Old Friends, New Setting

Old Friends, New Setting

By Laura Kuhn

Written for the concert The Cage Concert, performed on Dec 13, 2012 at Carnegie Hall.

It is a fitting finale to John Cage’s Centennial Year to bring works together into a single program by individuals to whom Cage expressed lifelong devotion: the revered Austrian composer, Anton Webern (1883–1945); the beloved American composer, Morton Feldman (1926–87); and the iconoclastic French composer, Erik Satie (1866–1925).

Cage first met Feldman in 1950 at a New York Philharmonic concert that included Webern’s Symphony, Op. 21 (1928). The story goes that both composers left just after the Webern, just before a work by Rachmaninoff was to commence, Feldman in disgust at the audience’s reaction to the Webern, Cage not wanting his experience of the Webern disturbed. The two became fast friends, and in short order formed, with Christian Wolff and Earle Brown, what came to be known as The New York School.

Webern was not a prolific composer, his Symphony, Op. 21 (1928) being just one of 31 compositions published in his lifetime. The work is in two movements, the first embodying a four-part mirror canon and the second palindromic variations, marked overall by the composer’s signature economy of means and restrained expression. Webern was proud of the work, which he dedicated to his daughter, Christine. After its Vienna premiere, he wrote in his diary: “Great delight. Turned out really well.”
Feldman’s “Last Pieces” (1961) is among the composer’s last works written in graphic notation, here small boxes containing numbers that indicate how many sounds are to be played, with pitches and timings of entrances left to the performers. As in many of Feldman’s works, the dynamics are extremely dear, revealing rich and unpredictable harmonic textures. It was first performed at the Cooper Union, under the direction of Howard Shanet (March 17, 1961).

Satie’s Parade (1916–17) was a wartime collaboration involving Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso, Léonide Massine, and Serge Diaghilev, whose Ballets Russes gave the premiere performance at Paris’s Théâtre du Châtelet (May 18, 1917). Satie’s score contains several unusual instruments—typewriter, foghorn, milk bottles—which may have been added by Cocteau in an effort to ensure a succes de scandale. In his program note for the premiere performance, Guillaume Appolinaire described Parade as une sorte de surréalisme, coining the word that would be used years later for the art movement in Paris.

Cheap Imitation for orchestra (1972) derives from Cage’s 1944 piano arrangement of the first movement of Satie’s Socrate, a “symphonic drama in three parts” (1915). In 1968, when Cage returned to his work with the remaining two movements, Satie’s publisher unexpectedly refused permission. Cage’s response was to “recompose” the work, using chance means, resulting in music with the same phrasing, rhythms, and general contours of Satie’s composition, but which is otherwise quite distinct. Cage playfully renamed his new work Cheap Imitation(1969), and went on to create versions for orchestra (1972) and solo violin (1977) as well. The orchestral version is scored for 24-95 variable parts, the piano part serving as the conductor’s score.

Cage’s Etcetera (1973) and Etcetera 2/4 Orchestras (1985) are scored for variable ensemble, with and without conductors, and recordings of the environments in which the works were created; the instrumentation of Etcetera also calls for non-resonant cardboard boxes, which sound in performance like the patter of raindrops. Both reflect Cage’s long-standing social concerns, here his interest in how music might assist in the “…integration of the personality, or the co-being of the conscious and the unconscious mind, Law and Freedom, in a random world situation.”*

In Etcetera, the performers play in two different situations of their own choosing: as soloists or in conducted groups of 2, 3, or 4. Three stations are placed at the front of the stage, with a conductor at each; when the station fills, the conductor conducts. The work was first performed with Merce Cunningham’s Un Jour ou Deux by the Paris Opera Ballet at the Paris Opéra (Nov. 6, 1973), with sets and costumes by Jasper Johns.

In Etcetera 2/4 Orchestras, the situation is reversed: here, the ensemble is conducted throughout, but the performers are free to play as soloists at any time. The conductor beats more or less conventionally, creating an extremely slow, non-rhythmic pulse. The orchestral materials consist of fixed notes, but with added spice: Cage provides indications for playing slightly before or after the beat and for microtonal glissandi. The work was first performed by the City Harmonic Tokyo at Suntory Hall (Dec. 8, 1986).

*From “Defense of Satie,” John Cage, Black Mountain College Satie Festival (Summer, 1948).
Dr. Kuhn is the John Cage Professor of Performing Art at Bard College and Founding Director of the John Cage Trust.