88 Keys to Freedom: Segues Through the History of American Piano Music

Besides Mozart‘s throwing dice to make decisions about the conclusions of some dance pieces, artist Marcel Duchamp also used a chance method in his Erratum Musicale (1913) for three voices: one note for each of 25 syllables of a text drawn randomly from a hat and written down in the order in which they occurred. In composer John Cage‘s work, not only was a new method of composition invented, but he generated entirely new conceptual paradigms, which resulted in musical freedoms.

The use of chance methods generates material that is as surprising to the composer as to the performer and to the listener. Cage described his work as an exploration of non-intention, and chose path because of several experiences: one of which was his visit to an anechoic chamber at Harvard University in the late 1940s. While in the chamber which is supposed to be acoustically negative he nevertheless heard two unintended sounds: a high-pitched sound, which was his nervous system in operation, and a low-pitched sound that was his blood circulating. He had discovered that silence does not exist in the world, but is “a change of mind, a turning around,” and decided to devote his music to that.

Earlier, having experienced audiences who laughed during his pieces which he thought to be sad, Cage came to distrust the idea that music was all about communication, and was distressed that he could not discover a clear reason to compose music; he even considered giving up. Then Gira Sarabhai, an Indian singer and tabla player, told him “The purpose of music is to sober and quiet the mind, thus making it susceptible to divine influences.”

One new performance practice that arose with the third (chance composed) part of the Concerto for Prepared Piano and Orchestra, in which sounds are appreciated for themselves, is that each sound-event must be independently rung; the music must not feel as if it is flowing forward in linear time—even though it was notated in the traditional manner—but made up of these many sound-events.

The next piano piece to be composed by Cage using chance procedures was the Music of Changes (1951) for piano solo. Organized in four books (I-IV), and still notated in standard linear notation, this work uses an impressive array of non-traditional keyboard techniques: (1) natural and artificial harmonics (and a complex interplay of silently depressed keys to produce these harmonics), (2) hand muting and (3) striking the strings, (4) the continuous use of all three pedals to create interpenetrations of sound layers, (5) vastly differing octave displacements, (6) striking of the piano body and (7) playing on the strings with various objects, and (7) the employment of extreme dynamics (fff with ppp) within the same brief event to produce subtle inflections and nuances.

Some sections of the piece create a mysterious aura (as a secondary emotional affect), and others display breathtaking and energetic virtuosity. The individual sounds are often startling and of such an illusionary and often electronic-like nature that it is difficult to believe they are the product of interference waves inside an acoustic piano. (The recent recording by Joe Kubera, who studied the piece directly with David Tudor, on a Lovely Music CD is remarkable for both its excellent performance and recordist-composer Tom Hamilton‘s unique microphone placement which enables the most subtle events that float just above the strings, often heard only by the pianist in live performance, to be clearly perceived.)

Cage’s most elegant and disarmingly simple piece has also generated much controversy over the years. Inspired both by Rauschenberg‘s all-white and all-black paintings and his time in the anechoic chamber, the so-called “silent piece” entitled 4’33” tacet, for any instrument or combination of instruments (1952) is a deeply meditative study opening the mind to just listen (anapanasati), and is perhaps the ultimate statement about non-intention. The score consists only of the notations (movements) I. Tacet, II. Tacet, III. Tacet. This seems to call for an action that gives a sense of three “moments”, and that will also make the presence of an undisturbed, eternal silence felt. In his premiere realization in August 1952 at Woodstock, David Tudor quietly closed and opened and closed the keyboard lid to create a performance of 4 minutes and 33 seconds duration, thus giving the piece its title. The piece can, of course, be performed for any duration, and on any instrument or combination. Within these peaceful moments, any sounds may happen: Cage enjoyed telling the story about Christian Wolff who played a piano of his while traffic and other city noises came through the window … when asked to play the piece again with the window closed, Christian said he would be glad to but that “the sounds outside in no way interfered with the music.”

The later complementary version of 4’33” is entitled 0’00” / Solo to be performed in any way by anyone (1962) and delineates the 4’33” experience further.

A kind of non-clock time or eternal presence is indicated. The piece should be played at maximum loudness, which means that the stillness and discipline required for a performance of 4’33” or 0’00” has to do with spiritual, not acoustic, silence: “In a situation provided with maximum amplification (no feedback), perform a disciplined action. With any interruptions. Fulfilling in whole or part an obligation to others … No attention to be given the situation (electronic, musical, theatrical) … the first performance was the writing of this manuscript … “.

