SA3: The John Cage Issue

 I think it’s safe to say that John Cage’s music has entered an American musical canon. For better or for worse the performance of his compositions will be played by a vast number of musicians for years to come. These are compositions that demand a certain amount of interpretation by the performer or received information from Cage himself which, after his death, is not possible. The question, then, is how does an accepted performance practice take shape for his work? For those unfamiliar with either the concept of performance practice or with the scores of John Cage, here is an example that hopefully gives a definition of the former and explains the current difficulty with the latter. For our purposes, performance practice can be defined simply as the accepted way in which a majority of musicians perform a specific piece, the works of a single composer, or the works in a particular style or belonging to a particular time period. As an example, the performance practice surrounding the work of Gustav Mahler is to treat his music with great gravitas, the brass playing with heavy dark sounds. This is that music’s standard performance practice (simplified of course). And, this comes, in large part, from the way in which Mahler presented his music through his choice of articulations, dynamics, and other notational guidelines. For John Cage, much of the printed guidelines that created a performance practice around a more traditional composer like Mahler, doesn’t exist. His scores have been purposely created to be open to and almost force interpretation, which makes a codified “correct” way to perform them very difficult to come by. And, it’s this thinking about the performance practice related to John Cage’s music that becomes an interesting idea to explore in this issue. Some of the questions I ended up asking myself as I was preparing material were: Does the way to perform his music become codified and stale if a performance practice is put in place as a iron-clad guiding principle? Conversely, does a lack of articulated performance practice allow for the ambiguity of his scores to devolve into musical anarchy? And, finally, as I began to be completely absorbed in this project, this question seemed to leap to the forefront of my mind: Was John Cage enough of a genius to create musical forms that allowed for something transcendent in the middle path between anarchy and dogma? After setting up interviews and recordings with the broadest possible range of interpreters of Cage’s music; everyone from those receiving the transmission from Cage himself (Joan LaBarbara) to those that are discovering Cage’s music through a rigorous examination of his history, aesthetic, and the scores themselves (JACK Quartet and Rob Haskins), to those that regard Cage almost more as an idea, a somewhat open vessel that provides fodder for philosophical and musical speculation (BSC), I settled down to my foregone conclusion that John Cage had been full of interesting ideas, but that his legacy wouldn’t stand up once you took the genius of his interpreters out of the equation. I was beginning to get a feeling of apprehension, but I was still determined to be successful in my grounding of America’s maverick king. The following is one example of how I overcame that apprehension and embraced Cage's genius. - Nate Wooley, Editor Sound American

