the point.  Similarly in the Number Pieces for two individuals, and perhaps Two2 above all others, our performance is a time in which we agree to come together and be in each other’s company—a time which we expect to be happy but which holds no guarantees.


[1]   John Cage, “Indeterminacy,” in Silence: Lectures and Writings (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1961), 261.  For more on Cage’s early studies, see Robert Stevenson, “John Cage on his 70th Birthday: West Coast Background,” Inter–American Music Review 5, no. 1 (Fall 1982): 3–17; Michael Hicks, “Cage’s Studies with Schoenberg,” American Music 8 (1990): 125–40; and David W. Bernstein, “John Cage, Arnold Schoenberg, and the Musical Idea,” in John Cage; Music, Philosophy, and Intention, 1933–1950, ed. David W. Patterson (New York: Routledge, 2002), 15–45.

[2]   See, for instance, Cage, “Lecture on Nothing,” in Silence, 116.

[3]   Cage, “Lecture on Something,” in Silence, 132.

[4]   Cage, “A Composer’s Confessions,” in John Cage: Writer, ed. Richard Kostelanetz (New York: Limelight Editions, 1993), 29.

[5]   Cage, “Composition as Process,” in Silence, 46–47.  David Patterson discusses historical problems in Cage’s recollections of Suzuki and his influence in “Cage and Asia: History and Sources,” in The Cambridge Companion to John Cage, ed. David Nicholls (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 53–55.

[6]   Cage quoted in Michael Nyman, Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond (New York: Schirmer Books, 1974), 25.  Nyman can no longer remember the source for this quotation, but believed he cited a printed source (e-mail to the author, 21 November 2002).

[7]   See, for example, “Where Are We Going?  And What Are We Doing,” in Silence, 250–52.

[8]   John Cage and Joan Retallack, Musicage: Cage Muses on Words, Art, Music.  John Cage in Conversation with Joan Retallack, ed. Joan Retallack (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1996), 108.

[9]   John Cage, “Introduction to Themes and Variations,” in Composition in Retrospect (Cambridge: Exact Change, 1993), 64.  My emphasis.

[10]  Cage, Themes and Variations, in Composition in Retrospect, 74 and 100.Composition in Retrospect, 133.  The mesostic string spells the name of James Joyce.

[11]  For a description of the compositional process of Two2, see Rob Haskins, “‘An Anarchic Society of Sounds’: The Number Pieces of John Cage” (Ph. D. dissertation, University of Rochester, Eastman School of Music, 2004), 119–21 and 214–19.

[12]  There are a few occasions when, probably as the result of the chance operations Cage used, one pianist has a silent measure and all the “syllables” for that “line” are performed by a single pianist.

[13]  For more on Cage’s thoughts on this aspect of Duchamp’s work, see Cage and Retallack, Musicage, 103–5.

[14]  John Cage, performance notes for Two2 (New York: Henmar Press [C. F. Peters], 1989), n.p.

[15]  In the “Diary: How To Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse) Continued 1966” in Cage, A Year from Monday: New Lectures and Writings (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1967), 52.

[16]  As part of the introduction to Themes and Variations; see Composition in Retrospect, 61.

[17]  Cage and Retallack, Musicage, 151.

Liner Notes for John Cage, One4, Four, Twenty-Nine—OgreOgress (2002)

Sources for quotations (in order of appearance): Laura Fletcher and Thomas Moore, “An Interview [John Cage],” Sonus 3, no. 2 (Spring 1983): 19; John Cage, I–VI: MethodStructureIntentionDisciplineNotationIndeterminacyInterpenetrationImita-tionDevotionCircumstancesVariableStructureNonunderstandingContingencyIncon-sistencyPerformance (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990), 177–78; John Cage, Composition in Retrospect (Cambridge: Exact Change, 1993), 6; John Cage and Joan Retallack, Musicage: Cage Muses on Words, Art, Music (Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 1996), 218; Joan Retallack, “Poethics of a Complex Realism” in John Cage: Composed in America, ed. Marjorie Perloff and Charles Junkerman (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 260.

¶ Recording technology makes it possible for one person to record all the parts of a Number Piece by herself.  The question arises: is one person the best example of an anarchic society?

¶ Even the titles of the Number Pieces bespeak a quiet simplicity—a number written as a word indicates the number of performers involved; superscript Arabic numerals indicate (as necessary) the position of that particular piece with respect to all the other pieces composed for the same number of players.  Cage liked the titles because they were like the simple clothes he wore, the style of which never changed from day to day.

¶ It is in this sense that one can speak of harmony in the works—each one has an established universe of sounds that we hear at various points, but Cage doesn’t strictly order them because of the time brackets.

¶ Cage’s attitude toward the Number Pieces offers a fitting conclusion to a period that began around 1980 during which the composer’s long-famous optimism had given way to a doubt that music could do anything whatsoever to change people’s minds.  In time, however, Cage would find new musical metaphors for the overwhelming social problems of our time.  The extraordinary difficulty of the Freeman Etudes, for example, came to symbolize for the composer “the practicality of the impossible,” the courageous act of the individual in the face of desperate and seemingly insurmountable circumstances.  Similarly, the Number Pieces were a metaphor for “the type of world in which we could live.”

¶ At the end of his life, Cage wanted his music to be like writing on water—an act that left no traces.  The flexibility that the time brackets provided him helped to give this impression: no two performances of the Number Pieces will ever be exactly the same, although one can usually distinguish one Number Piece from another on the basis of its sounds alone.

¶ But the number pieces concern more than just lengths of time, however.  There are sounds, too, and almost always a group of fixed sounds that recur unpredictably throughout the piece—a nonhierarchical gamut of elements “to Each/elemenT of wHich/equal hOnor/coulD be given.”

¶ Thus, harmony occurs not as an intentional design to be followed step by step through a piece.  Rather, the listener is a “tourist,” observing the landscape around her, creating private connections or ignoring connections altogether.

