Sounds Heard: John Cage—The Works for Percussion I

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The Works for Percussion I
by John Cage
(Mode 229)
Percussion Group Cincinnati

Decades before the advent of hip-hop and other sampled-based music, John Cage created a radical series of works which included turntables as musical instruments and worked in snippets of pre-recorded music created and performed by other people as part of the compositional fabric. That Cage is mostly remembered nowadays instead for his pioneering use of percussion and electronics, sticking objects inside a piano to change its tone, creating music based on indeterminate processes, and a work in which the performer is instructed not to intentionally make a sound for four minutes and thirty three seconds, is perhaps somewhat unfortunate—despite the obvious significance of those achievements—given the fact that music based on sampling has become so prominent in our culture. But the history of music might finally get properly rewritten thanks to the first-ever integral recording of Cage’s complete cycle of Imaginary Landscapes which is paired with two different performance of the contemporaneous and similarly forward-sounding Credo in US.

All in all there are five works which Cage named Imaginary Landscapes. The first three date from the time that Cage created his now seminal percussion compositions and are scored for percussion ensemble as well. But unlike his more well-known Constructions, created roughly during the same period, the Imaginary Landscapes pieces add an additional electronic component. The first of them, dating from spring 1939, requires two variable speed turntables on which recordings of test tones are manipulated, admittedly not quite in the same way that a DJ would manipulate vinyl in the future but reminiscent enough to be acknowledged as a precedent. The second in the series, completed in 1942, also uses a phonograph needle, this time functioning as a contact microphone on a coil of wire. No. 3, also from 1942 but actually composed shortly before the second one (an earlier abandoned version of No. 2 was first performed in 1940), uses both test tone recordings on the variable speed turntables as well as the needle-amplified coil to particularly ferocious and disturbing effect—the work was created in direct response to the advent of the Second World War. While these three works have previously been recorded on a landmark series of Cage’s complete percussion music by the Italian Amadinda Percussion Group for Hungaraton (the sixth and final volume of which was released earlier this year), the present Mode recording is the first to utilize the specific 78-rpm test tone recordings that Cage originally specified.

But arguably even more revelatory sonic treats are to be found in Imaginary Landscapes Nos. 4 and 5. Imaginary Landscapes No. 4 (from 1951) might be Cage’s most cited musical composition after 4’33″ (from the following year), and like 4’33″ it is a piece of music that is more talked about than actually listened to. The instrumentation for No. 4 consists exclusively of 12 radios operated by 24 performers following a precisely notated score instructing them to raise and lower volume, turn the dial, etc, all led by a conductor. Obviously the source for all the sounds that are heard in the piece are derived from whatever is being broadcast on the radio during the time and place of the performance. As a result, the actual sonic content can vary widely. A live performance in New York City in the early 1990s which concluded a new music concert was somewhat disappointing, since it mostly consisted of overlapping talk radio fragments; legend has it that the premiere performance was even less sonically stimulating, since most stations were not 24/7 back in 1951 and had gone off the air for the night prior to the performance. There could also never be a way to recreate the sound of that original 1951 performance as any performance of Imaginary Landscapes No. 4 will reflect the time and place it which it is being performed. So while it might be a little disconcerting to suddenly hear the words “Abu Ghraib” in a composition from sixty years ago, as you will on the present recording (which was made in 2006), it’s inevitable.

Releasing a commercial recording of Imaginary Landscapes No. 4, as Cage originally conceived it, has heretofore proven to be a challenge that few people were willing to embark on since tracking down and licensing every tiny snippet that could occur in its approximately four and a half minutes would be both a musicological and legal near impossibility. Years ago HatArt released a recording of Imaginary Landscapes No. 4 using their own back catalog as the sound source for the “radio” broadcasts. But drawing exclusively from the back catalog of any label, let alone one that is as specific as HatArt (20th century classical music and experimental jazz), fundamentally goes against the open-endedness of possibility that Cage’s score requests and therefore does not seem at all like what he was going after sonically. A contemporary music ensemble from Norway risked potential lawsuits and issued a relatively convincing recording of Imaginary Landscapes No. 4 back in 2003, but not having enough members to read through all 24 parts simultaneous they overdubbed, which also seems to be somehow going against the spirit of the piece. So once again the current Mode release is a first, and to further bask in the glory in this discographically watershed moment, they perform it twice. The other thing that having two different recordings herein proves is that the snippets of other folks’ music—which are obviously completely different in the two performances—matter little to overall sound of the piece so it would be ludicrous to claim that anyone’s intellectual property rights were violated here.

