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John Cage - Experiments in Sound

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					John Cage : Experiments in Sound

4/29/08 9:48 PM

John Cage : Experiments in Sound
Patrick Woodward Electronic Music Professor Snyder April 19, 1999 Woodward 1 The integration of opposites was a process that John Cage the modernist composer stuck by for the creation of many of his compositions. John Cage is a twentieth century composer born in the United States, but traveled the world to experience different cultures in which he pulled from and used as influences in his musical works. Although he makes it clear that his influences were not used in a way in which they were only expanded on; instead they were drawn upon in order to create a so called tradition of his own (Perloff, 127). Cageís musical training, some would say, was limited. His aunt Phoebe was probably his first influence (Duckworth, 7). She introduced him to the piano and the music of Greig. Cage was shunned away from listening to the music of Beethoven and Bach. This would later on become a major factor in his compositional style. John later moved to Europe to study with various teachers. Again it seemed that he had somehow fallen upon these people and teachers that were not interested in the usual and accepted way of writing and composing music. At this time he was finally introduced to Bach and Beethoven as well as Stravisky. Cage did not seem to be interested in scales and virtuosity per se. He was searching for something more experimental; more "open". Another interesting and vital part of John Cage, that would too become a vital factor in his composing, was that he did not have any sense or perception of harmony. He admits that he even has trouble remembering melodic lines (Duckworth, 7). Not being interested in scales and the traditional form of harmony and melody John searched for different ways to express music. Instead of creating continuity by using pitch he began using duration as the primary form. This explains the mathematical quality in many of his early pieces. His explanation of this was that time and duration were far more fundamental and important than harmony and pitch (Shultis, 88). With the absence of traditional pitch and harmony his process of composing was the integration of sound and silence (Shultis, 87). Woodward 2
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In his compositions Cage tried to use the music to communicate to others and express to others his emotions; just like any other composer does. After performing one of his first compositions to the public, they basically called it a failure because they did not understand it fully. After experiencing Indian influence as well as studying the practices of Zen Buddhism he changed his purpose for composing; it was now to put the mind at ease in order to make it vulnerable to the influence of life and spirituality (Shultis, 90). Cage also began to experiment with the aspect of chance in his compositions, allowing people to interpret it for themselves. An example of this would be Variations III. This piece was intended for one or more people who would randomly drop plastic circles on top of each other. One would then observe any single circle and how many circles were overlapping it; this would determine how sound was created. The person would respond by making action that corresponded to the number of overlapping circles. As one can see it is not the sound or silence that is important, it is how it is created. Parallel to leaving his compositions up to chance was the event in 1992 called the Musicircus. It occurred at Stanfordís music building. Only a little over 200 musicians were allowed to come but offers from all over the area surrounding Stanford came in. All of these musicians playing different instruments came into the building and started playing anywhere that they could. There was not a beginning nor an end; it was continuos sound for three hours. Cage came up with this idea from Einsteinís theory that nature is always in flux, meaning without beginning and ending. In addition Cage also wanted people not to be able to recreate it, or tape it or observe it as a whole. This, to him was the essence in the absence of logic and law (Perloff, 44). Cage was analytical in his way of composing and creating music. He approached composing as a process in the same way that poets approach writing. Composing was something that was experienced and progressed through, it was experienced as it happened. Instead of regurgitating something that is already on the inside, it is something Woodward 3 totally brand new and interesting and fresh all at the same time. The composer himself doesnít even know exactly what is going to happen. Composing was supposed to be an adventure and an experience at the same time. It must have been odd for Cage since he could not hear harmony nor melody in his head; he didnít have a preconceived idea of what he wanted to compose. In many of his later works Cage became obsessed with the concept of using time duration as a way of portraying form. He composed many pieces using a mathematical technique called square root form. Basically this is when the macrostructure and microstructure intertwine and coincide with each other (Shultis, 88). A piece called First Construction in Metal is a work by Cage that uses this type of form the entire way through. On a macro scale there are sixteen structural units; on the micro scale there are sixteen measures in each unit. This is what is called the square root form. An overview of the piece: it is a percussion ensemble for the most part but not a traditional one. The instrumentation includes various gongs, prepared piano, thunder sheets, automobile brake drums and cow bells among other various instruments but these are the main ones (Cage, 12). The piece is broken down into five distinct parts and the corresponding units; 4,3,2,3,4. There is a total of