¶ Joan Retallack tells the story of a person who asked Cage the initial idea he’d had for one of the Number Pieces.  As I remember it, Cage said, “I began with the idea of thirty minutes,” saying nothing further.

¶ The music of Cage’s Number Pieces generally occurs within little slices of time, each around a minute long.  Two indications at the left-hand side of these “time brackets” tell the performer the range of times during which she may begin; a similar pair of indications show her the range of times during which she must stop.

Liner Notes for John Cage, Two3; Inlets; Two4 (OgreOgress, 2004)

The role (or non-role) of emotion in John Cage’s music seems to me a particularly crucial question in the ongoing critical reception of the singular American composer, and indeed of much American music after 1945. Cage’s own remarks on this subject were characteristically ambivalent. He discovered early on that listeners did not always understand the emotions he was trying to express in his composition and gradually decided to avoid expressing them altogether: he felt that this decision allowed sounds to be themselves and left any emotions to be felt where they properly belonged, within the listeners themselves.

Some of Cage’s performers and critical admirers have understood this decision as a rejection of emotion altogether. There is some evidence that they are correct. Too often, however, they make their conclusion into a prescription for listening. But Cage never allowed his own convictions to devolve into a draconian manifesto that obligated listeners to hear his music in a certain way.

Still, it is evident that the experimental impulse to suppress emotion was widely felt by composers both within and without the Cage circle. Philip Glass hoped that audiences would experience his Music in Twelve Parts (1971–74) as a “‘presence,’ freed of dramatic structure, a pure medium of sound.[1]” His recent work has retreated quite far from that pronouncement and indeed has made it possible for listeners to savor the drama and emotional excitement of his earlier works as well.

Glass’s notion of a pure medium of sound without dramatic structure applies more readily to Cage’s work; it is particularly applicable to the series of late works which James Pritchett dubbed the Number Pieces. These works bear titles that consist only of the number of performers involved, often including a superscript number to distinguish, say, one duet in the series from another. Cage likened the titles to the simple clothes that he wore each day. But Cage took care to introduce subtle variation in the individual compositions so that each one retained some individuality even as they displayed similarities to other works in the series.

The instrumentation of Two3 (1991)—shō and conch shells—recalls two rather different groups of pieces from Cage’s career. Conch shells appeared most prominently in Inlets (1977), one of several improvisational pieces (another is Branches [1976] including amplified cactus) in which the performers play “instruments” that are unfamiliar and unpredictable. In an interview from 1980, Cage described the experience of performing these works:

In the case of the plant materials, you don’t know them; you’re discovering them. So the instrument is unfamiliar. If you become very familiar with a piece of cactus, it very shortly disintegrates, and you have to replace it with another one which you don’t know. . . . In the case of Inlets, you have no control whatsoever over the conch shell when it’s filled with water. You tip it and you get a gurgle, sometimes; not always. So the rhythm belongs to the instruments, and not to you.[2]

Both works are examples of what Cage called “music of contingency,” an approach to improvisation with unpredictable results that concerned the composer during this period.[3]

The full impact of these works has yet to be felt. That is because most musicians and music-lovers expect each of the instruments and voice types to possess a fundamental identity, a predictable idiom and technique. Some performers, such as Joan LaBarbara and Robert Dick, have pioneered extended techniques (for voice and flute, respectively). But even they have done so through the application of their own personalities and ingenuity. Inlets, on the other hand, represents a quite different proposition, one in which the performers cannot control their instruments fully. As a result, they continually discover the potential of their instruments and remain continually fascinated by its identity. From this example, it is easy for me to imagine a future musician who discovers a traditional instrument in the same manner and remains, in effect, marvelously ignorant of its characteristic technique.

On the other hand, Cage’s choice of the shō, a mouth organ with bamboo pipes that acts as one of the harmony-producing instruments in Japanese gagaku, represented a more recent interest. Mayumi Miyata had pioneered the shō as a contemporary concert instrument. Cage first met her during his historic return to the 1990 Darmstadt summer course; he was attracted to her artistry and to the sound of her instrument. Four Number Pieces from 1991 include her instrument: One9 is identical to the shō part for Two3 and can also be performed with the orchestral work 108; Two4 combines the shō with solo violin.

Cage approached composition by determining a number of possibilities for an instrument and then using chance to select which of these possibilities would appear and at what point during the composition. Among his musical sketches archived at the New York Public Library are copious notes indicating all of the single tones and clusters (aitake) that the shō could play, both familiar and unfamiliar. Audiences and performers of his music who are intimate with the shō would surely recognize some of the combinations, but the unusual ones would defamiliarize the familiar ones and allow them to be experienced as fresh and novel sounds on their own.

Throughout the Number Piece series, Cage repeatedly considered the perennial tension between process and object that had characterized his entire compositional output. His earlier compositions (up to the Concerto for Prepared Piano and Chamber Orchestra of 1950–51) resembled, more or less, musical works with their unchanging disposition of movements and completely notated musical material. With his work on the Music for Piano series (1952–1956), Cage began to envision another kind of music in which performers could choose the order and quantity of material to be played, the speed for performance, and many other aspects that give music a certain sonic and gestural profile. Even later works, such as those in the Variations series of the 1960s and ’70s, extend this idea still further, by obligating performers to create the piece they are to play by using tools and measuring devices that Cage created.

These and other works led Cage to think more in terms of process rather than in terms of an object, or a final rarefied artistic product. He sometimes disliked the polish of a finished art object, and on more than one occasion bemoaned dada works that had become simply beautiful art objects to be enshrined in museums. By embracing process, Cage felt he created through art a situation that was more like everyday life with its unpredictable qualities and its unabashed triviality.

