Wednesday, October 23, 2013

John Cage: In a Landscape

This collection of piano pieces, recorded in 1993 and 1994, by the composer John Cage are mainly from the years 1938-1948, when he was moving away from the twelve-tone method of composing championed by the likes of Arnold Schoenberg and into more esoteric experiments with pitch, tone and altered instruments, often for ballet and dance commissions, but far removed from the electronic, sound environment and chance operations spheres in which he delved into from the 1950s onward.

The intriguing, if often maddening (to many people), thing about Cage was his restless and tireless examination into the fundamental nature of sound, its relation to higher forms of spirituality (he was deep into Hindu philosophy at the time, later delving into Zen Buddhism) and the challenge to conventional musical thinking that animated so much of his work.

So, compared to Indeterminacy, the 1959 work he developed with David Tudor, which to many minds is anti-musical and to others is a daring exploration into music as an expression of chance operations of sound, or to the notorious "4'33"," in which a pianist simply sat quietly at a piano in a concert hall and allowed the uncomfortable murmurings and other sounds from the confused audience become the performance, In a Landscape might seem quaint.  At the time, undoubtedly, it caused its own share of controversy.

To this largely untutored listener, the bookend pieces, 1948's "In a Landscape" and "Dream" are highly complementary pieces and infused with what would later be called "ambient."  One can easily hear how such later pianists as Harold Budd were greatly influenced by what Cage was doing during the Forties.  These simple, repetitive and enchanting pieces don't call for expressive displays of technique, but for sensitivity and restraint and, as such, are quietly beautiful.

In a quiet different and odd way, Cage's "Suite for Toy Piano", one of his better-known works, daring from 1948, uses higher pitches from what is really a child's toy to create its own evocative and expressive music.  Getting past the idea that the instrument is a toy and accepting the intriguing sounds that are evoked from a limited range of notes yields some surprises--again, this is especially true from an amateur with only a rudimentary understanding of the finer points of composition.

Other works, including "Bacchanale" from 1938, "A Valentine Out of Season" (1944), "Music for Marcel Duchamp" (1947) and "Prelude for Meditation" (1944) are also imbued with the intriguing sounds of the prepared piano, rendered such by all manner of material placed in the instrument to evoke a wide variety sounds.  Screws, plastic, wood, rubber, bolts and other materials allowed for a palette of pitches that actually put a fresh emphasis on the piano as a truly percussive instrument.  The reference to Duchamp, an artist who caused a great stir in his peak period with his challenge to convention and use of absurdist humor, is particularly telling.

As performer Stephen Drury, who does an excellent job playing on the album, points out in the helpful notes, Cage was driven to preparing the piano as he did by necessity.  When commissioned to use a piano for a dance piece that called for an "African" sound, the composer turned to a variation on what a former instructor of his, the great Henry Cowell, had done.  But, instead of plucking, scraping, strumming and sliding his hands, forearms and certain objects across the strings, Cage took to developing what he termed "mutes" with those aforementioned materials to change the pitch and otherwise alter the sound to get closer to that "African" sound he was searching for.

One of the pieces stands out from the rest in several ways.  "Souvenir" was composed in 1983, four decades or more after the rest, is performed on an organ, and is longer than the other works, but does share many of the same concerns with evocative sounds, irrespective of a quest for virtuosity, which usually animates solo work on keyboards (or any other instrument, for that matter.) 

In a Landscape is an interesting and, relatively speaking, accessible way to hear what the composer was aiming for during, excepting "Souvenir", a period in which his creative impulses were moving rapidly, as were those of many others in the "new" forms of "classical" music evolving in the 1940s and afterward.  A later look at his "Sonatas and Interludes" for prepared piano will be an excellent complement to this very fine album.

John Cage: In a Landscape (Catalyst/BMG Classics, 1994)

1.  In a Landscape  9:42
2.  Music for Marcel Duchamp  6:04
3.  Souvenir  11:53
4.  A Valentine Out of Season  3:48
4.  Suite for Toy Piano  8:10
5.  Bacchanale  9:27
6.  Prelude for Meditation  1:01
7.  Dream  8:42

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