John Cage (1912-1992)

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BBC Prom 47: Cage Centenary Celebration (2012)

  1. introduction 2:50

  2. John Cage - 101 (1988)

    for large orchestra
    BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra

  3. applause, announcement 3:49

  4. John Cage - Improvisation III (1980) 12:04

    For four or more musicians, each supplied with the same six different stereo cassette recordings of music or sound of a single kind. Steve Beresford, Adam Bohman, Jonathan Bohman, Vicki Bennett, Karen Constance, Christoph Heeman, Dylan Nyoukis, Mariam Rezaie, cassette players.

  5. applause, announcement 2:35

  6. John Cage - Experiences II (1948) 2:54

    for solo voice
    text from Sonnet 3 - Unrealities of Tulips and Chimneys by e.e. cummings
    Joan La Barbara, voice

  7. applause 0:11

  8. John Cage - ear for EAR (Antiphonies) 2:41

    for widely separated voices
    Joan La Barbara, solo voice; Exaudi

  9. applause, announcement 1:40

  10. John Cage - Four2 7:14 (1990)

    for four part chorus

  11. applause, announcement 4:16

  12. Christian Marclay - Baggage 5:02 (2012)

    For orchestra with instrument cases
    BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra /Ilan Volkov
    world premiere

  13. applause, announcement 3:14

  14. Cartridge Music (1960) with Atlas eclipticalis (1962) and Winter Music (1957) 30:02

    for amplified small sounds and electronics
    David Behrman, Takehisa Kosugi, live electronics
    John Cage - Atlas eclipticalis (1962)
    for orchestra and live electronics
    Engharad Davies, Lina Lapelyte, violins; Anton Lukoszevieze, cello; Rhodri Davies, harp;
    Robyn Schulkowsky, Ram Gabay, percussion; David Behrman, Takehisa Kosugi, live electronics;
    BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra /Ilan Volkov
    John Cage - Winter Music (1957)
    for 1 to 20 pianos
    John Tilbury, Frank Denyer, Aki Takahashi, Christian Wolff, pianos
    performed simultaneously

  15. applause and interval, "How to play a cactus" 31:06

  16. John Cage - Concerto for Prepared Piano and Chamber Orchestra (1950-51) 20:30

    John Tilbury, prepared piano; BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra /Ilan Volkov

  17. applause, announcement 3:16

  18. John Cage - But what about the noise of crumpling paper which he used to do in order to paint the series of "Papiers froisses" or tearing up paper to make "Papiers dechires?" Arp was stimulated by water (sea, lake, and flowing waters like rivers), forests (1985) 15:22

    for 3 to 10 percussionists
    John Butcher, Angharad Davies, Rhodri Davies, Patrick Farmer, Ram Gabay, Lina Lapelyte,ÊDimitra Lazaridou-Chatzigoga, John Lely, Anton Lukoszevieze, Robyn Schulkowsky, percussion and found objects

  19. applause, announcement 4:26

  20. David Behrman, Takehisa Kosugi, Keith Rowe & Christian Wolff - Quartet 25:18

    David Behrman, Keith Rowe, electric guitars and live electronics; Takehisa Kosugi, live electronics;ÊChristian Wolff, piano

  21. applause, announcement

  22. John Cage - Branches (1976) 20:02

    For any number of percussionists with amplified plants
    Robyn Schulkowsky, David Behrman, Vicki Bennett, Steve Beresford, Adam Bohman, Jonathan Bohman, John Butcher, Karen Constance, Angharad Davies, Rhodri Davies, Patrick Farmer, Ram Gabay, Christoph Heemann, Takehisa Kosugi, Joan La Barbara, Lina Lapelyte, Dimitra Lazaridou-Chatzigoga, John Lely, Anton Lukoszevieze, Christian Marclay, Dylan Nyoukis, Mariam Rezaei, Keith Rowe, Christian Wolff, amplified plant.

  23. applause, conclusion

Broadcast live on BBC Radio 3
Presented by Andrew McGregor, with Robert Worby

100 years have passed since John Cage was born. This all-encompasing concert, curated by conductor Ilan Volkov, celebrates the composer's iconoclastic thinking, fertile imagination and arresting humour.