However, Cage’s work after 1969 took a most unexpected turn back toward the musical object in a number of compositions using chance operations that resembled the more traditional musical works of his earlier years. Cheap Imitation (1969), Hymns and Variations (1979), the Freeman Etudes (1977–1980/1989–1990), Chorals (1978), and several others all have definite endings and beginnings, definite indications for tempo, articulation, and dynamics—in short, performers learn them as they might a Beethoven sonata. Cage continued to write more indeterminate music, of course, but seemed aware of this shift in his thinking. By the time he commenced work on the Number Pieces, Cage elevated this awareness into a guiding principle for the entire series. A program note for the first one, Two, describes the work as follows:

There are two parts which have no fixed relation, no score. They are written in a series of time-brackets (the same for each part), nine of which are flexible with respect to their beginnings and endings, one of which is shorter and fixed. This is the first of a series of works that bring aspects of process (weather) together with aspects of structure (object). Each piece will have as its title the written-out number of players.[4]

Although the reconciliation of process and object represented in the Number Pieces was the most elegant Cage achieved, he probably did not intend it as his final solution to the ongoing problem. Other works he was contemplating at the time of his death have nothing whatever to do with the premises of the Number Pieces. For example, in July 1992 he referred briefly to an unrealized new work for radios and television. His more extensive descriptions of a “Noh-opera” from the same time suggest something quite different: a major music-theater piece involving an extensive set whose construction would form much of the work’s sound.[5]

In Two3 and Two4, Cage addressed the tension between process and object in an interesting way, by creating suites of separate pieces. The shō part for Two3 consists of ten separate movements from which the performer makes choices when it is performed with 108; in addition, as mentioned above, it can be performed separately (as One9) or with a separate group of pieces for conch shells that constitutes the second part of Two3. The violin part for Two4 is divided into four connected movements, one for each of the violin’s strings. The shō part is divided into three movements: the division may address the need for the shō player to change instruments every ten to fifteen minutes and thus prevent moisture from collecting on the reeds, but Miyata has recalled that Cage determined the divisions into movements by using chance operations.[6]

With these two compositions, Cage crosses the boundaries between process and object in a number of ways. The three works—One9, 108, Two3—were all conceived separately but can be performed as if they are single works. In addition, the modular design of One9 guarantees a kind of indeterminacy when it is performed, for instance, with 108, since the soloist can choose which modules she plays and when she plays them. And the different dispositions of movements between violin and shō help the performers to maintain their own individuality in the work even though they perform at the same time.

All this background information scarcely prepares the listener for actually experience these pieces. Hearing them, I come as close as I think I can to becoming Glass’s ideal listener for Music in Twelve Parts, one who experiences the music as a presence freed of dramatic structure. Nevertheless, I don’t believe this music lacks expressive impact. The vast history of the shō or violin, the rich evocations of nature through the sight and the sound of conch shells—these things alone carry associations that have accumulated for the lifetimes of some listeners, and they cannot be ignored. Even those listeners who have never heard a shō before will, I imagine, quickly grow spellbound with the delicate, treble-only sounds of the instrument and its dependence on the human breath for its life and its phrasing. The stillness of Cage’s Number Pieces can always evoke a sense of tranquility and serenity to receptive listeners.

But there is something else. Cage’s music depends on a slow unfolding and a leisurely approach to time in order to make its full impact. That slow unfolding introduces a graininess or raggedness to the beauty of the sounds. There is no contrast, no epiphany, no drama, no point. The music simply continues with almost annoying steadfastness until its end. That steadfastness, stretched out to extraordinary lengths (seventy minutes or more), allows the music to avoid the trap of merely sounding beautiful. More and more I find the music taking equal precedence with the other events around me, gently enveloping me until I see and hear minute details of everyday life with a fresh, uncluttered clarity. Perhaps this experience transcends any emotional reaction I could have. Yet I do not feel it shares much with another musical tradition after 1945, an ultra-rational music that also viewed emotion askance. Cage’s music represents something altogether different, and I still find all my words absolutely ineffectual to describe it.

Rob Haskins
Durham, New Hampshire
October 2004


[1] Philip Glass, “Liner Notes, Music in 12 Parts: Parts 1 and 2” (London: Virgin Records, CA2010, 1977), n.p.

[2] Cole Gagne and Tracy Caras, Soundpieces: Interviews with American Composers (Metuchen: Scarecrow Press, 1981), 76–77.

[3] See “John Cage and Roger Reynolds: A Conversation.” Musical Quarterly 65 (1979): 580–84 (the interview took place in 1977); and Stuart Saunders Smith, “Having Words with John Cage,” Percussive Notes 30, no. 3 (February 1992): 52.

[4] Typescript in the Cage Correspondence Files at Northwestern University (C417–2.17). The description does not appear in the published version of the work, but might have been used as a program note at its first performance.

[5] See John Cage and Joan Retallack, Musicage: Cage Muses on Words, Art, Music. John Cage in Conversation with Joan Retallack, ed. Joan Retallack (Hanover, New Hampshire: University Press of New England [Wesleyan University Press], 1996), 227–34 and 341.

[6] See Stephen Drury, “Variation Pitch Structure Time: Two4 for Violin or Piano and Shō,” at <> (accessed 12 October 2004).

The Great Cage Recordings: Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano (1)

It makes sense for me to begin with Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes; I’m a keyboard player and most of the music I review is for one kind of keyboard or another. It’s one of the first Cage pieces I actually encountered—I must have heard them as early as high school, or certainly no later than my undergraduate years, and like almost everyone else, found the timbre of the prepared piano enchanting. My later difficulties with Cage—which extended through the rest of my undergraduate and graduate years up to 1992—resulted from bad information, shortsightedness on my part, and terrible recordings, all of which made me unwilling to grapple with most of his music for a long time. Even so, one of my last Master’s papers at Peabody was an analysis of The Perilous Night (in Margaret Leng Tan’s superb performance, still available on New Albion), which my professor thought showed promise.

