Author Topic: John Cage's Number Pieces  (Read 258 times)

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Online Mandryka

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John Cage's Number Pieces
« on: February 20, 2020, 03:34:32 AM »
I've decided to explore these works.

Suggestions for things which have captured your imagination or given you food for thought, either recordings or writings, much appreciated.
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Offline André

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Re: John Cage's Number Pieces
« Reply #1 on: February 20, 2020, 05:55:11 AM »

I’ve had this on my wish list for quite some time now. The work is performed in two different ways - whatever that’s supposed to mean. I’m interested in your comments !


https://www.jpc.de/jpcng/cpo/detail/-/art/John-Cage-1912-1992-Thirteen/hnum/6646974



Offline T. D.

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Re: John Cage's Number Pieces
« Reply #2 on: February 20, 2020, 07:11:00 AM »
I've periodically looked (albeit not intensely) for informative writing on the number pieces, but never found anything significant.
Always liked this one: live recording at the venue for which the piece was commissioned:
« Last Edit: February 20, 2020, 07:23:01 AM by T. D. »

Online Mandryka

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Re: John Cage's Number Pieces
« Reply #3 on: February 20, 2020, 08:19:05 AM »
Thanks for all these inspiring ideas.

Here is the essay from this recording



Quote from: Rob Haskins
As he approached his eightieth birthday, John Cage (1912–1992) found himself the grand old man of the avant-garde, a composer, writer, and artist who had attained notoriety and visibility on a worldwide scale. Once only a small circle of brilliant performers had been associated with his work; now ensembles and soloists awarded him commission after commission for new compositions. In order to keep up with the demand for new pieces, Cage turned once more to his long–time assistant Andrew Culver, who developed new software that enabled Cage to write music very quickly.

These new works, which occupied almost all of Cage’s compositional attention between 1987 and 1992, came to be known as the Number Pieces. Each work’s title consists only of a number written out as a word (One, Two, Fourteen, etc.) that indicates the number of performers for which the piece was composed. If Cage wrote several works for the same number of performers, he would make a further distinction in the title by adding a superscript numeral; for instance, Four (1989) is for string quartet, while Four4 (1991) is for a quartet of percussion.

As in many of Cage’s works, there is a rich network of ideas underlying the 48 completed Number Pieces. One of the most important of these is the composer’s concern for the place of the artist within society and his concern for society in general. This idea occupied his mind since his decisive adoption of indeterminacy in the 1950s. We certainly recall Cage’s famous statement about musicians in the Concert for Piano and Orchestra (1958):

I must find a way to let people be free without their becoming foolish. So that their freedom will make them noble. . . . My problems have become social rather than musical. Was that what Sri Ramakrishna meant when he said to the disciple who asked him whether he should give up music and follow him? “By no means. Remain a musician. Music is a means of rapid transportation to life everlasting.” And in a lecture I gave at Illinois, I added, “To life, period.” [John Cage, A Year from Monday: New Lectures and Writings (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1967), 136.]

In the Number Pieces Cage made his final statement on this social problem: how to create a musical metaphor for an “enlightened” anarchy, a society of individuals who live together in harmony without having to sacrifice their freedom as individuals to a central governing authority. He had attacked the problem earlier from a variety of angles; in his most radical works like 0¢00² (1962) and Variations III (1963), for example, the performer realizes actions that may or may not be “musical” in the traditional sense, and she may do these actions for any length of time. Without traditional musical sounds or the “frame” that a time span provides, Cage challenged the very notions of the musical work.

For most of the Number Pieces, however, Cage decided to specify the length of time that each piece would last, perhaps because he wrote so many of them for musicians that he did not personally know. But in order to introduce an element of unpredictability and flexibility within a stable total duration (thus bringing the music closer to his ideal of an anarchistic environment), Cage turned to elastic “measures” that he called time brackets. He describes the time brackets in his late autobiographical mesostic, Composition in Retrospect (1981/1988):

    for some time now i haVe been using / time-brAckets / sometimes they aRe / fIxed / And sometimes not / By fixed / i mean they begin and end at particuLar / points in timE

    when there are not pointS / Time / foR both beginnings and end is in space / the sitUation / is muCh more flexible / These time-brackets / are Used / in paRts / parts for which thEre is no score no fixed relationship

    it was part I thought of a moVement in composition / Away / fRom structure / Into process / Away / from an oBject having parts / into what you might caLl / wEather

    now i_See / That / the time bRackets / took_Us / baCk from / weaTher which had been reached to object / they made an earthqUake / pRoof music / so to spEak

    [John Cage, Composition in Retrospect (Cambridge: Exact Change Books, 1993), 34–35.]

