Between 1997 and 2002 the German pianist Steffen Schleiermacher, a champion of the avant-garde repertoire, set himself the project of recording the complete piano music of John Cage, who had died in 1992. The production work associated with this project was assumed by Musikproduktion Dabringhaus und Grimm (MDG), an organization I have previously cited for their contributions to the recorded repertoire of the music of Cage’s colleague, Morton Feldman (recordings that also involved performances by Schleiermacher). The Cage project ultimately resulted in 18 CDs worth of material, organized into ten volumes; and, at the end of this month, MDG will release the entire collection in a box set (currently available for pre-order from Amazon.com).
Simply accounting for what to include in this collection is a project unto itself. The 1962 catalog of Cage’s works, sold as a booklet by Henmar Press, is one of the few sources that has tried to classify Cage’s compositions according to “categories of sound production.” Those are Cage’s words from the Foreword to this booklet, in which he credits Robert Dunn with the organizational approach. I have not yet found a subsequent catalog that follows Dunn’s system. Grove Music Online, which usually classifies compositions by genre and/or instrumentation, just gives a chronology, which is also what can be found at a variety of Web sites.
“Piano” is the first of Dunn’s categories, with subcategories of “Solo” and “Solo or Ensemble.” Underneath the major heading the reader is referred to the “Prepared Piano” category, which is the next one in the booklet. In this section the subcategories are “Solo” and “Duo for 2 Pianos, 4 Hands.” While Cage clearly approved of what Dunn had done, his Foreword also makes it equally clear that there are compositions that do not fall into Dunn’s system. The best known of these is 4’33”, described on the cover page as “for any instrument or combination of instruments.” While there are several CD recordings of this “silent composition,” Schleiermacher elected not to include it in his project.
Perhaps the best way to appreciate Schleiermacher’s approach is to review his own classification strategy (which, by its nature, also involves decisions about selection). Here is how he describes his ten volumes, along with some observations on my part:
- The Prepared Piano, 1940-52: From the very beginning of his efforts as a composer, Cage was intensely interested in rhythm. This led to considerable work on pieces for percussion based on rhythmic patterns and the interplay between pitched and non-pitched instruments. In this context the prepared piano was an invention that allowed Cage to perform percussion music from a keyboard. Much of this was composed as accompaniment for works of choreography, including those pieces that Merce Cunningham performed at his first New York recital. However, there is also a major concert work, composed between 1946 and 1948, consisting of sixteen “sonatas” among which are inserted four “interludes.”
- Music for Piano: This is the title that Cage gave to a series of numbered compositions, ranging from 1 to 84, which he composed between 1952 and 1956. These were experiments in structure. In different collections Cage would develop what amounted to an algorithmic method for preparing the score and would then follow that algorithm to produce a series of compositions. In this volume Schleiermacher includes some related works for more than one piano, including a 1964 composition for David Tudor entitled “Electronic Music for 2 Pianos.”
- Music of Changes: If the collection of sonatas and interludes in the magnum opus of the prepared piano repertoire, “Music of Changes” is the major solo piano composition. The title comes from the translation of the Chinese book I Ching (book of changes). The music has less to do with the philosophy behind this book than it does with the way in which all decisions were made by the chance procedure one uses to consult the book as an oracle.
- Pieces 1950-1960: This amounts to a chronicle of Cage’s efforts during the time frame of the second and third volumes, including the 1958 “Music Walk,” which, as Schleiermacher says in his notes, “takes indeterminacy to the extreme,” by relegating as many score details as could be imagined to random selection processes.
- Two Pianos: Most of these are pieces from the late forties, composed for specific occasions; but Schleiermacher has also included two from the late eighties, when Cage was allowing performers more and more freedoms in execution.
- Pieces 1960-1992: These are the “late works,” almost all of which were composed for specific performers. They include several of the “One” compositions, whose respective titles specified only the number of performers. There is also the 1978 “Etudes Boreales,” composed with input from an astronomical chart of the northern sky and written “for a percussionist using a piano.” This group also includes an amusing little homage to the Beatles, which Cage composed in 1989 for Aki Takahashi.
- Pieces 1933-1947: At the other extreme these are the “early works,” from a time when Cage was in close collaboration with Henry Cowell and Lou Harrison. This is Cage at his freest, not trying to divorce his ego from the act of composition through the constraints of a rigorous methodology. Of all the works in Schleiermacher’s anthology, these are the ones that probably deserve to be heard more often. Cage may have turned away from this kind of expressiveness, but it is actually quite appealing.
- Homage à Satie: Cage felt that Erik Satie was one of the most important composers of the twentieth century, if not in all of music history. Among the essays and lectures collected in Silence, only two are “about” (you have to read them to appreciate the scare quotes) other composers. Satie is one, and Edgard Varèse is the other. The earliest of these pieces come from 1948, and the latest was composed in 1989. Most interesting is probably “Cheap Imitation,” which Cage composed for a new work by Merce Cunningham in 1969. Cunningham had wanted to set his dance to the score for Satie’s opera Socrate but was unable to get permission to use this music. Cage applied chance techniques to produce a “transformation” of Satie’s score, to which he affixed the cleverly modest title. Not to be outdone, Cunningham called his new work “Second Hand!”
- Etudes Australes: This is definitely the most “monumental” work in the collection. Like the “Etudes Boreales,” it is based on star charts, this time of the southern sky. However, it also includes chance procedures of the sort encountered in “Music of Changes.” While there were only four “Etudes Boreales,” this collection consists of 32 etudes collected into four books, each of eight etudes. The entire composition requires three CDs and fills almost three and one-half hours of listening time.
- Etcetera: As Cage had observed regarding Dunn’s efforts, there are some things that just cannot be classified. This catch-all volume includes the original version of the suite for toy piano (played on a toy piano), as well as the prepared piano music composed as a soundtrack for the film Works by Calder. There is also an amusing take on Satie’s concept of “furniture music,” realized as a mix of compositions by both Cage and Satie.
As far as performance is concerned, we have to remember that Cage used to like to tell a story whose punch line was that he was not “fussy about music.” Having had the privilege of getting to know Cage personally (in part by going mushroom hunting with him), I suspect that he was never “fussy” about whether or not a performance provided a “faithful account” of his score. On the other hand I do not think there was ever a Cage performance that I attended (including those involving the Merce Cunningham Dance Company) that did not involve seriousness of purpose among all involved. On the basis of my listening experiences with Schleiermacher’s recordings, I feel I can grant him that same seriousness of purpose.
That would make listening to this collection one of the best ways to honor the centennial of Cage’s birth. However, one can do this without being “fussy.” One might even consider setting up a room with multiple players allowing one to listen to multiple CDs concurrently. Cage would probably also approve of the “shuffle” feature that is now so popular in “digital listening.” Perhaps the best way to think about approaching these pieces is from a title of one of the articles in Cage’s second collection of lectures and writings, A Year from Monday. This is music for “Happy New Ears!”