"""Pay attention" and "take delight" when Ilan volkov is joined by a host of players, improvisers and electronic artists. Music of structure, form, inventiveness and surprise is played from every corner of the Royal Albert Hall. A huge orchestra of 101 musicans is onstage for "101". 5 pianos for "Winter Music". John Tilbury plays Cage's exquisitely beautiful "Concerto for Prepared Piano and Orchestra", visual artist and composer Christian Marclay improvises with an orchestra. David Behrmann, Takehisa Kosugi, Keith Rowe and Christan Wolff create new art in improvisaion, and the evening finshes with music for Catci. "Music is everywhere - you just have to have the ears to hear it." John Cage.

Welcome to Prom 47 

Befitting the composer whose 100th anniversary it celebrates, tonight's Prom is a concert like none other this Proms season. The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra's Principal Guest Conductor, Ilan Volkov, has curated a programme that reflects John Cage's iconoclastic thinking: his experiments with chance elements, star charts, pre-recorded tape; his fascination with nature and, not least, his ability to make ground-shaking statements about the very nature of music and the roles of both composer and performer, while also adding a streak of his self-effacing humour. 

Incorporating two new improvisations -- one of which transforms instrument cases into instruments -- tonight's concert also includes the Concerto for Prepared Piano and Chamber Orchestra, a work more conventionally scored, but which reconfigured its solo instrument -- an icon of classical music -- into a clanging percussion ensemble through the insertion of miscellaneous rubber and metal objects. 

A number of tonight's performers have been longtime associates of the composer, and continue to play a key role in keeping his flame burning.

A note from tonight's conductor

It would be hard to overestimate John Cage's influence on composers, if for no other reason than that his ideas were so over-arching. One of the greatest things he handed down to composers today was the discovery that you can create something by exercising less control, but still produce something identifiable as your own work or music. For example, you write a piece for radios. You tell the players precisely when to start and what to do, but you don't know what the exact outcome will be. So the sound, the music, the noise that comes out is different every time you perform or rehearse the piece. Cage is saying that he wants to let the sound appear and wants to control only some aspects of it. He worked like that for almost 40 years. 

Cage was very interested in bringing the outside world into the concert hall, and in the ways in which he could do that. Although he made aesthetic choices, he did so much less than other composers of any time. Rather than thinking, 'this is too long, I'll make it shorter' or 'this should not be so loud, I'll make it mp and not ff', he used the element of chance to allow things to happen in a more natural way. 

Another important aspect of Cage's work is that sound and silence are equal. He was interested in writing music that doesn't have a pull to tonality -- where some notes are less important than others and some notes 'lead' to others. It's as if you are walking outdoors and everything you see is equally beautiful and interesting: Cage was really aware of his surroundings. He was also drawn to Zen Buddhism and Eastern philosophy. One almost forgets that he was only one member of a community, a big stream of ideas between 1950 and 1970 and part of a movement in art that was quite spectacular. 

The stars inspired many of Cage's works, such as Atlas eclipticalis, which we hear tonight. Looking at the score, you can see Cage actually drew on a map of stars and translated it into pitches. Someone once asked Cage how he chose which stars to use, since there are millions of them, and he replied, 'Well, the stars I like, but don't tell anyone ' 

In his Concerto for Prepared Piano, the orchestra part is quite conventional, but the percussion instruments use strange things, such as amplified coil, radio, the sound of a generator and a buzzer; then there's the prepared piano itself. Almost all of the piano strings are prepared -- there are some normal pitches here and there -- but a lot of it doesn't sound like a piano at all: you see the piano being played but hear something completely different. Every piano, every acoustic will react very differently. 

Tonight we will also perform some works without orchestra, with a mix of people I have selected specially, such as But what about the noise and the rarely performed Improvisation III for cassette players, in a version for eight musicians. I wanted to convey the explosion of ideas and present a wide variety of works in this celebration of John Cage. 

Ilan Volkov 

John Cage: 'Artist of the Arbitrary'

An iconoclastic maverick who upturned the musical world with the simplest ideas: David Nicholls surveys Cage's impact on the 100th anniversary of the composer's birth. 