Cage had used time brackets for a long time, for instance in the 1952 Untitled Event at Black Mountain College. In the Number Pieces, however, the time brackets are smaller and more subtle. In Four4, as an example, the music in Player I’s first time bracket can begin any time between 0¢00² and 1¢00²; it must end sometime between 0¢40² and 1¢40². On the other hand, Player IV can begin the music in his first time bracket any time between 0¢00² and 0¢15² and must end it between 0¢10² and 0¢25². None of the time brackets for any of the four players has an exact correspondence with any other, though there is always the possibility that the sounds might overlap. In this way, the performers in Cage’s Number Pieces can participate in a unique kind of ensemble and yet retain their own sense of musical identity and individuality. In conversations with Joan Retallack near the end of his life, Cage described this situation beautifully:

    JC [John Cage]: You would go to a concert and you would hear these people playing without a conductor, hmm? And you would see this group of individuals and you would wonder how in hell are they able to stay together? And then you would gradually realize that they were really together, rather than because of music made to be together. In other words, they were not going one two three four, one two three four, hmm? But that all the things that they were sounding were together, and that each one was coming from each one separately, and they were not following a conductor, nor were they following an agreed-upon metrics. Nor were they following an agreed-upon . . . may I say poetry?—meaning feeling in quite a different way at the same time that they were being together.

    JR [Joan Retallack]: So that really is a kind of microcosm of an—

    JC: Of an anarchist society, yes. That they would have no common idea, they would be following no common law. The one thing that they would be in agreement about would be something that everyone is in agreement about . . . and that is, what time it is.

    [John Cage and Joan Retallack, Musicage: Cage Muses on Words, Art, Music; John Cage in Conversation with Joan Retallack (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1996), 50–51.]

Now the actual sound content of Cage’s time brackets in the Number Pieces is equally subtle: usually each time bracket contains only a single pitch (as in Four4); or perhaps two or three pitches connected by a slur; or more exceptionally, for instance in Thirteen (1992), a longer string of pitches. The percussion parts in most of these works, and in Four4, are for instruments that Cage never specifies but simply refers to by number. By leaving the choice of instruments up to the performers, I believe Cage was expressing not a disinterest in the choice but rather a Zen-like absence from choice, the ultimate certainty that his ego need not influence the sounds that would appear in his percussion music. This absence and the extreme economy of content gives Cage’s Number Pieces a transparency that is always a surprise for those who know the composer’s more extravagant or virtuosic works—27¢10.554² for a Percussionist (1956), the Concert, HPSCHD (1969), Roaratorio (1979), or the Freeman Etudes for violin (1977–80/1989–90). And most of the works are longer than twenty minutes, some much longer than that: Four4 lasts 72 minutes in performance.

Hearing a piece for such a length of time that consists of very few sounds is a very unusual adventure. In my own experiences, I have a sensation of being neither awake nor asleep, present and centered but experiencing the passage of time and listening in a manner totally unfamiliar to me. Another friend of mine described it as being compelled to be with yourself for a very long time. Whatever the impression one has, it is clear that the Number Pieces give a memorable impression of spaciousness and tranquility.

Yet it is a misconception to see these works as the unique and crystalline final monuments of a master composer who expected death at any moment. Many of Cage’s earlier works are just as transparent, from the famous 4¢33² (1952) to Inlets (1977), for four conch shells filled with water. One quality that unites all of these pieces is their amazing emphasis on “ordinary life”—all that performers need to have is devotion both to the act of producing a sound and to hearing the sounds around them. Overly dramatic display has no place in these late works, but curiosity and awareness do. This exuberance for everyday life and for discovery is at the very heart of Cage’s artistic legacy. It is no surprise, then, that one of the artist’s favorite sayings was “Nichi nichi kore ko nichi”—“Every day is a beautiful day.”
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Offline T. D.

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Re: John Cage's Number Pieces
« Reply #4 on: February 20, 2020, 08:38:02 AM »
Thanks! That's a great essay. I had a suspicion that some of the best writing on NP might be found in liner notes to recordings.
BTW, this discussion motivated me to finally order Two^2 by Knoop and Thomas.
« Last Edit: February 20, 2020, 08:51:03 AM by T. D. »

Online Mandryka

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Re: John Cage's Number Pieces
« Reply #5 on: February 20, 2020, 08:49:29 AM »
Today I've been listening to Two6, for violin and piano.




I've found four recordings, and I must say this one on Mode with Ami Flammer and Martine Joste has really caught my imagination. I've listened to the whole thing twice! Normally I've got an attention span of about 10 minutes.

I think this must be very hard to play, there's just nowhere for the musicians to hide! It must be hard to create enough mystery and enough beauty to entice the listener to continue for the duration.

I've come across three other performances of Two6. Irvvin Arditti and Drury plays it here



It's strange. It is much more challenging than any other recording of it, long long silences, lots of very straight tone playing, there's little about it which is seductive. But there's something telling me that what he does is interesting, at least I'm not prepared to abandon it just yet. I may be wrong -- it's pull may be just that it's so different. These guys are very experienced of course.