When I began reviewing recordings for American Record Guide in 1993, I got some Cage recordings and became friendly with Brian Brandt, the owner of Mode Records; he gave me a number of the recordings. The fine Sibley Library at the Eastman School of Music, where I was completing my doctorates in harpsichord performance and musicology, had many others. Sometime during those years I rediscovered the Sonatas and Interludes and they became important to me as a music-lover and as someone who wanted to talk about the pitches in Cage’s music. They are for me Cage’s most important composition before 1950, and one whose greatness he usually only matched in all of the best music he made afterward. There’s that great line in the “Lecture on Nothing” on his deliberately choosing quiet sounds in the advent of World War II; this fact, plus Cage’s own acknowledgment that the work responded to the seven permanent emotions in Indian aesthetics—including the erotic, mirth, the odious, all of which tend toward the final one, tranquility—makes the Sonatas a kind of expressive line drawn in the sand: an eloquent statement in the face of other works from the time aiming for a much grander (and sometimes frankly patriotic statements) on both sides of the Atlantic: Americanist symphonists like Harris, Schuman, and Copland, Messiaen’s Turangalîla, Britten’s Peter Grimes. It poses the possibility of an avant-garde serenity, a possibility hardly considered in the 1940s. No wonder Cage won a citation from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a Guggenheim on the basis of this piece.

There are a number of fine recordings of the work. I’ll consider only one here; later entries will discuss others along with shorter critiques of ones that aren’t as successful.

My friend and colleague Louis Goldstein recorded the work on December 20, 1994; it was released as Greenseye Music 4794 in 1996, along with a concert performance of Dream from December 11, 1995. Louie can do anything, but his readings of Cage and Feldman are striking for their expansive but vital character.

In the Sonatas and Interludes, he plays a large piano, which results in deeper sounds and, at least to my mind, more heterogenous ones, too. He has a grand conception of the piece: the tempos are usually broad (but not overly so) and the gestures measured but also somehow noble. When the damper pedal is engaged the sounds can reverberate for a long time.

The performances are full of small details that lend to the piece the grandeur I noted above. In the first sonata he uses very subtle rubato: first a noticeable (but nonetheless slight) pause after the first unexpected thudding sound. Then, near the end, he speeds up a bit to make the sudden appearance of mostly unprepared A-minor triads more dramatic.

Sonata 2 contrasts with the first: it requires a more rhythmically incisive manner, and once more Goldstein responds brilliantly. The variety of sounds adds to the appeal. Rubato is present here, but much more moderated (It appears, for instance, midway through the second half after one of the most metronomic passages in the performance). The different sounds also have an effect on the ending of the sonata, which sounds more abrupt than it does in other recordings.

Another highlight is the First Interlude. The preparations give a microtonal flavor to many of the notes that suggest a definite pitch. Still, the overtones are rich and very complex, another reason to favor a larger instrument. Later in the piece, the music gives way to several groovy, asymmetric ostinatos. He doesn’t play these as mercilessly as others have: they sound more mysterious, somehow. This particular movement is one I find it very difficult to stop listening to (Always a sign of a good performance.)

As the cycle unfolds, Goldstein projects a very clear and compelling structure for the whole, which for me culminates in the dramatic arc for the pieces beginning with the Third Interlude. This he plays more aggressively than most of the other performances I know. Thereafter, Cage seems to become increasingly preoccupied with the interaction between prepared tones and unprepared ones: these pieces remind me of Schoenberg’s famous remark that Cage would come to a wall because he had no sense of harmony, to which Cage responded that he would spend the rest of his life beating his head against that wall. By juxtaposing prepared and unprepared tones, Cage poses (perhaps in spite of himself) a new possibility for harmony.

I described the final Sonata XVI as “a music box quietly playing in some distant reality” (John Cage, 51). No performance I know suggests that effect better than Goldstein’s. It begins in a Gouldian tempo with a Fürtwängleresque expression in the first half; but in the second, everything becomes otherworldly, motionless, and serene—all the more so because of his choices for the first half.

Checking today online, I don’t see any evidence that the recording is still available, but in the meantime, a 1982 performance gives a sense of his great artistry.

CD Review: Gabriel Fauré, The Complete Nocturnes—Richard Shuster, piano (Fleur de Son Classics 58023, 2014, 75 minutes)

Fauré’s piano nocturnes span his entire career: the first was competed around 1875, the last in 1921. I must confess his solo piano music is quite unexpected in sound to me when I compare it to all those lovely, limpid, elegant accompaniments for songs like “Lydia” and “Au bord de l’eau.” By contrast, Fauré’s solo piano music is texturally rich (indeed, usually highly polyphonic) and almost orchestral in conception. Though it has much of the characteristic virtuosic passagework that distinguishes Liszt, it is more controlled and thoroughly integrated into the texture, with the result that there seems to be little respite for the pianist willing to learn and perform his music.

Several pianists have released their own recordings of the Nocturnes (which fit very handily on a 75-minute CD), but I haven’t heard any release prior to this one. In any case, I can’t imagine a performance that would be better. I want to begin with the great piano sound: not too close, not too far away, resonant, never shrill. As I began listening, I initially felt that a bit of reverberation might have helped, but with repeated hearings I realized it’s perfectly fine as it is, and besides the added clarity is welcome for the many difficult passages.

Next, of course, I should discuss the pianist himself. Richard Shuster is, in a word, superb. His technique makes possible an astonishing variety of tonal color (a must in French music) and unerring sense for voicing (again, essential given the polyphonic and textural richness of the music). Add to this abundant imagination in effecting the perfect phrasing for a melody (for instance, as in his performance of the fourth nocturne) and absolute security in even the most difficult passagework, as in the turbulent central section of the second nocturne.