In his obituary of John Cage, published under the title 'Artist of the Arbitrary' inThe Sunday Times on 16 August 1992, the critic Paul Driver ventured to proclaim: 'I doubt if we will go on listening to more than a handful of Cage's hundreds of works.' Two decades on, at the time of Cage's centenary, it would seem that Driver's remarks were -- to say the least -- somewhat premature, as might in part be surmised from the 2004 opinion of another Sunday Times critic, Mark Edwards: 'Not only is Cage's music not being forgotten, its influence is clearly spreading.' Evidence for Edwards's supposition is abundant: apart from tonight's Prom, there have been numerous celebrations of Cage's 100th birthday. For example, already this year international conferences and colloquia have taken place in Berlin, Paris and the Polish city of Lublin (which has rather gamely -- and bravely -- designated 2012 'John Cage Year'); in November, these events will be succeeded by others in York and Evanston, Illinois (the latter, not coincidentally, being home to one of the repositories of Cage's voluminous estate; other parts of it reside at the University of California, Santa Cruz; Bard College, New York; and the New York Public Library). In almost every case, these academic meetings will have been accompanied by performances, between them representing the full gamut of Cage's compositional achievements. 

At the time of Cage's death, he was represented by only one biographical study, David Revill's The Roaring Silence: John Cage -- A Life; now there are three, with the most recent having been penned by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Kenneth Silverman. In addition, there have been several studies of Cage's visual art (including Kathan Brown's John Cage -- Visual Art: To Sober and Quiet the Mind), editions of Cage's otherwise uncollected writings and conversations and several volumes of essays, including The Cambridge Companion to John Cage. A major selection of his letters is at the planning stage, as are further collections of essays; his first and most famous book, Silence, was issued in 2011 in a special 50th-anniversary edition, and the number of doctoral theses on Cage's work has blossomed -- not just in the English-speaking world but also elsewhere, including France and Norway. On the recording front, meanwhile, Mode Records's Cage Edition has reached volume 45, while the MDG label -- not to be outdone -- has so far issued 15 CDs of Cage's works, including the complete piano music performed by Steffen Schleiermacher. 

Notwithstanding such merely statistical proof of Cage's continuing importance, a greater legacy exists in the degree to which his compositional and other innovations have become an integral part of the contemporary musical fabric. Percussion ensembles -- which barely existed before Cage championed them from the late 1930s on -- have become a staple in our conservatories and colleges. The 'prepared' piano -- developed by Cage around the same time from the earlier experiments of his teacher Henry Cowell -- is a common resource for today's composers. Similarly, the extended instrumental techniques -- whether for piano, voice, violin or other instruments -- pioneered by Cage are taken for granted by present-day performers, while Cage's many collaborators -- from Irvine Arditti, through Cathy Berberian, Merce Cunningham and Jasper Johns, to Robert Rauschenberg and David Tudor -- are rightly hailed as internationally significant leaders in the arts. 

Lest, however, this centennial view appears merely to be a work of hagiography, it is important to highlight a few negatives. Cage continues, in many more conservative quarters, to be ridiculed, being routinely referred to as (at best) a comedian or (at worst) a charlatan: in 1998, for instance, the philosopher Stan Godlovitch likened Cage's 'silent' work, 4'33', to a nonexistent doughnut, served in an empty folded napkin with fresh coffee. Cage's occasional clashes with musical institutions (most infamously the New York Philharmonic, who in 1964 laughed, talked among themselves, played inappropriate material and destroyed electronic equipment during performances of Atlas eclipticalis) have continued to some extent right through to the present day. Many uninformed listeners assume that, in his compositional use of chance operations, Cage gave his performers permission to do anything they liked; in fact, nothing could be further from the truth for, as the composer himself once pithily put it, 'Permission granted. But not to do whatever you want.' Perhaps most sadly of all, given Cage's almost lifelong struggle to make a living from his work, his exquisite prints and watercolours (mostly produced in the last 15 years of his life) now sell for very large sums, almost exclusively to the benefit of art dealers. 

Ultimately, however, Cage has won through -- not as a result of artistic arrogance, or pushiness, or having friends in high places (though he did), but rather through accepting the circumstances in which he found himself and (quite often, perhaps reflecting the spiritual side of his character, which by no means began with his interests in Zen Buddhism) choosing to turn the other cheek. In short, as I have written elsewhere (paraphrasing Cage's own view of one of his musical heroes, Erik Satie), it's not a question of Cage's relevance. He's indispensable. 