Apart from that there are these two

     

They both seem OK, maybe less refined than Flammer and Joste.

By the way there's another thing which is called something resembling Two6 here



But it isn't! I don't know what's going on.

« Last Edit: February 20, 2020, 08:59:01 AM by Mandryka »
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Online Mandryka

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Re: John Cage's Number Pieces
« Reply #6 on: February 20, 2020, 08:56:47 AM »
I’ve had this on my wish list for quite some time now. The work is performed in two different ways - whatever that’s supposed to mean. I’m interested in your comments !


https://www.jpc.de/jpcng/cpo/detail/-/art/John-Cage-1912-1992-Thirteen/hnum/6646974




Well, listening for ten minutes to the first one has made me keen to hear the rest! Sounds promising.
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Online Mandryka

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Re: John Cage's Number Pieces
« Reply #7 on: February 20, 2020, 10:41:06 AM »
I’ve had this on my wish list for quite some time now. The work is performed in two different ways - whatever that’s supposed to mean. I’m interested in your comments !


https://www.jpc.de/jpcng/cpo/detail/-/art/John-Cage-1912-1992-Thirteen/hnum/6646974




There’s also this, which is very well recorded, full of inner life. I think it’s become clear already that The Number Pieces séries on Mode is going to be essential listening!



Thirteen may have been his last piece, or maybe two6. Looking now for intimations or mortality . . .the feeling of valediction . . .  like in Feldman’s final work (I know that’s a fool’s errand!) Written in May 1992, he died the following August.
« Last Edit: February 20, 2020, 10:53:00 AM by Mandryka »
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Offline T. D.

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Re: John Cage's Number Pieces
« Reply #8 on: February 20, 2020, 11:56:41 AM »
Spinning this one now (haven't listened in a long time):

Strange, in the number pieces it seems like I'm preferring the sonorities of wind instruments and piano to those of strings...have to listen more.

Offline André

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Re: John Cage's Number Pieces
« Reply #9 on: February 20, 2020, 01:01:25 PM »
There’s also this, which is very well recorded, full of inner life. I think it’s become clear already that The Number Pieces séries on Mode is going to be essential listening!



Thirteen may have been his last piece, or maybe two6. Looking now for intimations or mortality . . .the feeling of valediction . . .  like in Feldman’s final work (I know that’s a fool’s errand!) Written in May 1992, he died the following August.

Thanks for the replies, much appreciated. More music to discover!

Online Mandryka

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Re: John Cage's Number Pieces
« Reply #10 on: February 20, 2020, 01:10:03 PM »
Thanks for the replies, much appreciated. More music to discover!

Ah, i was just coming to post to say that the second version on Reichert is very good!
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Online Mandryka

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Re: John Cage's Number Pieces
« Reply #11 on: February 25, 2020, 09:49:15 AM »
Two very nice things on this which I've been enjoying



The first is a beautiful performance of Two With Eberhard Blum and Marianne Schroeder. It's on youtube.

But in a way even more impressive is a performance of a piece called Music for Five. "What is it?" I can hear you think. Well here's a description, which shows that they got up to some pretty amazing things back in the day


Quote
This work consists of 17 parts for voice and instruments without overall score. Its title is to be completed by adding the number of performers, i.e. Music for Five, Music for Twelve, and so forth. Each part consists of "pieces" and "interludes," notated on two systems and using flexible time-brackets. Some of the "pieces" are made up of single held tones, preceded and followed by silence, and should be played softly; they can be also be repeated. Others consist of sequences of tones with various pitches, notated proportionally. Tones in these parts are not to be repeated and have varying dynamics, timbres, and durations. The "Interludes", lasting 5, 10, or 15 seconds, are to be played freely with respect to dynamics and durations of single notes, and normally with respect to timbre. The work uses microtonal pitches. The piano is played by bowing the strings with fishing line or horse hair. The percussionists have 50 instruments each, chosen by the performer with the caveat that selected instruments are able to produce held tones. The string parts follow the notation of Freeman Etudes. The players may decide on the number of “pieces” and “interludes” to be performed, resulting in a maximum duration of thirty minutes.

That description comes from the website

https://johncage.org/

which looks like it's going to prove to be an invaluable resource.
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Online Mandryka

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Re: John Cage's Number Pieces
« Reply #12 on: February 26, 2020, 07:32:51 AM »
     

https://gerauschhersteller.bandcamp.com/
http://www.anothertimbre.com/page78.html

I've been exploring two performances of Four4. The Another Timbre recording is very colourful and it seems to me to locate the music in a tradition which subsumes Xenakis or Merzbow for example.

The Gerauschhersteller, on the other hand, has the austerity of a desert landscape and from my austere point of view, it's utterly wonderful. But if you don't have monkish tendencies you'll think it's a complete bore.
« Last Edit: February 26, 2020, 07:38:16 AM by Mandryka »
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