In 1950, Morton Feldman had already written the Projection I for solo cello which left many things indeterminate, or up to the performer: its graphic notation shows relative pitches in boxes and oblongs, relative durations, with free dynamics and inflection (pizzicato, arco and harmonics are indicated). Besides creating the first verbally notated score for 4’33”, Cage, like Feldman, began manipulating the traditional music score formats to better reflect the nature of the new music. Cage’s Music for Piano (1, 1952; 2, 3, 4-19, and 20, 1953; 21-36 and 37-52, 1955; 53-68 and 69-84, 1956) and his Winter Music (1957) for one to twenty pianists are both notated as free-floating events (notes without stems, single or in groups called aggregates) in empty space. (More specifically the single page is used as a structural unit).

Cage’s Concert for Piano and Orchestra (1957-1958) consists of completely independent parts, and the conductor’s part outside of overseeing rehearsals is simply to act as a “utility,” tracking the passing time by imitating the moving hands of a clock. Any number of the parts can be combined as trios, duets quartets etc., with or without the piano. Within each part, systems of notes are separated from each other, and players independently choose their material. The complex piano solo part has 84 different systems each with its own notation. There are surprising coincidences between the parts for which the composer has not pre-determined interactions or fixed sequences for reading the notes.

Previously, the expression “indeterminate” was generally employed in mathematics to describe problems in which there are fewer arbitrarily imposed conditions (as in Descartesindeterminate coefficients) than unknowns (indeterminate analysis), or problems that had infinite numbers of solutions; in quantum mechanics, “indeterminate” would often be applied to calculations of the most subtle level of energy (e.g. in Werner Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle). In music, indeterminacy came to refer to the composer giving up of the control of certain traditionally fixed parameters such as pitch, rhythm, duration, loudness, attack/articulation, timbre, inflection, ensemble coordination, etc. Cage was the person who applied the world “experimental” to the new music, which to him meant a music where the outcome cannot be foreseen.

Indeterminate procedures became valued (1) in order that music become free of habitual responses, (2) to encourage spontaneous and surprising musical events (also called “simultaneities”, “interactions”, “moments”, “interpenetrations”, etc.), (3) to create music based on principles and procedures more in line with nature and its dynamic processes, imitating Nature “in its manner of operation” rather than its appearance; in a very real sense, this music is not “about” something, but is that “thing” itself, and (4) on a profound humanistic level, to encourage people to live in the “now”, appreciating and valuing life as a constantly changing, spontaneous, eternally creative state.

Non-determination between the acts of composition, performance, and listening is fundamental to the early work of the so-called New York School of composers John Cage, Morton Feldman, Earle Brown, and Christian Wolff, although each composer provided unique realizations of the concept.

Earle Brown’s Folio (1952 – 53) is a set of three pieces (October ’52, November ’52 (Synergy), December ’52) for piano, not composed by chance procedures, but that contains some early and remarkable experiments in notation and the performance process. Folio grew out of Brown’s enjoyment of group and solo jazz improvisation, a desire to find a way out of metric music, and his fascination with sculptor Alexander Calder‘s mobiles that were “variable but always the same”.

October ’52 is written in standard notation but left out all rests “intentionally trying to throw the performer into a relational space, rather than a counting space … it has to be read at a constant rate … but no two pianists will feel the space exactly the same.”

In November ’52 (Synergy), standard note durations are again used, but the notes are distributed freely about a sheet of 5-line staves (without measures, meter, etc.). The 3D-like score for December ’52 consists only of vertical and horizontal barlines of varying thicknesses, the space and lines suggesting relative frequency, duration, loudness and time-space “implications.”

Shortly after the three pieces constituting the Folio set, Brown wrote the 25 Pages, for any number of pianists up to 25 (1953), once again inspired by Calder. Each page is notated using stemless black notes with extended lines of varying lengths which indicate relative durations; each note has a specific dynamic marking. Brown considers this work a true realization of the “open form” (as compared to the “open content” of the Folio pieces).

Christian Wolff’s Duo for Pianists II (1958) is one of the first of the composer’s strategy-like pieces in which two or more persons play independent material but also cue each other, a new form of contrapuntal rhythmic interaction in concert music, common in jazz but far more complex in Wolff’s music. The cues may refer to particular units of material, and certain other material does not necessarily rely on a cue to be played. The sequence is determined by the pianists themselves before the performance, and the cues dependent on seriously attentive listening between the two performers. According to the composer, “ten kinds of sounds (e.g., highest octave ff, pizzicato in the middle register, 11 seconds of silence) as heard from one piano are cues to the units which the other will play, and vice versa … the idea is to allow for precise actions under variously indeterminate conditions”. Wolff’s intriguing definition of musical form is that it is “a theatrical event of a certain length, and that length itself may be unpredictable”.

It was in the winter of 1949 that a fateful meeting happened between Feldman and Cage. They were both separately attending a concert at Carnegie Hall in which Dimitri Mitropoulos conducted Anton Webern‘s Symphony. The audience was “so antagonistic and disturbing that I left immediately afterwards. I was more or less catching my breath in the empty lobby when John came out. I recognized him, though we had never met, walked over and, as though I had known him all my life, said, ‘Wasn’t that beautiful?'”