Introduction: David Nicholls

PROMS Q&A Ilan Volkov 

You've curated tonight's John Cage centenary Prom. How did you choose the pieces included here? 

I think there are two ways to go about doing something like this. One is to choose one or two major Cage pieces -- Atlas eclipticalis, say, or one of the Variations -- and give very long performances of them. But I decided I'd like it to be something like a rock concert, in the sense that there are many small pieces. I wanted to include works from the late 1940s right up to his late ones, so about 40 years of music. I wanted to have an orchestra there, but also to include works without orchestra -- there are pieces for choir, percussion instruments, cassettes, and even other materials, as in But what about the noise of crumpling paper  

How different is it performing Cage's music to that of other composers? 

Most of these pieces are about the performers. You don't treat Cage's music like you'd treat Stravinsky's or, for that matter, Boulez's. The performer is a much more important part of the piece. They have a lot of freedom, within the confines that Cage sets. For instance, Branches is really an improvisation. Cage sets certain rules about how to do it, but every person involved is a composer in a sense. Even in a piece like 1O1, where there are 101 players, there's a structure and harmony. But how loud you play, how long you play is not written down -- it's different every time you play the piece. 

And what's the conductor's role in this Prom? 

Many of the pieces are not conducted. But, of course, when you're rehearsing you have to explain the ground rules first. Then you have to observe and listen to how people interpret them and make plenty of comments. It's an interesting place to be. I do conduct Atlas, or at least I mimic a clock. The only piece where I conduct normally is in the Concerto for Prepared Piano, which is a metrical piece. In Atlas, it's about interpreting the text. There are so many options -- that's what's great about Cage. 

There's also a new orchestral piece by Christian Marclay. How does this fit into the story? 

I thought it was important to have other elements in this Prom. Marclay has known Cage's music for a long time -- on one of his first albums he dedicated a piece to Cage -- so I knew he would be interested. He was originally a musician but now he's more of an artist, so I thought it'd be good to have a different angle. That's what Cage would have done -- he worked with other artists, and dancers, all the time. This short piece for orchestra, Baggage, is a homage to Cage, but not a normal composition. It's still quite a surprise for me, although I know more or less what I'm going to do; it's in the spirit of Cage. 

Interview by Helen Wallace

1O1 (1988)

First performance at the Proms 

During the last five years of his life Cage wrote a series of almost 50 works which have come to be known collectively as the 'number' pieces. Although the forces used range widely, from solo instruments through to large orchestra, the one basic feature they all have in common is the compositional device of placing musical fragments between time brackets. The opening bracket typically gives a range of times during which the fragment may begin, and the closing bracket a range of times during which it must end. Thus the performer has considerable freedom in deciding the exact point in time at which each fragment appears. In solo pieces the aural result is often sparse, with isolated sounds, or collections of sounds, being framed by silence. The more instruments Cage uses, the greater the likelihood of overlap between sounds. 

A second feature common to all the number pieces is the style of their titles, which simply announce the number of performers (or in some cases musical lines). Later pieces in the series employing the same number of performers are distinguished by superscript numerals: thus we findOne (for piano), One2 (for a pianist using one to four pianos), One4 (for a percussionist), One6 (for violin), and so on. 

1O1 is the earliest of the orchestral works in the series and, although it shares the same basic compositional elements as the other number pieces, there is no sense in which it consequently lacks individuality. One of the major misconceptions concerning Cage's post-1950 work is that, because he adopted chance as a compositional tool, he also removed all aspects of composerly choice from his music. In fact, Cage always had a very clear idea of the particular aural world he wished to create in each new piece. 

Thus, in 1O1, the orchestra is divided into three basic timbral groups, each having a specific function. The largest group -- comprising strings, piano, harp, flutes and clarinets -- plays quietly throughout. The quasi-Ivesian backcloth so created is sporadically punctuated by the second group, the percussion, whose notes are scattered seemingly arbitrarily onto the texture. The remaining winds, meanwhile, together with the brass, appear only twice -- once at the beginning of the piece and once near the end. On each occasion their music is ragged, in the highest register and extremely loud, though on their second appearance the effect is of falling apart rather than coming together. 