Perhaps best of all, Mr. Shuster displays a truly intelligent approach to the music; that’s good, because Fauré’s formal designs abound in a number of novel variations to the basic A–B–A format of each piece and the harmonic vocabulary steadily increases in complexity—never approaching a complete lack of tonal center, it often gives the impression of Wagner’s suspension of tonal goals but with a flavor utterly unlike the German. Shuster gives many unusual progressions (for instance, in the tenth and thirteenth nocturnes), a perfectly understandable sense of direction. I should hasten to say, though, that Shuster’s intelligence never sacrifices the passion of the music, but rather only enhances its beauty and élan. I would love to hear him in Debussy, Chopin, or Bartók—three great pianists, also composers, who also understood how perfectly to blend the cerebral and the sensual.

The helpful notes are by Carlo Caballero, himself a distinguished scholar of Fauré’s music. A lovely pastel by Odilon Redon (1840–1916) graces the cover; called The Boat Maiden with a Halo, or (Redon’s own name) The Golden Prow, it is suffused with a rich dark blue color—its figural outlines are difficult to discern but seem strangely familiar, much like Fauré’s music. Fleur de son’s sound is exquisite. The CD is available from a number of websites, including HBDirect.

CD Review: Mahan Esfahani—Byrd, Bach, Ligeti (Wigmore Hall Live 66, 2014, 75 minutes)

Mahan Esfahani is the foremost young harpsichordist today and has the potential to reinvent the standards for artistic performance. I have already reviewed his excellent Hyperion recording of C. P. E. Bach’s Württemberg Sonatas in The American Record Guide and am currently preparing another ARG review discussing his fabulous performance of all Rameau’s harpsichord music. This 2014 CD also matches the high quality of all the others.

Esfahani is such a great player, first and foremost, because he is a musician who seems to value the experience of music and its performance from its beginnings to now. This is an unusual position to be in for a harpsichordist, made still more unusual because there is a strong and noble tradition in harpsichord and other early music performance to recreate, in so far as possible, the sound of the music as its composers might have heard it. I’m inclined to think that examining performance treatises and extant exemplars of historical instruments does tell us a great deal; however, those players who appeal, in particular, to performance treatises seem sometimes to ignore the intended audience for these works: many are intended for beginners or young performers who need guidance and advice on such things as phrasing and expression. But surely more seasoned players would go beyond the suggestions of treatises and inflect more of their own sensibility, musical awareness, and life-experience into the music, and in a manner that cannot be described in writing. Just as certainly, these aspects would vary considerably from one musician to another, making them equally impossible to capture in prescriptive prose.

I believe Esfhani draws on many musical experiences when he performs: I have described a Schubertian expressivity in his C. P. E. Bach, and he himself refers to “the sounds of American big bands and their particularly mellifluous saxophone sections” with respect to the last thirty-five measures of Ligeti’s Hungarian Rock. Such moments in his playing give me hope that early music performance can continue to evolve, just as other classical music performance has. I even dare to  hope that we will see more non-early-music performances of Bach, Handel, and others.

This disc documents a concert performance from Wigmore Hall on May 3, 2013. The program begins with a very large sampling of William Byrd’s music: three plainchant settings of “Clarifica me, Pater,” the first and fifth pavans and galliards from My Lady Nevells Booke, two fantasias, “The Marche Before the Battell” (from Nevell, appearing again in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book as “The Earl of Oxford’s Marche”), and three variation sets: “John, Come Kiss Me Now,” “Callino casturame,” and “Walsingham.”

“Jhon, Come Kiss Me Now” is a good example of what makes his playing so spectacular. It sparkles with vigorous phrasing and just the right amount of incisive staccato when needed. The harpsichord (a copy of a 1711 Pierre Donzelague double-manual) sounds quite nice uncoupled for several interior variations in succession. He also responds very sensitively to the figurations in Byrd’s music when they shift several times midway through a single variation, taking the change as an opportunity to adjust his own expression accordingly. This seems almost a commonsensical thing to do, of course, but it’s something I rarely hear in harpsichord performances, where a one-affect-approach per movement is the norm. The later virtuosic variations are all impeccably managed without sacrificing any bit of the particular character each one has.

The final two sets are shorter but no less substantial. In the first, Esfahani performs the three- and six-voice ricercars from Bach’s Musical Offering. The readings are a little more brisk than I’m used to (the six-voice ricercar often suggests a rather heroic bravado). Both choices are made clearer by Esfahani’s excellent notes; they suggest that perhaps Bach is having a bit of fun at the King’s expense by taking up and simultaneously critiquing the galant-style figurations that appear in the three-voice ricercar, while in the six-voice one he offers “a vision of eternity that is inexplicable in its scope.” He ends this set with a brilliant choice of the Canon per tonos, where each new modulation seems an opportunity to move into ever more intense expressive terrain.

The final set closes the recital nicely in the present, with the three masterly works by György Ligeti, Passacaglia ungherese, Continuum, and Hungarian Rock. Esfhani performs these works on a 1972 double-manual by Robert Goble & Son tuned in meantone. These three works, especially Continuum, are legendary for their difficulty; more overlooked, I think, is the psychological complexity in the other two works, which unfold far more fitfully and unpredictably. Esfahani seems perfectly attuned to these complexities, matching them to his blistering virtuosity to seal the deal. The disc includes the audience’s applause, including a full minute of appreciation after the final Ligeti piece. Hearing their excitement, I wish I could have been there too.

CD Review: Anne Vanschothorst, Ek is Eik (Big Round Records 8932, 53 minutes)

Ann Vanschothorst is a harpist and composer who creates music in a variety of styles and for different purposes. Her latest release, Ek is Eik (Google Translate tells me this is Afrikaans for “I Am Oak”—I’m inclined to believe it since three other tracks include trees in their titles), is a beautiful-sounding and quite unclassifiable collection of eleven miniatures. Most pair harp with another instrument or instruments, all wonderfully played by trumpeter Saskia Laroo, gambist Ernst Stolz, percussionist Arthur Bont, and bassists Thijs de Melker and Bob van Luijt (who also serves as co-composer for two tracks that add electronics into the mix).

