Saturday, March 10, 2018

Just One Song - John Cage

John Cage
Williams Mix
The 25 Year Retrospective Concert of the Music of John Cage (1994)

You've gotta have a gimmick. I guess.

With any mention of John Cage it seems obligatory - perhaps there's a statute that covers this - to mention his most famous composition, a term that is perhaps used loosely in this case. It is, of course, 4'33", a three-movement work in which the performer(s) are instructed not to play their instruments for the four-minute and 33-second duration of the work.

So try this. Go ye forth into the wilderness of the internet and pull up some articles about John Cage. See if you can find one that doesn't mention 4'33". It's not likely that you will. I guess it proves that it was a good gimmick, although Cage might not have intended it as such.

The problem with 4'33" is that it tends to overshadow everything else that Cage did in the field of music, which included heaps of compositions turned out over the course of about 60 years. That's impressive, no matter how you look at it, as is the fact that many of these works were way ahead of their time and some might still be, all these years later. Which can be a bit daunting for newcomers to Cage's music. I'm not that well versed in Cage, but if you're also a fan of electronic and concrete music from the early days, you might want to start with his Imaginary Landscape and Williams Mix.

Cage composed ("conceived" might be more appropriate, in some of these cases) five Imaginary Landscapes between 1939 and 1952. They employ a smattering of traditional instruments but also included the likes of buzzers, oscillators and variable speed turntables. The fourth of the series, from 1951, in keeping with Cage's fondness for the concept of chance, finds the performers using 12 radios as their instruments.

At about the same time, Cage was working on a pioneering piece of tape music, making an early contribution to a field that was in its infancy. Williams Mix was a Herculean labor that found Louis and Bebe Barron - electronic pioneers in their own right, who are probably best known for their score to Forbidden Planet - doing a lot of the grunt work on the piece. And grunt work it was, creating 600 snippets of sound and weaving them into an eight-track piece that clocks in at just over four minutes. Which would be a considerable feat even today. Back then it took about a year - that breaks down to about a month for each 20 seconds of music.

Was it worth it? Well...if the truth be told it's not one to tap your toes to or hum along with but that was surely not the point. It's a densely packed piece that whips through its huge array of sounds without pausing to linger on any one thing. It's a good bet that hearing it mixed down to one or two channels is a less satisfying experience than hearing it in the original eight. But for modern day listeners, this is our only option.

No comments:

Post a Comment