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30 November 2009

John Cage Arrangements

While arrangements are not uncommon in musical practice -- the reworking of a composition written for one instrument or a set of instruments for another -- in John Cage's case they are quite unusual. There are really only two works in his lengthy catalog that fit neatly into this category: his Cheap Imitation (1969) for piano, deriving from a 1918 dramatic composition by the French composer Erik Satie entitled Socrate, originally conceived for voice and orchestra, and his Hymns and Variations (1979) for 12 amplified voices, based solely upon two early American hymn tunes by William Billings, Old North and Heath.

While both works are remarkable purely as arrangements, they're also noteworthy for their sheer melodiousness, not an adjective commonly applied to Cage's works of their time. And Cheap Imitation is also unusual for its history, spanning as it does some 30 peregrinating years, which is all beautifully recounted in James Pritchett's liner notes for the Mode Records 1998 CD, "Cage: The Works for Piano 3", capturing the magnificent keyboard artistry of Stephen Drury.

But here's a bit of archival footage of Cage himself playing the work in 1975 in a classroom setting at Broward Community College in Dade County, Florida, shared courtesy of Gustavo Matamoros, Director of Miami's Interdisciplinary Sound Arts Workshop.

Given the paucity of arrangements in his own catalog, one might wonder what Cage would think of the two works that make use of his works that were featured at last month's John Cage at Bard College Symposium. Of all of the pieces included in the two evening programs (this is a pdf file) at the Fisher Center for the Performing Arts on Oct. 30 and 31, these little-known arrangements were clear audience favorites.

The first, Eric Salzman's Five Dances (1996-97), is an arrangement for string quartet of five works by Cage originally composed for prepared piano: Our Spring Will Come (1943), Dream (1948), Totem Ancestor (1943), In a Landscape (1948), and A Room (1943). While long available from C.F. Peters as EP 67725, the work is rarely performed. Here's the third movement from the feisty performance by four of Bard College's finest Conservatory musicians -- Fanghue He, Yue Sun, Leah Gastler, and Laura Hendrickson.

The second, Brian Nozny's Chess Pieces (2008), is an arrangement for percussion quintet of Cage's work by the same name that began life not as a piece of music, but as a painting, one created for the 1944 exhibition "The Imagery of Chess," organized by Max Ernst and Marcel Duchamp at the Julien Levy Gallery in NYC. As an art work, Chess Pieces is somewhat unremarkable: a 19" x 19" square painting in ink and gouache on Masonite, its 64 squares filled with music notation in Cage's hand in alternating black and white ink, its 22 systems reading sensibly from left to right. Despite its obvious relation to a musical score, albeit sans instrumentation, tempi, or dynamic indications, no documentation exists of its ever having been "played".
In 2005, Chess Pieces went on public display for the first time in more than 60 years in an exhibition entitled "The Imagery of Chess Revisited", the brainchild of its curator, Larry List, at the Noguchi Museum in Long Island City, New York. Musing upon its "playability," the pianist Margaret Leng Tan was engaged by the John Cage Trust and C.F. Peters to try her hand at a transcription. Once completed, she promptly recorded it, first to be heard via headphones at the exhibition, and later for release by Mode Records as "Cage: The Works for Piano 7" (2006).

The performance heard here is by Nexus -- Bob Becker, Bill Cahn, Russell Hartenberger, and Garry Kvistad -- with special guest artist Jason Treuting (on loan from So Percussion), who kindly substituted for Robin Engelman.

I don't know about you, but I find nothing quite as sexy as a bunch of middle-aged men romping about on a stage making glorious noises...

And, for added fun, given that this concert took place on Halloween, the performers donned blue jeans for the occasion, a la John Cage, and at their final curtain call, took their bows wearing silly John Cage masks.