The arresting opening track, “Where’s Mo?,” sets up an interesting hybrid between a mournful, somewhat sultry trumpet line with jazz inflections and a more minimal-style harp part that sounds like an updated Erik Satie. In other tracks, a jazz element is altogether missing. The next, a harp solo “Wandering,” is more pattern oriented and a bit more classical in approach. A later harp solo, “The Caged Owl,” is much more experimental with a low dissonant cluster alternating with more chromatic and unsettling middle-to-upper-register harmonies.

Vanschotorst’s strategy of disorienting the listener without alienating him continues throughout the remaining 9 tracks, which run a fine stylistic variety from another foreboding piece, “I Know My Way,” to the much more dramatic “Here Once Stood Trees.” Both of these tracks are the ones for which Bob van Luijt takes a co-composer credit—they’re lovely soundscapes counterpointing the harp with a very ornate and cinematic tapestry of bass and samples with other electronics. Much of the music, indeed, has an understated expression that would make it well suited to film, and it’s not surprising that Vanshothorst has done some work in this area.

Her music depends on the actual music-making from her collaborators, who improvise above the solo harp tracks to produce the finished product. Judging from the results here, her choice of colleagues is excellent. I have enjoyed percussionist Arthur Bont’s work with her before, and his new work is inventive regarding both the actual rhythms he fashions as well as the instruments he chooses. The gambist Erik Stoltz exploits an incredibly wide pitch range and is as much at home with pale, plaintive melodies as with more elusive, somewhat dissonant patterns. Ms. Laroo’s trumpet has perhaps the strongest presence next to Vanschothorst, and she is a very welcome addition to the closely related first and final tracks.

Ek is Eik, then, is an unobstrusive but highly expressive release that repays repeated hearings. The quality of the engineering and production is first-rate.

What Makes New Classical Music Classical?

In my review of Scott Pender’s release for Navona, 88 + 12, I closed by remarking that he “is inventive, expressively rich, and gimmick-free: his music is what I imagine when I dream of a future for classical music.” Not long afterward, a post by Greg Sandow on Facebook commented on his own blog post “It Can Be Done,” which reported on The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the Wordless Music festival and their success attracting younger audiences. I was particularly interested in the Wordless Music model of combining various styles within a single concert: Sandow mentioned indie rock, noise improvisation, Shostakovich, the Bach B-flat-Major Partita, and more. It wasn’t clear to me how much variety there was within a single concert, but I got the impression that most of the concerts had a healthy mix of things. I’m certainly in favor of that: it seems more and more the case that the young composers and performers I know are interested in all kinds of music and very good practitioners of many styles. A similar, wider cross-pollination in concerts might increasingly appeal to younger audiences, too.

What most caught my attention, though, was Sandow’s overly optimistic observation that he sees no sign of classical music being dumbed down through attempts to reinvent its milieu and its programming. I disagreed and was immediately called upon to explain myself: I think people were concerned that I considered minimalism and other kinds of tonal-sounding music an example of dumbing down. I assured them that this was not the case, and promised to explain myself at greater length in a subsequent blog post. This is the result, which interleaves a number of related topics. First, some new classical music is dumbed down, and that comes from its failure to live up to the standards of what I would call new classical music—I need to explain what I mean by that. At the same time, new classical music should be distinguished from a great many other kinds of concert music (yes, yes, a vague term, I know) by composers who sometimes have very different expectations from a composer of new classical music. I conclude with some speculation concerning what these differing expectations might mean to the wider community of contemporary concert music composers and their prospective audiences.


In order to set up properly the context for my thoughts on the subject, I need to cite some passages from one of my American Record Guide reviews published in the November/December 2013 issue. The disc in question was called Bach Re-Invented (Sony 94168) with the pianist Simone Dinnerstein and the Absolute Ensemble led by Kristian Järvi, who performed music by Gene Pritsker, Daniel Schnyder, and Tom Trapp. The album’s premise was to take some Bach Inventions and commission three younger composers to create new music in their own manner related to the models. I dubbed this “the musical equivalent of making a great Hollandaise—one miscalculation and the sauce breaks.”

I thoroughly disliked Pritsker’s Reinventions (Piano Concerto). The first two movements are based on the C-major and A-minor inventions, passages of which are mercilessly repeated with the finesse of a jackhammer. Bach is also mostly unrelated to the other music in the piece, which, as I wrote, “runs a gamut of popular styles that would sound perfectly at home in a Las Vegas megaclub.” I liked the third movement, which introduced a beautiful bandoneon (played by Hector Del Curto) and was effectively based on Bach’s D-minor Invention: the mixture of styles here seemed more plausible and each contributed to the other. Nevertheless, the whole effort seems wrong-headed from the start because Bach seems more of a pretext for the album than a font of inspiration facilitating a meaningful dialogue between the old and new. These composers, it seemed to me at the time, weren’t writing new classical music, and the presence of Bach’s work reasonably led me to expect them to.

Classical music is a tradition with a history and certain generic expectations—both formal and social—that come along with it. For instance, even though the exact meaning of the word sonata has shifted over the years (it originally meant music that’s played by an instrument rather than music that’s sung), composers who write a sonata probably expect their listeners to know other pieces by that title (maybe a great many of them) and probably also expect their listeners actively to consider their prior knowledge when they hear a new one. Scott Pender’s Cello Sonata is such a piece; it interests me as much for whatever merits it has on its own as it does for the way it makes me rehear other cello sonatas (Beethoven’s and Brahms’s, for example). Of course, a composer can strike out on her own, can write a piece so far against the grain of the generic tradition of the sonata that the result might productively engage with the tradition—but even then I’m inclined to think that the composer must be deeply aware of the tradition before such a work could succeed. Marc Chan’s music might be the best example of this I can think of: his pieces J’s Box and My Wounded Head 3 (the latter dedicated to and premiered by me, I should add) are remarkable pieces that treat pre-existing music (Bach’s first prelude from The Well-Tempered Clavier and the passion chorale settings from the St. Matthew Passion) as reservoirs of material for a highly nuanced intertextual dialogue. His later works involving the music of Schumann continue this trend and demand, I think, an even greater awareness of their compositional subject.

