De Musica Cagensis

“Which is more musical, a truck passing by a factory or a truck passing by a music school? Are the people inside the school musical and the ones outside unmusical? What if the ones inside can’t hear very well, would that change my question?” ― John Cage, Communication (Lecture, 1957)

On Sunday, 100 years to the day after John Cage was born, trucks and Cambuses rumbled by the University Capitol Center as the Center for New Music hosted a performance of the composer’s Sonatas and Interludes (1946-48). Following the recital was a panel discussion featuring Cage scholars and associates, most of whom had personally known and worked with the composer. For me, the two events were an apt microcosm of a polarity that persists in Cage’s music and philosophy: that between “determinate” and “indeterminate” works.

Before his early-1950s explorations into Zen Buddhism and the I Ching led him to an aesthetic grounded in indeterminacy, Cage crafted music of meticulously determined detail. The Sonatas and Interludes epitomize this ideal of determinacy, not only in their musical structure but also in their instrument: a piano prepared with bolts, screws, nuts, and bits of plastic and rubber affecting the strings of 45 notes, in effect creating a sophisticated acoustic synthesizer. The resulting transformations of timbre and tuning evoke a gamelan; conventional and detuned/harmonic piano colors mingle with woodblocks, drums, chimes, gongs, and other percussion.

At the UCC recital, Patricia von Blumröder delivered a performance that was masterful in both nuance and large-scale coherence. The “macro-form” of Sonatas and Interludes features four groups of four sonatas (“S”) symmetrically delimited by four interludes (“I”): S1-4, I1, S5-8, I2, I3, S9-12, I4, S13-16. With some exceptions, the sonatas are in compact binary forms (AABB) and the interludes more freely structured. I came to the recital armed with a chart of the form, courtesy of Wikipedia, though I found that Cage’s clean, spare textures and “spinning out” of each movement’s opening motivic material didn’t require any additional guidance. This exquisitely-wrought, alternately lyrical and dancelike music is very much a trope on early 18th-century keyboard suites, though it would be a stretch to call it “Neo-Baroque.” Harmonies, though distorted by the unusual timbres and tunings, were for the most part tertian, with progressions, motivic cells, and frequent ostinati creating clear pitch centers. The opening timbres featured lightly-prepared pitches, giving the impression of a hammered dulcimer with occasional interjections from the “gamelan,” and as the cycle progressed, the more “exotic” timbres moved into the foreground.

Cage’s determinate compositions are admired by many musicians, though it’s safe to say that the composer’s fame and notoriety is for the most part due to his work with indeterminacy. Thus one finds that though pieces like Sonatas and Interludes evince supreme compositional craft, many (including Cage himself) consider his masterpieces to be 4’33” and its ilk, which evince no musical craft at all.

This oft-repeated and putatively unenlightened criticism brings us back to Cage’s questions about the relative musicality of trucks and people of varying auditory acuity who might be hanging around inside or outside music schools, including the participants in Sunday’s post-recital panel discussion. As one would hope with a birthday celebration, the roster was padded with Cage disciples, but what surprised me was that immediately following a seventy-minute performance of Sonatas and Interludes, the piece was hardly mentioned at all, save for a comment by the director of the John Cage Trust asserting that only after his “pre-chance” phase did the composer become “The John Cage we all know and love.”

So what then, is musical? We know that Cage has said “everything,” but how truly avant-garde is such a contention, and how might all musicians profitably engage the provocations of such a philosophy? Over 1400 years before Mr. Cage was ruffling feathers while forever transforming the ways we think about musical experience, another musical saint, the Medieval philosopher Boëthius (canonized by the Catholic Church as St. Severinus Boëthius) documented four types of music in his De Institutione Musica, only the least of which–musica instrumentalis–corresponds to our traditional concept. Of much higher importance were musicae mundana, humana, and divina, or, respectively “music of the spheres/world,” music of the human spirit and body, and music of the gods. Perhaps with Boëthius as our moderator, we might gain more sympathetic insight into Cage’s musica–a Boëthian all-embracing and ultimately undeterminable musica of galaxies, the interpenetration of all humanity, the metaphysical realm, and perhaps even trucks and music schools.

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One response to “De Musica Cagensis

  1. Thinking about Cage and ‘chance’ music – I would love to see a concert or recital with music by both Cage and Pierre Boulez, who looked at ‘chance’ music in the manner that even though possibilities were available, they were still of the mind of the composer. Although at its core, chance music a ‘la Cage has the inert possibility of nature at its best (think of the sounds of a summer day), Boulez takes given parameters and allows myriad possibilities.
    Just my $.02…

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