Feldman created a sound world that ranges between great serenity to the powerful evocation of deep subconscious emotions. The general dynamic is quiet, with a few notable exceptions. This is not to create “atmosphere,” although performances of his music do tend toward a meditative, transcendental mood, but in order to allow for fine inflections, and so that the rich harmonic content of the acoustic instruments can be heard—these overtones are lost at louder volumes where the fundamental tones tend to be emphasized.

Feldman’s Variations for piano (1951) were written to accompany dancer Merce Cunningham‘s choreography entitled “Variation” (sans the “s”). The dance itself was created by a chance procedure. Various isolated aggregates of short duration, quick arpeggios, and fast grace note gestures are played quietly between long pauses. Events are re-combined in varied sequences, and rhythmically shifted (a mobile-like technique that would be greatly amplified in Feldman’s later cyclic works). Small rhythmic loops are set up with repeated events; material from the beginning is recapitulated; the piano body is knocked with the knuckles of the hand six times. The piece concludes in still and silent mystery.

Extensions 3 for piano (1952) is also built of brief patterns and single notes that create a beautifully hypnotic effect. As in other Feldman pieces, the motoric element introduced is an F-sharp in triple octaves that is played sixteen times. And, surprisingly, there is a single loud event in the last 30 seconds. The term “extension” refers to the distance that sounds stand out against the generally quiet “flat” dynamic surface. This musical image is reflects Feldman’s interest in flat surface aesthetic of Abstract Expressionist painters.

Extensions 4 for three pianos (1952-54) has periods of on-rushing, rhythmically bouncing gestures made of quickly interweaving material, and periods of gradually increasing silence. Within the rhythmic combinations, momentary loops are formed, but they arise and disappear quickly. At one point, a brief relatively loud and fast gesture played by all three instruments sounds like a mechanical piano. The events become more spaced apart and generally quieter and, without any coda, the piece simply ends.

In the sublime Piece for Four Pianos (1957), all four pianists read from the same part, but each plays the stemless notes at their own slow internal pulse, ideally not paying attention to the other players. Gradually a landscape of delays is created, spreading away like reverberations from an initial sound, or like ripples in water, a horizontal rather than vertical evolution.

In 1960, alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman also abandoned chord changes on his seminal record Free Jazz. Although the bebop players often thought of their right hand improvisations in terms of a horn line, and the pattern players mostly created melodic units, the piano is still primarily a device for the sounding of simultaneous notes, therefore an instrument for harmony, either intended or implied. But there are only wind players and two string bass players on Coleman’s celebrated album; during the Free Jazz 36-minute improvisation, all eight players invented throughout. There were no themes, chord patterns, or chorus lengths, only a brief ensemble part to introduce each player and give an idea of the pitches. The other players created a free polyphonic accompaniment based on the player’s solo, his pitch, melodic sense, and emotional expression.

In January of 1958, John Cage abandoned the determination of all the conventional fixed musical parameters—meaning specific pitch, sequence or occurrence time of notes, loudness, overtone structure (timbre), duration etc— in Variations I, which can be played by any number of performers on any kind and number of instruments (though he wrote it for pianist David Tudor). The notation consists of six squares of transparent material, one having points of four sizes. The performer uses the point size to determine the number of sounds. The other transparencies have five lines each, running in various directions. The respective “dots” and “lines” pages can be freely oriented to each other to determine the musical parameters mentioned above.

Cage’s Variations IV (1963) is even more liberating: transparencies with seven points and two circles are placed about a map of the performance space, and from this movements of sounds and/or performers are determined. No other musical parameters other than this spatialization are determined; performers can make any kind of sounds at these locations, and are in fact allowed to leave the piece at any time to perform something else.

New freedoms were also to be found in Richard Maxfield‘s Piano Concert for David Tudor (1961). The composition consists of a graphic score for piano and tapes that were made from Tudor’s brilliant improvisations; Maxfield would re-combine these sounds for each performance, adding fresh material to help free the performer from anticipating the sounds that would be appearing— this immediate new “rapport” would be improvised. The taped piano sounds were processed by electronic and tape manipulation. The score indicates the time for playback of the sounds, a “mode for of tone production” and different pitch registrations to be employed. Some of the playing methods used by Tudor for the live piano improvisation included scraping the strings, showering the strings with tiddlywinks, using chains on the piano’s bottom section, spinning a motor-driven gyroscope on the strings. Rattlings, bangings, gentle sliding sounds and many other sounds that suggest industrial ambience result; the pianist never touches the keys.

From 88 Keys to Freedom: Segues Through the History of American Piano Music
by “Blue” Gene Tyranny
© 2003 NewMusicBox