John Cage (part II): Sonatas and Interludes: Sonata V

I left you all with a bit of a cliffhanger yesterday.  If you want the truth, I bailed.  I hit the deadline and decided rather than just miss the Friday altogether, let me just post John Cage's most famous work and leave a blank entry, all minimalist and whatnot.  I apologize for masquerading this as cleverness.  In my defense, however, I decided upon that course of action shortly after writing the vast majority of what you are about to read.  I didn't have time to fact-check and proofread, so instead of publishing an inferior product I elected to buy myself some time.

"Until I die there will be sounds. And they will continue following my death. One need not fear about the future of music."
John Cage (1912-1992) 

So.  What is music?  

That's the definition according to Google.  Breaking it down we've got sounds that are interpreted to be "pleasingly harmonious".  At it's core, music has been often considered simply organized sound and for much of human history, musicians have categorized sounds in several different ways.  Most utilize a form of tempo combined with some sort of notation so that music can be shared with others.  Being a highly social activity, it's often produced from organized groups singing or playing instruments that have been constructed and modified and altered over decades to centuries to a millennia.  

Charles Ives changed how we perceive the organization.  He wanted to compose music that was more organic and germane to it's environment.  So, he composed music that reflected the performers of his day and their typical habitats.  John Cage expanded on this greatly, taking it to the level of eroding the boundary between the ambient and the performance entirely.  

Some of you might be familiar with a work of his entitled 4'33" (especially if you came to this blog yesterday).  This piece is often claimed to be four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence as in the score there is not a single note to be found through the three movement work.  When it is performed, the musician will sit quietly and just exist for its duration.  It's been criticized by some as being a bit ridiculous.  Others praise it's ability to highlight the environment in which music is created.  However, much as many would consider the absence of light dark, so would many consider the absence of sound to be silence, the pure opposite of music.

Since how are you supposed to get down in silence?
The problem with that line of thinking is that silence is arguably more important than the sound itself, a point Cage went to great lengths to prove.  I'm a big fan of contrasts.  Can we be happy if we don't know what sad is? Can you be excited if you've never been bored? How can we as humans perceive or interpret one extreme without a complete understanding of the other?  In an effort to understand this criteria of sound versus silence, Cage visited an anechoic chamber.  These chambers are super-soundproofed and dampened to the point where you cannot hear any ambient noise, in essence it is a room where perfect silence exists, well below the minimum volume for human hearing.

Upon exiting the chamber, Cage spoke to an audio engineer about two distinct noises he heard while in the chamber, a high and low pitch to which he learned was his nervous system and circulatory system respectively. The room is so quiet, you are able to actually hear your blood moving through your body. Long-term effects of these chambers create all sorts of psychological phenomena and physiological effects in humans such as dizziness and disorientation, purportedly the longest any human has been able to remain in such a chamber is approximately 45 minutes.  

Cage became inspired to write 4'33" upon the realization that there can never be anything as perfect as total silence.  Even in the quietest place on Earth, humans cannot perceive total silence because of their own bodies.  Therefore, his piece is not a celebration of the absence of sound, it is an open embrace of all things that are not music that inadvertently become part of a performance scenario.  An old man with a cough.  A child fidgeting in her seat.  That annoying person texting during the performance while chewing gum directly behind you.

Are certain sounds given more weight than others or should we accept all noise, ambient or otherwise, as part of the holistic human experience?  That's for you to decide.  

But fear not!  In addition to your dose of silence you will receive another John Cage goody today.  He was born to an inventor father and journalist mother in Los Angeles in 1912.  After dropping out of college, he took a trip to Europe to search for an appropriate endeavor for which to dedicate his life. He explored various artforms, but obviously settled his sights on music as a medium.  Being of inventor roots, he began approaching music with a scientific ferocity, using math formulas to compose over outright form and creativity.  Strangely, he never really even considered himself to be a musician, instead preferring the title of inventor.  And that he was.

Cage became well-known for popularizing the use of non-traditional instruments in his work, particularly electronic instruments and recording devices, thus giving rise to the electro-acoustical movement.  He also was a fan of using traditional instruments in non-traditional ways, one of his favorites being the "prepared piano".

Also known as screwing up a piano.  I'm not sorry for that comment.  
Essentially, he would put stuff between the strings of the piano which would have the effect of either muting the strings, making it sound more percussive or changing the tuning of the string by landing on harmonic nodes of the strings.  He used screws and erasers and bits of rubbish to transform the instrument into something that doesn't sounds entirely unlike a Japanese zen garden.  

Coupled with the rhythmic mathematics of the Cage style, these pieces are downright otherworldly. Some of his earliest and most well-known works are from a series known as Sonatas and Interludes. Most of the movements are in binary form and the whole work was inspired by a relationship he established with Indian musician, Gita Sarabhai.  She came to the US to learn about Western music and in return, she taught him about Indian music.  Pulling from a tradition known as "rasa" he established this work based on 8 emotions: humor, wonder, erotic, heroic, anger, fear, disgust, and sorrow.  Furthermore, each movement is based on a particular fraction, incorporating the numerical values into the rhythmic and repetitive nature of the piece.  

Now, our listening is just going to be from one particular movement from the total work, "Sonata V".  However, the whole piece is available on YouTube, and several of the other movements are in this video too, so feel free to let it roll on.  Now, keep in mind while listening that all you hear is generated by a single person on a piano.  Sonata V starts out with a rhythmic, pulsating, rolling undercurrent with a punchy melody on top.  It really reminds me of the kalimba, an African instrument that utilizes metal tongs which are plucked by the musician's thumbs.  It too is often played in a mechanical, punctuated style.  

If you've got time, it's worth it to listen to the whole thing, but definitely give Sonata V a chance.  

See you next Friday.