Monday, October 17, 2005

Which is more musical: a truck passing by a factory or a truck passing by a music school?

Experimental composer John Cage was a controversial figure who studied under Henry Cowell and Arnold Schoenberg during the first half of the 20th century and invented some of the boldest artistic approaches in modern music. He favored using modified instruments, such as his "prepared piano," which was a grand piano with small objects (nuts and bolts, screws, bits of rubber, spoons, etc.) wedged in between its strings. Inspired by Zen Buddhism, Cage often used indeterminate techniques for his works, for example using the outcome of a coin toss to shape a piece.

Cage's most notorious piece has to be 4'33", which is a piece where the performer plays no notes at all, and all of the ambient noises in the performance space constitute the work. One event in Cage's life that influenced the creation of this piece was his visit to an anechoic chamber, which is a special soundproof room. Rather than hearing complete silence, Cage heard a high sound and a low sound; the sound engineer present told Cage that the high sound was the sound of his body's nervous system and the low sound was his blood pumping through his circulatory system. Cage's conclusion was that total silence was an impossibility, as long as he was alive.

4'33" is Merritt's 1951 entry on the list, and track eleven on Merge Records' reissue of The Wayward Bus and Distant Plastic Trees, being four minutes and thirty-three seconds of digital silence, is an homage to this piece. The Magnetic Fields also performed it as an encore, related by Claudia Gonson and Chris Ewen in this article in The Independent:

"It's like when The Magnetic Fields performed 69 Love Songs at the Lincoln Center over two nights," adds Christopher Ewen, Merritt's partner and the third Future Bible Hero, "and at the end of the second night, the audience wanted an encore!" With no more songs in their armoury, the group opted for a performance of "4'33"", John Cage's celebrated silent piece.

"The applause after the 69th song was hyperactive and crazy," recalls Gonson, "but then you sit for four minutes and 33 seconds, and afterwards the applause is really mellow and relaxed - John Cage would have loved watching what happens to an audience after it: they're a little disappointed."

(I'm being nit-picky here, but actually the 4'33" encore was at their Somerville show in late 2000, not their Lincoln Center show.)

One of Cage's pieces for the prepared piano is the eerie "Sonata XIV," performed here by Maro Ajemian and recorded in 1950 under Cage's direction, and it was included on the Orbitones, Spoon Harps & Bellowphones compilation, beloved by Merritt. The second track this week is a short excerpt from Radio Music, a work which requires each performer to tune a radio to various frequencies, and the result is what just happens to be on the various stations at the time. Finally, we have a performance of 4'33" by the BBC Symphony Orchestra (a full video, with commentary, is available here.)

(SPOILER ALERT! In case you are wondering about the audience laughter around the 2:00 point and are unable to view the video, it's when the conductor, between the first and second movements, pulls a handkerchief out of his pocket and wipes his forehead.)

Maro Ajemian - "Sonata XIV"
John Cage - "Radio Music" (excerpt)
BBC Symphony Orchestra - "4'33""


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