Programme note: David Nicholls

Improvisation III (1980)

First performance at the Proms

As James Pritchett notes in his bookThe Music of John Cage, Cage had something of an aversion to improvisation: 'Given his devotion to discipline, and the silencing of his own voice, improvisation, when concerned with self-expression, was bound to appear as selfindulgent and decadent.' However, during the late 1970s and early 1980s, Cage managed to overcome this aversion by writing a series of pieces using instruments or other resources that could not be controlled by conventional means, and which therefore subverted the possibility of self-expression. The first three works in the series (Improvisations I, IB -- Branches, which is discussed below -- and II) were all composed using natural objects; the next two (III and IV) feature multiple cassette tapes and cassette players (and were also, coincidentally, employed as accompaniments to dances by Merce Cunningham, respectively Duets and Fielding Sixes). 

Improvisation III was written for at least four performers, each of whom has a cassette player, as well as an identical set of six different cassette recordings of music or sound of a single kind: in the case of Duets, the sets of cassettes were of traditional Irish bodhran playing, though performances are by no means limited to the replication of that rather particular sound-world. In a non-dance situation, the length of the performance is agreed by the players beforehand; each then 'improvises' by playing selections from her/his cassettes. The general dynamic throughout is ppbut each performer is allowed one crescendo during the course of the piece. 

Programme note: David Nicholls

Experiences II (1948)

First performance at the Proms

From the 1950s onwards, the standard modus operandi for collaborations between Cage and choreographer Merce Cunningham was, once an overall duration had been agreed, for the two to work independently: thus sound and movement came together only at the point of performance. At this earlier period -- the time of Experiences II -- the arrangement was more conventionally formal, though in a reversal of 19th-century norms, Cage often composed his dance scores after the choreography had been fixed, thus following its structures, rather than vice versa. Indeed, such a procedure was, apart from square-root form, for several years his most common compositional device. 

For the brief dance Experiences II, Cage set for solo voice a text by e. e. cummings taken from the 1923 collectionTulips and Chimneys. The resulting melodic line, which the composer described as 'modal in character', very closely resembles that of Experiences I, a companion dance scored for two pianos. 

Programme note: David Nicholls

Experiences II Note:

(from the score, which the composer requires to be included in any programme including a public performance)

The text is from [Sonnet] III, one of 'Sonnets--Unrealities' of 'Tulips and Chimneys' (1923) by e. e. cummings. The last two lines have been omitted Other lines and a word have been repeated or used in an order other than that of the original. The humming passages (not part of the poem) are interpolations. The original poem is as follows: 

it is at moments after i have dreamed 
of the rare entertainment of your eyes, 
when (being fool to fancy) i have deemed 
with your peculiar mouth my heart made wise; 
at moments when the glassy darkness holds 

the genuine apparition of your smile 
(it was through tears always) and silence moulds 
such strangeness as was mine a little while; 

moments when my once more illustrious arms 
are filled with fascination, when my breast 
wears the intolerant brightness of your charms: 

one pierced moment whiter than the rest. 

--turning from the tremendous lie of sleep 
i watch the roses of the day grow deep. 

e. e. cummings (1894--1962), adapted by John Cage

ear for EAR (Antiphonies) (1983)

First performance at the Proms

From the 1960s through the 1990s, EARmagazine was a new music publication associated with the New Wilderness Foundation. Cage wrote this piece especially for anEARbenefit concert that took place on 8 April 1983 in St Bartholomew's Church, New York City; apart from its publication by the Henmar Press, the work also appeared in issues 8/1--2 and 15/5 of the magazine. 

The premise is not unlike that of Four2, in that the musical substance consists simply in the vocalisation, by two or more voices, of the letters E, A and R. The Antiphonies of the title indicates that the voices should be widely separated, one being visible and the other(s) not. Programme note © David Nicholls

FOUR2 (1990)

First performance at the Proms

Like 1O1, FOUR2 is part of the extended series of so-called 'number' pieces that Cage composed in the five years. 

Scored for mixed chorus, it was written to be performed by the madrigal choir of the Hood River Valley High School in Oregon, a reminder that not all of Cage's music requires specialised performers. The musical fragments consist of individual pitches which vocalise the letters of the state name; the effect is not dissimilar to that of an earlier a cappellawork, Hymns and Variations (1979). 

