It’s About Time

John Cage wrote that “if a sound is characterized by its pitch, its loudness, its timbre, and its duration, and that silence, which is the opposite and, therefore, the necessary partner of sound, is characterized only by its duration, you will be drawn to the conclusion that of these four characteristics of the material of music, duration, that is, time length, is the most fundamental.” Duration and silence (which can only be specified as duration) were essential elements in Cage’s music. His increasing interests in non-Western music, and his own rhythmic structuring, similar to those found in Balinese gamelan music or the Indian notion of tala, led Cage to the conclusion that rhythm and not harmony was essential to all musical cultures. Cage’s work from the late 1930’s to 1951 concentrated heavily on percussive sonorities: the three Constructions (1939, 1940, and 1941) to the Sonatas and Interludes (1946-48) for prepared piano and the Concerto for Prepared Piano and Chamber Orchestra (1950-51). His timbral innovations in these works led him to develop new structural principles that were based on duration rather than harmony.

Cage devised a system that he called “micro-macrocosmic rhythmic structure.” Using predetermined patterns of duration, the ratios that determined the large-scale form were proportionally duplicated on the small-scale level as well. “The large parts of the composition had the same proportion as the phrases of a single unit. Thus, an entire piece had that number of measures that had a square root…one could emphasize the structure at the beginning and more into far-reaching variations.” As Cage developed his system, it eventually did not provide the steady rhythmical pulse functioning as the foreground in which sounds are based, but instead acted as a measure of duration that seemed less a measure of time than of space. Since Cage’s numerically calculated structure was based on time rather than on pitch or harmony, he was free to articulate it with any sound or absence of sound relying upon the assigned proportional relationships to provide a larger temporal or rhythmic framework. Although his elements were carefully chosen, anything could essentially be placed into any structure. What is especially important (and similar to that of serial music) is that Cage’s numerical charts and objective formal structures do not attempt to create any self-expression through music (“no other aims than comprehensibility”); it excludes traditional musical communication.


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John Cage
Music of Changes I:
28 seconds

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Yet Cage differs from his European contemporaries. While Boulez used number charts as a means of absolute control, Cage found in them a way to achieve non-intention, a way to remove his own creative wishes from a composition. Western thinking denies the recognition of nothingness: “Curiously enough, the twelve-tone system has no zero in it.” His goal was to make music whose continuity would be “free of individual taste and memory (psychology) and also of the literature and ‘traditions’ of the art.” (The paradox of course being that non-intention was in fact an intention – the aesthetics of no aesthetics). In order to reduce the influence of his own will upon his composition, Cage was attracted to chance operations or coin tossing derived from the I Ching oracle. His first attempts at coin tossing procedures began with the final movement of the Concerto for Prepared Piano, Imaginary Landscape No. 4 and Music of Changes, all written in 1951. In Music of Changes, Cage retains from his earlier works the use of a predetermined temporal framework. Passages of time in this case are represented by measured lengths of musical staves (“space-time notation”), and the duration sequence (in this case 3, 5, 6, 6, 5, and 3) operates on both a small and large level. All the other elements are obtained randomly and placed within the structure. In Music for Piano (1952-56), Cage, perhaps tired of the excessive coin tossing, developed a new way of creating music through chance operations by tracing imperfections on a piece of paper and placing notes on those blemishes. Durations and dynamics were left entirely up to the player, the role of chance was therefore extended to decisions made by the performer. With Williams Mix (1952), Cage applied chance operations to electronic tape music. In order to produce the large number of coin tosses needed to determine the lengths and types of sounds, Cage used a large group of people who followed the chance operations, thus further removing himself from the composition.

With 4’33” (1952), Cage’s use of indeterminacy, non-intention and non-duality is taken to the extreme. His concentration in this work is on duration of “silence,” suggesting that music can be a vehicle for expressing the passage of time. The piece was composed the same way he wrote his other works at the time, using the I Ching operations to determine temporal structure, and consists of three sections each with a specific duration all marked “Tacit”. As Paul Griffiths has written, “4’33” is music reduced to nothing, and nothing raised to music. It cannot be heard, and is heard by anyone at anytime. It is the extinction of thought, and has provoked more thought than any other music of the second half of the twentieth century.” Following 4’33”, Cage continued to find other indeterminate operations such as astronomical charts for Atlas Eclipticalis (1967) and Etudes Australes (1970).