But the stakes prove arguably even higher in the fifth and final installment of the series, which is a graphic score charting the playback of 42 recordings. The piece was initially inspired when the dancer Jean Erdman, for whom Cage was composing a score, demonstrated her ideas for the dance by improvising to the jazz records in her personal collection. Cage—who did not like jazz at the time and wanted to do something to come to terms with his disliking them—asked to borrow her recordings, transferred them to magnetic tape, and with the assistance of David Tudor and querying the I Ching, created an eight-track collage of them. In the final score for the piece, the specific 42 recordings are left up to the performer. As in No. 4, the present recording offers two versions—one using exclusively recordings of Cage’s own music, the other using the jazz recordings he would have originally had access to. And like No. 4, the overall impact of the two realizations is somewhat similar, but the version using historic jazz recordings is magical. Once again the musical excitement does not derive from any specific snippet of music but rather from their juxtaposition and simultaneity. Curiously, Imaginary Landscape No. 5 gets Cage name checked in Kembrew McLeod and Peter DiCola’s recently published book Creative License: The Law and Culture of Digital Sampling (Duke University Press, 2011) in which the work is described as “a radical move at the time, though par for the course in popular music production today.”

Perhaps the most aesthetically indicative example of Cage’s use of pre-existing music is in his often previously recorded Credo in US, also presented here twice as a frame for the five Imaginary Landscapes, opening and closing the CD. A 1942 dance score for percussion quartet which also employs piano, radio, and a phonograph, Credo is an unusual and somewhat humorous departure from the throbbing incessancy of the percussion ensemble and prepared piano music he was creating at that time. While the unpitched percussion herein is reminiscent of the other music he was writing in the early 1940s, some of the piano passages make references to boogie-woogie and cowboy music. The radio and phonographic components take the music even further away from Cage’s recognizable sound world since they can, in fact, be anything. The score asks that the records spun on the phonograph be of classical music—the first realization uses a recording of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony while the other uses Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Wagner, and von Suppe. But as in the later Imaginary Landscapes, the specific choice does not really make that much of a difference. What is attention grabbing, rather, is how such seeming tame music clashes with the seeming barbarism of the percussion ensemble which performs heedless of the flow of the pre-recorded music.

Indeed, the principal difference between the works by Cage which employ others’ musical materials and latter-day musical appropriations are that the materials, in and of themselves, do not fundamentally shape the sound world of Cage’s pieces. They are not “hooks” as they are in pop tunes, or even integral ingredients in a larger formal scheme as they are in the music of John Oswald (e.g. Pluderphonics) or Gregg Gillis (a.k.a. Girl Talk). Ultimately it is not so much about a specific sample, rather than the possibility of any sample, a collection of sounds whose melodies, harmonies, rhythms, and timbres are beyond Cage’s compositional control. Cage, of course, would later take this idea to its logical conclusion in works like 4’33″ in which any sound that occurs during its duration is part of the listening experience or his happenings of the 1960s and 1970s in which the simultaneity of unrelated performances of music that was not originally his winds up creating his music, as in his Musicircus from 1967 or Apartment House 1776 from 1976. That such work has its origins in sample-based pieces by Cage himself which predates the entire acknowledged canon of sample-based music changes the entire history of contemporary music once more. As a result, though Cage’s aesthetic was all about eroding role models and hierarchies, these pieces might ironically establish Cage as the most influential harbinger of the music scene of today.