Programme note: David Nicholls

Baggage (2012)

World premiere

In 1998 I created a silent installation at the O. K. Centrum f¸r Gegenwartskunst in Linz, Austria. It consisted of hundreds of old and empty musical instrument cases displayed open on low platforms. These cases were the negative forms of the absent instruments, the undervalued protectors of their precious cargo. I wanted to make these unassuming objects shine and reveal their inner beauty. 

One of the unexpected surprises of this display was the musty smell released from the varied and colourful crushed- velvet interiors. This time around I want to give voice to these mute containers. I have asked the orchestra to put aside their instruments for a moment and use their cases and bags to make sounds, in order to celebrate these humble objects. 

Programme note: Christian Marclay

Cartridge Music (1960) with Atlas eclipticalis (1962) and Winter Music (1957)

First performance at the Proms

One interesting consequence of Cage's employment of indeterminacy as a compositional tool is that a substantial number of his works from the 1950s and 1960s may, if desired, be performed simultaneously. This is certainly the case for Cartridge Music, Atlas eclipticalis and Winter Music, as well as for the contemporaneous vocal Aria (which is often paired with either Fontana Mix of 1958 or the Concert for Piano and Orchestra of 1957--8). The aural results of such simultaneous performances tend towards timbrally striking, and highly unpredictable, collage. 

Both Atlas eclipticalis and Winter Music are related to the aforementioned Concert: Winter Music (for one to 20 pianists) was written immediately prior to it and, although notationally less complex, shares many of its interpretational flexibilities. The work's 20 pages may be played in whole or in part; each contains a collection of chords whose positions were determined by observing imperfections in the manuscript paper. The deployment of treble and bass clefs is highly (and deliberately) ambiguous and requires the performer(s) to make specific decisions as to the pitch content of the chords. Durations are not specified. 

Atlas eclipticalis was conceived as an instrumental counterpart toWinter Music and its notations are clearly influenced by some of those found inConcert. Commissioned by the Montreal Festival Society, it has suffered more than most of Cage's works from undisciplined performances, most infamously that given in 1964 by the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein (who was forced to castigate the players for their unprofessional behaviour). The notations for Atlas were derived from 32 astronomical charts and the piece has parts for up to 86 orchestral instruments. The function of the conductor, as withConcert, is to indicate the passing of time (which Cage states should be 'at least twice as slow as clock time') by slowly revolving his arms. 

The instruments used in Atlas eclipticalis may, if desired, be amplified through the use of contact microphones. In this use of early electronic technology the work is thus linked with Cartridge Music; and, like Fontana Mix, Cartridge Music has a dual function. On one level it can be used simply as a way of creating performances, in this case by inserting objects into the 'cartridges' of record players: by touching the inserted objects, sounds are made, registered by the cartridges and amplified through loudspeakers. On another level, the score materials of the work can be used to control the outputs of up to 20 amplified instruments. 

Programme note: David Nicholls

Concerto for Prepared Piano and Chamber Orchestra (1950-51)

Written soon after the String Quartet in Four Parts (1949--50), the three parts (or movements) of the Concerto for Prepared Piano and Chamber Orchestra bring together a number of Cage's preoccupations of the later 1940s. First, the solo instrument is the prepared piano, which Cage had invented a decade earlier. The concerto's preparations are among his most complex: along with the more familiar nuts, bolts, screws and erasers, we find a movable plastic bridge that produces microtones. Second, the orchestral parts are -- like those of the String Quartet -- derived from a fixed gamut of sounds, though in this case they are arranged into a chart: in the first movement, each horizontal row of the chart favours a particular instrument. Third, the overall shape of the work is controlled by square-root form. Finally, the percussion part includes a range of unusual instruments. 

However, there are also important differences between the concerto and Cage's immediately preceding works. Its first movement was conceived as a drama, in which soloist and orchestra are opposed: the piano part is composed freely, while the orchestral music is derived from 'checker board' moves around the sound chart. In the second movement, much of the dramatic opposition is nullified by both the solo and orchestral parts being derived from charts, though here the moves consist of concentric squares and circles. 

