Few composers can have adopted the mantle of musical pioneer more enthusiastically than Cage. Whenever the “danger” of his music being accepted arose, he at once attempted to take it to the place “where it would not be accepted”, always insisting that his favourite music was the music not yet heard. The main thing was to keep moving. An enfant terrible and finally a père terrible of successive avant-gardes, Cage successively challenged all the parameters of music-making, leaving an often bewildering variety of compositions behind him.
In the last decades of his life – Cage died in 1992 – most critics, and many fellow musicians, had abandoned the attempt to keep pace with John Cage, finding it more convenient to consider him a musical philosopher than to wrestle with the implications of the ever-changing work. It became popular to read Cage in such still-illuminating books as “Silence”, “A Year From Monday”, “M” or “For The Birds”, sooner than listen to him. But re-evaluations are taking place today as time inevitably mutes the revolutionary impact of the work.
Two years ago, ECM New Series issued Herbert Henck’s account of Cage’s “Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano” (1946-8), widely considered to be a benchmark recording of this important work. Now Henck re-examines some of the other inventions of the young Cage, piano pieces written by the American composer between 1935 and 1948.
The oldest of these pieces here is “Quest”, apparently the second half of a two movement work. Along with the early “Two Pieces for Piano” and “Metamorphosis”, this gives us the clearest idea of Cage as a composer still in thrall to the work and ideas of Arnold Schönberg. (The extent of Cage’s studies with Schönberg has never been verified to the satisfaction of music historians, but it seems fairly certain that Cage at least attended Schönberg’s courses at the University of Los Angeles in the summer of 1935, if not the two years of tuition he subsequently claimed.) These are pieces still based on tone-rows.
“Ophelia” (1946) is dedicated to dancer and choreographer Jean Erdman with whom Cage often worked. Henck writes: “Ophelia” is one of Cage’s most sensually appealing piano pieces in every way. Inclining towards the dance style of Jean Erdman, it is often lively with marked rhythms.”
“The Seasons” (1947) gets its second airing on ECM in the Henck piano rendition. The American Composers Orchestra, under the direction of Dennis Russell Davies, previously recorded it – using the orchestral arrangement Cage prepared together with Lou Harrison and Virgil Thomson – on ECM New Series 1696. It’s an important piece, marking the beginning of Cage’s interest in Eastern thought. At the time of its composition, Cage, then 35, was immersing himself in the religious philosophy of both West and East – studying Meister Eckhardt as well as Sri Ramakrishna and Ananada Coomaraswamy and considering the points of contact between the diverse traditions of Christian mysticism, Buddhism and Hinduism (but he was still four years away from his important studies in Zen with D.T. Suzuki). He was also studying Indian music and becoming increasingly convinced that the function of music was – as many Indian philosophers had insisted – “to quiet the mind and render it susceptible to divine influence.”
“In A Landscape” (1948) also makes a second appearance on ECM, having previously been incorporated into Alexei Lubimov’s recital disc “Der Bote”. Since it follows a group of pieces called “Imaginary Landscape” it is highly likely the title is a Cagean pun on “Inner Landscape”. It was premiered at Black Mountain College in North Carolina where Cage scandalized the faculty by proposing to the students that Satie was a superior composer to Beethoven. The poetic simplicity of Erik Satie was very much on Cage’s mind at the time (the French composer was to be a lifelong influence). Gently undulating, quietly unpredictable, the case can be made that Cage’s “In A Landscape” is a cousin to Satie’s “Gymnopédies”. It is a highly attractive composition as are all these instances of John Cage’s early piano music. (ECM Records)