Cage’s Concerto for Prepared Piano and Orchestra

By Mark Swed

Written for the concert Surrealism and Music? The Musical World Around René Magritte, 1930-1975 performed on Nov 13, 1992 at Carnegie Hall. 

The piece John Cage always professed to be the favorite of all his work was his most famous and controversial score, 4’33”. Written in 1953, it calls for a performed (in the case of the premiere it was as pianist) to sit silently for the allotted time. But not only was 4’33’ Cage’s favorite piece, it was also the one he was most proud of having “composed.” As he often said, he wrote it note by note; all the noted, however, were silent.

That remark is usually taken as a joke by an irrepressibly witty man; and the piece as either a masterpiece of conceptual art or Dada, or as, itself, a joke. But, in fact, Cage was neither a conceptual artist (although he inspired the whole modern movement), a Dadaist (although he became the patron saint of the neo-Dada Fluxus movement in the 1960’s), nor really a Surrealist (although there has probably never been anything more surreal on the lyric stage than his Europeras 1 and 2, with their random arias, movements, sets, costumes, lights and even plot synopses.

Cage was completely serious in his remarks about 4’33”. He was, from the start and remained to the end of his life, what many, both of his admirers and detractor, have never fully credited him as being, a composer who really did compose note by note, however, much he expanded the definition of what the notes may be and how one might compose. And he really did compose his silent piece note by note, and the notes added up to four minutes and thirty-three seconds. He was inspired to compose it by Robert Rauschenberg’s white paintings of the time, and he felt that he had done something equivalent of making a painting using only white paint.

But what are the notes of 4’33”? They are durations, rhythms that were selected by use the chance operations, in this case by using mathematical charts of durations and a complex procedure of applying the I Ching, the Chinese book of oracles, to determine the moves of the chart. And there is no better single piece than this evening’s Concerto for Prepared Piano and Orchestra to understand how this can make interesting music, or how 4’33” can be music, and even why Cage would continue prolifically for nearly forty years after 4’33”, rather than find silence the end of the road.

The Concerto for Prepared Piano and Orchestra was composed two years before 4’33”, at the midpoint of the 20th century and at one of the most extraordinary transitional periods in both Cage’s career and in modern music. The young progressive postwar composers, and especially the Europeans, wanted, like just about everyone else, to rebuild the world on new principles. They wanted a music not tied to the Teutonic principles of order that had commandeered musical thinking for centuries. And they turned to Anton Webern, who wrote tiny, jewel-like pieces, made of distinct kaleidoscopic sounds. (Yes, Webern was himself a composer who came straight out of the Germanic tradition, and he became a pathetically misguided Nazi sympathizer at the end of his life. But his music really was new, and the Nazis would have none it.)

Cage, like has colleagues and friends in Europe, especially Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen, admired Webern’s music. And the Concerto for Prepared Piano often sounds Webernesque in its delicacy, in the crystallization of instrumental colors and the isolation of short musical gestures. Cage, moreover, had studied with Arnold Schoenberg in Los Angeles, as Webern had earlier been disciple of Schoenberg in Vienna. And Cage, like Schoenberg and Webern, composed using systems. Only Cage’s systems and his intentions were entirely different.

Schoenberg’s principles of 12-tone music, which Webern expanded upon, were based primarily on harmony, and Cage always admitted that he had no feeling for harmony. It was rhythm that fascinated him. His early works of the late 1930’s and the 1940’s are primarily rhythmic music for percussion, with the composer always looking for new and usual ways to add color and variety to a percussion ensemble ( and one the typically unusual percussion instruments in the Concerto for Prepared Piano is a radio). In 1940, when asked to compose a dance piece on an African theme to be given in a theatre with only room for a piano, Cage discovered that he could turn the piano into a percussion orchestra by inserting various objects, like wood screws and clips, in between strings, and thereby invented the prepared piano.

But by the late 1940’s, Cage had reached a crisis, the only real crisis he ever had as a composer. He had been increasingly utilizing unconventional instruments, sounds and composing techniques to obtain still somewhat traditional ends, that is to express emotions in music. But he found that audiences often completely mistook expression, finding in it something he had not intended. So he felt that he had to free his music from himself, from his own likes and dislikes.

In the Concerto for Prepared Piano, Cage did this through constructing a matrix of blocks which contained what he called “pre-orchestrated combinations of sounds” and then developed a system of making moves to organize the sounds into preordained metric structures. “By making moves on the charts,” Cage wrote to Boulez, with whom he was regularly corresponding at the time, “I freed myself from what I had thought to be freedom, and which actually was only the accretion of habits and taste.”

In the first movement of the concerto, the moves are the least rigorous and only for the orchestra; the solo part is freely composed, reminiscent of his earlier prepared piano music. In the second movement, both the prepared piano and orchestra parts are taken from the charts using movements in concentric circles; here the pianist is beginning to give up personal taste. For the third movement, he created a new, more abstract chart, and employed the I Ching to determine all the material for the prepared piano and orchestra, allowing more and more silence in, and ending each rhythmic cycle in the movement with five bars of silence. The effect is as if Cage’s ego gradually fads away throughout the concerto, with silence gaining increasing impact, thus making this, perhaps, the most ethereal concerto in all the literature.

From this point on, there was never any turning back for Cage. In the more than a hundred scores he was still to write over the next four decades, he remained devoted to the I Ching, and with seemingly limitless imagination he never repeated himself, finding way after way to create a new music freed from his ego, but just about always recognizable as Cage. So in the sense that Cage wanted to set the people free, as Robert Hughes has written of the Surrealists’ intent, he was a Surrealist. And like the best Surrealists, his freedom was always the result of painstaking structure. But where Cage parted company with at least some of the Surrealists was the he wanted to find a way for art to make you free without being foolish. The Concerto for Prepared Piano and Orchestra is a very beautiful and even touching realization of that concept.