In all of this, Cage was progressing along a path whose ultimate goal was the abnegation of personal taste. This goal was reached in the third movement (composed after a break during which he wrote the Sixteen Dances for Merce Cunningham), all of the material of which was taken from a single chart. The selection of sounds here was achieved by consulting the I Ching, a copy of which he had recently been given by Christian Wolff. Just as the invention of square-root form in 1939 afforded Cage a fundamental compositional tool that he used for around 15 years, so the discovery of the I Chingmade possible almost all of his subsequent work, most immediately in the monumental Music of Changes (1951) for piano, commenced shortly after the completion of the concerto. 

Programme note: David Nicholls

But what about the noise of crumpling paper... (1985)

First performance at the Proms

The full title of this piece, written for the three to 10 percussionists of Les Percussions de Strasbourg, is But what about the noise of crumpling paper which he used to do in order to paint the series of 'papiers froissÈs' or tearing up paper to make 'papiers dÈchirÈs'? Arp was stimulated by water (sea, lake, and flowing waters like rivers), forests. The work was written in anticipation of the centenary of the Alsatian artist Jean Arp (1886--1966) and is in some senses a close relative of such 'nature pieces' as Child of Tree and Branches. Each of the percussionists is instructed to employ at least two 'only slightly resonant' instruments made of different materials, preferably wood, metal and glass. In addition, the score specifies such resources as water ('pouring, bubbling, etc.'), paper ('crumpling, tearing, being caused to vibrate like a thundersheet'), and other 'not easily identifiable' sounds suggestive of those found in nature. 

In a manner similar to that found in certain works by Cage's colleague in the New York School, Morton Feldman, although the performers of But what about the noise notionally play in unison, each keeps her/his own time: thus the music gradually dissembles as it progresses; the tempo is very slow. In addition, Cage specifies several alternative stagings for the work: the players may be placed (as tonight) around the audience or within it (assuming a truly promenade situation), or perform conventionally from the stage (in which case they should be 'not close together').

Programme note: David Nicholls

Quartet (2012)

First performance at the Proms 

A quartet improvisation, although termed as an improvisation, might be viewed equally as four compositional arrangements juxtaposed. In this piece, the four players work freely, not knowing the devices, set-ups and circuits, or the intentions of the other players nor how direct or oblique their references (on this occasion) to Cage might be. 

Thinking and reflecting about the relationship and importance of painting to music in both the New York School of abstract art and Black Mountain College, North Carolina, where Cage staged his first 'happening', we might observe that in the conservatory a performer trains to play other people's music, whereas in the 'beaux-arts' the artist does not have permission to paint other people's paintings. Instead, the urge is to develop one's own language, even to create a new language. Within this quartet we find four individual approaches for making music, four distinct specific languages, with diversity, invention and imagination; all aspects for which, as Morton Feldman pointed out, we must thank John Cage. 

The concurrence of these four languages needs to be accomplished within the 'Art of Improvisation' -- this art practised over the centuries: by Bach, Beethoven, Thelonious Monk or Max Roach. 

How does the old proverb go? 'Man makes plans God laughs.' Some have added, 'The composer makes plans music laughs'; we might add: 'When we improvise Cage laughs.' 

Programme note: Keith Rowe

Branches (1976)

First performance at the Proms 

Also known as Improvisation IB, Branches is a semi-improvised work for any number of percussionists playing amplified plant materials, 'at least one of which [must be] a pod rattle from a poinciana tree and at least one (preferably several) [of which] are cacti'. The latter are played by plucking their needles with toothpicks; amplification is enabled either by cartridge-like devices or by close-miking. Other possible sound sources might include dry leaves, bark, brittle twigs, sheaves of grass, plucked pine cones, and so on. A performance of Branches in addition includes a rendition of its predecessor, Child of Tree (also known as either Improvisation I or IA), which was written the previous year for a solo percussionist. As noted earlier in relation to Improvisation III, Cage subverted his dislike of improvised music by employing uncontrollable instruments: here, as he explained in an interview, 'in the case of the plant materials, you don't know them; you're discovering them. So the instrument is unfamiliar [and] the whole thing remains fascinating, and free of your memory as a matter of course'. 

For Child of Tree, Cage provided elaborate chance-based instructions from which the percussionist constructs a performance score; the changes between plant materials are determined by this score, as are the relative lengths of each of the work's subsections. In the case of Branches, a rendition of Child of Tree is in essence followed by a series of variations on it, 'strung together' -- in Cage's words -- 'on a string of silence'.

Programme note: David Nicholls