There are a number of different streams of concert musical composition now that have very little to do with the classical tradition but that, nevertheless, don’t fit comfortably in non-classical traditions. They include minimalism, chance and indeterminacy, and sound art; one might stretch and add twelve-tone array composition into the mix, but it’s possible to argue that it refers to Schoenberg, which in turn refers very strongly to the Austro-German tradition. Insofar as some fundamental aspects of twelve-tone array composition work against many of Schoenberg’s conceptions of composition (especially the formal ones), I would see it as essentially a different tradition altogether. To the extent that the composers imagine, hope, or expect their music to remain performed in years to come, however, that music subscribes to the same sensibility as classical music, even if has almost nothing to do with the tradition. Like classical music, it demands our attention and thought through multiple hearings; one performance is usually insufficient.


Popular music, however, is different—it is predicated on a constant influx of new, relatively short and catchy items that stay in the mind’s ear for a few months and are eventually replaced by other offerings with equal staying power. That’s why I liked Tom Trapp’s Headless Snowman on the Sony disc. I wrote that it “clocks in at 4 minutes, makes its au courant musical points quickly and effectively—just as popular music does—and ends before it exhausts itself.”

I think that many people believe the solution to the “problem of classical music audiences” involves embracing the world of popular music more fully. This approach won’t do any damage when it’s well thought out and executed with honesty and imagination; and sometimes it leads to amazing results. I am by no means a purist when it comes to the updating of classical music performance, but I’m willing to be critical and call attention to when it works and when it doesn’t: the Kronos Quartet doing Jimi Hendrix worked; they’ve continued to have a strong career and presence. But Michael Torke singing the praises of Chaka Khan’s bass lines and thinking he was current for appropriating them (in one of his early releases) didn’t work: Khan was by then already a marginal figure in pop music, and Torke’s hitching his wagon to her star had no effect on his career whatever.

Torke is by no means alone in his misstep. I cringe when I recall Susan McClary gushing over Earth, Wind and Fire in her famous article “Terminal Prestige: The Case of Avant-Garde Music Composition.” She attempted to argue that the technology of recording was just as sophisticated as Milton Babbitt’s approach to array composition, that the band’s maintaining a groove was just as difficult to achieve as executing Babbitt’s complex rhythms. These are naïve, apple-and-orange comparisons, made still less tenable because Earth, Wind and Fire weren’t particularly sophisticated then and are now quaintly outdated except as the object of ’80s nostalgia. To be clear: I love McClary and think she’s one of the most important living musicologists. But even though there’s still a lot of useful material in her essay—above all her call for critics who can engage with the subjective aspects of twelve-tone and other post-tonal music in addition to (or even in absence of) the current tendency to offer little more than a technical description of its design—some of it has dated as surely as Earth, Wind and Fire’s “System of Survival.” And to the degree the ideas are outmoded, they cease to be intellectually or even culturally vital.


I do think there’s a good deal of very sophisticated music outside of universities and concert halls, though some of it may inevitably date as inexorably as Earth, Wind and Fire. My own tastes are almost insanely eclectic: Satoshi Tomiie, Tristan Perich, John Cage, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Milton Babbitt, J Dilla, Philip Glass, and Steve Reich (to say nothing of Machaut, Bach, Liszt, Haydn, Wagner) are on my mind and my playlist, and I’m always looking for new material.

Some of the above individuals may or may not represent a trend I am increasingly noticing where I encounter a number of composers who are both clearly uninterested in the classical tradition (which, I emphasize again, is fine) and, perhaps, more open to the idea of a product that, like popular music, speaks vividly to a certain, finite present, can be easily grasped with one or two hearings, and is readily or even eagerly discarded when a new work in the same vein appears. The songs of Corey Dargel and Matt Marks have very little to do with classical music, even though their work can hardly be called pop music. They have a certain sophistication that several hearings reveal, but it’s not particularly necessary to grasp that sophistication in order to enjoy their music. Part of it is a question of scale: the shorter such a composition is, the more easily it can be digested (and either forgotten or not—how many of us are listening to Philip Glass’s Songs from Liquid Days now?). Even so, I might find myself returning to their work because their expressive or compositional merits still offer something that I want to experience again. In other words, Dargel’s and Marks’s chosen medium of song would no more assign their work to oblivion than Schubert’s.

At the same time, I can’t help but feel more than a little angst about the present tendency in new music, especially new American music, one that Milton Babbitt memorably resisted in 1975 when he said, “I dare to aspire to make music as much as it can be, rather than as little as one can obviously get away with music’s being, under the current egalitarian dispensation.” I like options. I like pieces that I want and need to hear again and again: Steve Reich’s Music for Eighteen Musicians (or WTC 9/11, lest I be accused of liking only Reich’s earlier music), Cage’s Etudes Australes, Robert Morris’s MA. I need pieces that can stretch my capacity for hearing, challenge my assumptions of what a piece of music can be. (Two more recent examples: Enno Poppe’s Salz and Michał Dobrzyński’s Magnus Dominus.) But I also like somewhat less durable pieces—charming, maybe a bit profound, and more instantly understood—like Dargel’s Last Words from Texas, which I may well continue to explore, or Sage the Gemini’s “Red Nose,” which I probably won’t.

But the question remains as to whether this cornucopia of options will remain in play or whether, as another, younger generation holds increasing sway over taste-making, the options will become more limited. I mentioned Milton Babbitt’s lament above, and the recent near-canonization of Steve Reich as America’s greatest living composer suggests that he is right—as I recall, the pronouncement was made while composers like Elliott Carter were still alive, not to mention John Luther Adams or Alvin Lucier. Then, too, there is the question of the changing environments for music performance, rightly hailed by Sandow (and which occasioned this essay). These new venues might condition changing listening habits as much as the kind of music heard there.