Jack Quartet on John Cage's Number Pieces

JACK Quartet Rehearses John Cage's Four

If there is one meta-idea that this issue of Sound American is meant to convey it would be that music does not simply appear out of thin air. A great deal of effort goes into a successful performance of any music; not simply the hours spent technically practicing the basics of playing instruments, but time also spent thinking, planning, explicating a piece or refining a musical language. This mental work is absolutely essential to John Cage’s music and, if done correctly, is not noticed by an audience while listening to a performance. For example, the Number Pieces can be viewed as simple works requiring a minimum of technical skill for performance, as they tend to eschew complicated rhythmic or melodic figures in favor of long, quiet tones, but the amount of planning, thinking and strategizing to create a performance can be staggering. To illustrate this point, Sound American travelled to the Upper West Side of Manhattan to be a documentarian fly on the wall at a recent rehearsal for an upcoming performance of Cage’s Four by JACK Quartet, one of the most brilliant young string quartets performing today. To give a little context to what you will hear, John Cage’s Four is his first Number Piece for string quartet and was originally composed for the Arditti Quartet in 1989. The piece is structured in three sections, marked A B C. Each of the parts is given a number 1-4 (you’ll hear these numbers and letters referred to throughout the rehearsal). There are three ways that the piece can be performed: A full performance is 30 minutes long and consists of each section being repeated ABC pause ABC. A 20 minute performance would consist of the outer movements as in AC pause AC. And the 10 minute performance, which JACK was preparing, consists of the middle section repeated, i.e. B pause B. It is important to mention the pauses because Cage has structured a change in timbre into the work by having performers switch parts during this pause. They then start from the beginning of whatever section their performance calls for (in JACK’s instance B) and perform the section again with the different orchestration. The change in orchestration puts the same pitches in different registers (i.e. a low note on violin would be a relatively high note on cell) and creates a slightly different feeling to the piece for the repeat that obfuscates, along with the ambiguity of the time bracket system, the listener’s ability to recognize on recording that the piece is being repeated. Technically speaking, Four does not offer much of an obstacle for JACK and the only truly mechanical part of the rehearsal was a brief but knotty discussion on intonation and how best to construct a consonant sonority in the central fixed time bracket in the piece given the multiple possibilities of instrumentation. (For a discussion of fixed and flexible time brackets, visit the Number Pieces page of this issue) The bulk of the work for JACK consisted of making informed guesses morph into decisions, and then solidify into performance practices. For example, discussions turned towards how to pass the sheets between players during the pause, how many clocks to use to keep track of the timings within the time brackets, the subtle differences within a dynamic range of ppp-p (very very soft to soft), and whether it is philosophically right to make a decision about when begin and end your notes or let them happen in the moment. The important thing about hearing JACK make these decisions is their place in the historical timeline of Cage. As mentioned elsewhere in this issue, those performers that had the possibility of working directly with the composer enjoy a huge advantage in the interpretation of his work, which can sometimes be purposefully vague and abstract in its notation and directions. This can create a solid performance practice tradition that is rooted almost completely in person-to-person transmission, something truly special. Unfortunately, those that have not had the benefit of this experience can fall into an attitude of thinking that, because of the ambiguity of the score, anything goes when performing Cage’s work. Nothing could be further from the truth, and often this results in self-indulgent, bad music (not to put too fine a point on it). JACK represents a new generation of musicians, the first to really tackle Cage’s work in a rigorous manner and without the benefit of knowing the man himself. As is evident when listening to this rehearsal, they bring a certain light-hearted rigor to their preparation and are confident enough to inject their own musical voices into Four without sacrificing the intent of the composer. These kinds of attitudes are going to be responsible for John Cage’s very special place in a canon of American classical music; a body of work that changes and grows organically over time as generation after generation of virtuosi gather together and ask the same questions that JACK quartet was grappling with at a Manhattan apartment in the fall of 2012. A note on the podcast: Though this rehearsal was one of the most focused I’ve been to in my 25 years of being a musician, it still had certain elements of a rehearsal that can produce tedium for the outside listener. It is the nature of the beast. Therefore, the rehearsal itself was edited to the salient points in which JACK deals with specific issues. Each of those issues is then separated by a short snippet of Four to provide some structure and followed by JACK’s full performance of the 10 minute version of Four from that afternoon. We’ve stayed away from bookending the performance with more talking as the delicate nature of the composition felt that it needed to fade into silence as it would in concert. Praised for its "explosive virtuosity" by the Boston Globe and its "powerhouse-playing" by the Chicago Sun-Times, the JACK Quartet has quickly established a reputation for giving high-energy performances of today's most demanding works for string quartet. The New York Times called the quartet's performance of Iannis Xenakis' complete string quartets one of the "most memorable classical music presentations of 2008," and in 2009, the quartet received an ASCAP/Chamber Music America Award for Adventurous Programming of Contemporary Music. Comprising violinists Christopher Otto and Ari Streisfeld, violist John Pickford Richards, and cellist Kevin McFarland, the quartet has performed at Carnegie Hall (USA), La Biennale di Venezia (Italy), the Lucerne Festival (Switzerland), the Wittener Tage für neue Kammermusik (Germany), and the Festival Internacional Chihuahua (Mexico) with future appearances at the Miller Theatre (USA), the Library of Congress (USA) and the Donaueschinger Musiktage (Germany). The commissioning and performance of new works for string quartet is integral to the JACK Quartet's mission, leading them to work closely with composers Helmut Lachenmann, György Kurtág, Matthias Pintscher, Toshio Hosokawa, Wolfgang Rihm, Elliott Sharp, Beat Furrer, and Aaron Cassidy. Upcoming premieres include works by Caleb Burhans, Peter Ablinger, and Alan Hilario. The quartet has lead workshops with young composers at Columbia University, New York University, Northwestern University, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the University of Victoria, and the University of Washington. In addition to working with composers and performers, the JACK Quartet seeks to broaden and diversify the potential audience for new music through educational presentations designed for a variety of ages, backgrounds, and levels of musical experience. The members of the quartet met while attending the Eastman School of Music, and they have since studied closely with the Arditti Quartet, Kronos Quartet, Muir String Quartet, and members of the Ensemble Intercontemporain.