Although many composers were influenced by Cage, those most associated with him and who influenced him in return were Earle Brown, Morton Feldman, and Christian Wolff, the so-called “New York School.” Cage claimed that, “ideas just flew back and forth between us, and in a sense we gave each other permission for the new music we were discovering.” Unlike the serialists who had affinities with science and mathematics, Cage and his colleagues believed that musical composition was or should be related more closely with the visual arts especially the artists of the Abstract-Expressionist movement. Feldman wrote that this association led to develop “a sound world more direct, more immediate, more physical” than music of the past.


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Morton Feldman
Durations III:
29 seconds

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Both Feldman and Brown were approaching similar concepts of unconventional graphic notation at the same time. Feldman’s series of Intersections and Projections from the early 1950’s uses a sequence of boxes and lines on graph paper to assign certain relative musical elements. Texture, pitch, and duration are determined by the performer; dynamics are usually extremely quiet; and time is represented by space. With later works like Piece for Four Pianos (1957) and the Durations series (1960-61), Feldman creates a different combination of freedom and control by writing out all the pitches, but leaving their durations unspecified. By the end of the 1960’s, Feldman returned to conventional rhythmic notation, and by the end 1970’s, his work became incredibly immense (the String Quartet II of 1983 takes about five hours to perform) but still maintains excessive quietness as well as the gradual unfolding of material with no link to process. About time and duration, Feldman said: “My whole generation was hung up on the 20 to 25 minute piece. It was our clock. We all got to know it, and how to handle it. As soon as you leave the 20-25 minute piece behind…different problems arise. Up to one hour you think about form, but after an hour and a half it’s scale. Form is easy – just the division of things into parts. But scale is another matter.”


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Earle Brown
25 Pages:
27 seconds

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Earle Brown’s collection of seven pieces entitled Folio (1952-53) includes works whose scores give less information: simple vertical and horizontal lines of varying thickness and length representing relative notes, phrases, and durations. In December 1952, these symbols are meant to be realized as spontaneous decisions by the performers because they do not represent any formerly established interpretation. This is the difference between realization, which requests that the performer create a style, and improvisation, which is basically an interpretation within a given style. The composition, Brown writes, can be played “in any direction from any point in the defined space for any length of time and may be performed from any of the four rotational positions in any sequence.” Brown later continued to use indeterminacy but avoided graphic notation and “conceptual mobility”. He developed a combination of determinacy and indeterminacy which he called “open” or “mobile” form inspired by the mobiles of Alexander Calder: several independently fixed, rhythmically notated sections whose relationship to the whole is variable (Twenty-five Pages, Available Forms I and II, String Quartet).


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Christian Wolff
Serenade:
30 seconds

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Though Christian Wolff was the youngest of the so-called “New York School” composers, he was the one who handed Cage the I Ching: Book of Changes (a copy of the Wilhelm/Baynes edition that his father had just published) which was so influential in the development of the indeterminate aesthetic. Wolff’s earliest music consists of restrained resources of only a few pitches with static, pointillistic textures (similar to the restraint seen in La Monte Young‘s later minimalist works) allowing the performers “freedom and dignity.” By the late 1950’s he devised a notation and an elaborate set of rules that assisted the performers in their choice of texture and pitch but also produced a various rhythmical interaction between them by their cueing one another resulting in a kind of a game. By the early 1970’s, Wolff, a democratic socialist, became more interested in the political meaningfulness of music much like Frederic Rzewski and the British composer Cornelius Cardew. His works still applied verbal instructions combined with conventional notation to create unpredictable textures and rhythms and at times involved audience participation as a means for social interaction.


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John Cage
Fifty-Eight:
30 seconds

It has often been noticed that the serial approach or indeterminate “non-approach” to rhythm resulted in basically the same sparse, pointillistic sound world. At the time these two camps were taking different approaches to composition, they still, ironically, shared a common bond in their justification of compositional technical display through manifestos or analyses. Theoretical writings were not only common but also presumably necessary. Cage’s Silence should be read along with Milton Babbitt‘s much-cited and highly debated 1958 article “Who Cares if You Listen” (not the author’s title). Basically, both reveal the same justification of means. Mandates and methods were essential to both Babbitt’s austere, objective complexities and Cage’s demanding chance processes. However, by 1961, Cage, with the publication of Silence, was firmly established as the guru of the experimental avant-garde while Babbitt was categorized as the opposing staunch leader of academia, but were they that much different?

From It’s About Time
by Matthew Tierney
© 2000 NewMusicBox

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