Classical music (and whatever you want to call the other kinds of music I don’t see as classical) needs new, younger audiences to be sure. But the new audience might come at a cost. The Dinnerstein debacle suggests that today’s composers are more open to the popular music model, which is not designed, in the main, to reward hundreds of hearings, let alone initiate or sustain a canonical literature. And this is by no means a new phenomenon. Think of the 70-some operas Donizetti wrote because his audiences needed a constant supply of new fare. Same with the symphonies of Haydn and Mozart. But I nevertheless worry that this more disposable concert music will lead to more superficial listening and a more fleeting sense of long-term musical memory.

I expressed more or less the same fear in the closing of my Dinnerstein review: “Classical music can wonderfully embrace the popular musical world around it—as in the work of Mason Bates or, in particular, Michael Gordon—but it cannot hope to offer momentary diversions in the same manner as pop music. That seems to be what this disc aspires to. And if this is all the future that classical music has, then classical music has no future.” I still believe this and hope new classical music will find a way to continue.

CD Review: Journeys—Tony Tobin plays Claude Debussy (Telepherique Productions, 2012, 56 minutes)

No one, I hope, would dispute Debussy’s importance to twentieth-century music; nor would they disagree that his innovative approach to timbre and his use of techniques like chordal planing, modes, and other unusual scale types forms an important part of his legacy. On top of this, his music is staggeringly beautiful, urgent, and unforgettable.

Debussy was also a pianist, and, from contemporary accounts, an extremely gifted one. Any pianist can appreciate that the sound of his music is an important key to its effective performance. What is that sound, though? Debussy gave detailed descriptions within some of his scores. One of my favorites is “Sonore sans dureté” (“sonorous without harshness”), in prelude called “The Sunken Cathedral”—at fortissimo, how does a pianist actually play this? I’m still trying to figure it out; I think it would be the sonic equivalent of something like the soft, luminous colors in paintings by J. M. W. Turner.

Perhaps a good starting place is the actual choice of instrument. Debussy played a 1902 Bluethner, a little under 6′3″ in length—it’s still in existence and well maintained at the Musée Labenche in Brive-la-Gaillarde, Limousin. This fact suggests that a smaller piano might be better suited to Debussy’s music than the largest concert grand.

Through listening to this 2012 release, I’ve certainly become convinced that a smaller piano works superbly for Debussy’s music; Tobin uses a Steinway A (6′2″ long). It’s a light-sounding instrument, and the bass strings, in particular, have a less strident sound and a somewhat faster decay than with larger instruments. The topmost register is like lace, never harsh or metallic; the middle register has a lean sound as well.

Tobin recorded the program in Switzerland’s Kulturplatz Wetzikon using only a modest Zoom H4N recorder (costs about $200 on Amazon). Each piece was captured in a single take, and there was no further postproduction of any sort. This approach not only offers a testament to his superior technique and musical instincts, but also gives the performances a freer, spontaneous character that suits Debussy’s music very well.

One highlight for me is the revelatory performance of “Des pas sur la neige” (“Footsteps in the Snow”) from the first book of Préludes). Like so many of Debussy’s works, the piece unfolds through the presentation of a single motivic idea placed in constantly shifting harmonic contexts; there’s also a frequent additional melodic layer in a higher register (occasionally transferred to the bass) and, about three-fourths of the way through, an unexpected new idea that sounds a bit like parallel organum. Tobin’s performance constantly varies the level of dynamics between the principal idea and the upper subordinate one, revealing subtle layers of motivic interaction between them. With timing and variations of tone color he also creates various connections for the different harmonizations, making them seem to follow a definite plan rather than to appear simply as a kaleidoscopic succession of chords. The piano’s characteristic timbre makes the enigmatic closing sonority (a D-minor chord at the outer extremes of the instrument) sound pale and completely forlorn.

The lighter tone of the piano also works very well for the evergreen “Fille aux cheveux de lin.” The lowest bass notes of the chords have a direct quality that never overpowers the subtle textures Tobin achieves. In the performance, too, I can savor (and envy) the soft, non-percussive quality throughout: it’s as if the musical lines emanate from the instrument almost as if they were bowed or perhaps willed to sing from within. The sonic approach is also nicely complemented by the interpretation, which makes its musical points simply but never diffidently. Rubato emphasizes unusual turns in the formal shape but gives the impression of a new idea considered just at that moment and nevertheless integrated naturally into the ongoing music.

Of course, Tobin is a consummate virtuoso—you have to be to tackle Debussy. And his virtuosity is effortless, as demonstrated in the limpid arpeggios, sudden expressive changes, and light, non-legato passages in “‘Les fées sont d’exquises danseuses.’” Here and elsewhere (as in “Ondine”), Tobin’s deft handling of so many different moods and figurations helps to reveal what is truly astonishing about Debussy’s conception of formal design. As with Stravinsky, the Frenchman’s music propels itself forward through a mosaic of different ideas, many of which are presented more than once in a sophisticated rotational design. (For a fascinating formal study of this principle, see this essay about “Nuages,” by James Hepokoski.)

There’s almost everything here that a single-CD collection of Debussy’s piano music should include. (In addition to the pieces mentioned already, the program contains “Clair de Lune,” “Le vent dans la plaine,” Brouillards, “Canope,” “‘Général Lavine’—eccentric,” “‘Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir,’” “Les Soirs illumines par l’ardeur du charbon,” “Feux d’artifice,” “La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune,” “Hommage à S. Pickwick Esq. P. P. M. P. C.,” and “Pagodes.”) I’d love to have heard “Reflets dans l’eau” on the same disc, but maybe Tobin will release another Debussy CD before too long. He should; whenever I teach Debussy’s piano music, I illustrate it with Tobin’s recordings—they’re that good.

The CD can be purchased through HBDirect and other vendors.

The Great Cage Recordings: Introduction

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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).
  7. 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.)
  8. 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?
  9. 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.