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sixteen units (Shultis, 90). The first part that is introduced involves what I believe to be the thunder sheet; it has a low pitched rumble to it. There is also something on top of it as well, a more higher pitched noise. The piece then begins to exploit the cow bells in a strong captivating rhythm. The duration of this part is four units. After listening to it as a whole a few times, one can begin to see where the units begin and end. However, it is not the easiest thing since at first there sounds as if there isnít any structure at all. In addition it is like learning a new form; that can slow one down as well. In the first part the four units are introduced by the cowbells and the brake drums I believe. At the fourth unit there is a short lull in the music and then the thunder sheets from Woodward 4 the first part introduce the second part. This second section is a little shorter in duration than the first; being only three units long instead of four. This section also seems to be very similar to the first part in that similar melodies and rhythmic structure comes back and reintroduces itself. Although it is shorter than the first part it has the same amount of energy. The third and shortest part is only two units long. There is a drastic dynamic change in this part in that what has been happening before was filled with strict banging and rapping. However, in this section it is very quiet and the timing, although loose, seems to be cut into a half time feel as well. This section is only two units long with a duration of 43 seconds. In the third section he seems to change his school of thought from creating the strict rhythms of the first two parts to making the rhythms not only half tempo but also making the rhythms sway back and fourth instead of having them be as strict. At the end of the 43 second period Cage evolves back into the stricter faster rhythms of the first parts. The instrumentsí parts as well as the rhythms and feel of the first two parts are intertwined in the fourth part but they are more complex as far as the orchestration goes. There is much more layering of the sounds mainly by the use of drums and the thunder sheets. The main thing that brings one out of the slower section is the introductory melody that the cow bells bring back from the first section; somewhat like a recapitulation. By the end of this two part section however, new ideas are introduced; more complicated as well. The instrumentsí parts become more clashing at times, but they do accent each other. The different types of cymbals also take the for front for a couple of measures as well. Trading off from one cymbal to another. The prepared piano sees a lot of action in this part as well. During the transition between the fourth and final parts of the piece again a slower more loose atmosphere is created with the use of the thunder sheets. The final section briefly brings back the rhythms of the main theme but the melodic structure is not there Woodward 5 anymore. Use of the multiple gongs on stage and the thunder sheets in conjunction with the highly pitched anvils. I find the last few bars of the fourth section to be interesting in that it sounds as if the piece is going to end or could end at that moment, instead Cage comes back full force with the final section, introducing it with a gong. This final section has so much going on inside it. Contrasting rhythms especially by something that sounds like some type of wooden instrument. This instrument appears intermittently throughout the section with a nice counter rhythm that kind of breaks up the first few bars of the section. The entire section except for a few bars in the beginning seems to be dedicated to the ending of the piece. This struck me as odd because of Cageís objective to not portray a beginning, middle or an end. However, in this piece there are clearly, and I believe purposefully, all three. Even though, there seems to be clearly defined all three
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parts mentioned above they may have not been put there purposefully. As mentioned before Cage uses duration to create form in his pieces, this may be exactly what he didnít want people to think. In looking at it, it would be possible to "label" any piece with a beginning a middle and an end; even though none of them were supposed to exist in a specific piece. When analyzing a piece one must not only look at it from the audienceís standpoint but also from the composers standpoint. I believe that it is possible to only look at pieces from the audienceís point of view, but in order to get the most out of a piece of music one must delve into the composers mind. This holds true especially for modern works such as Cageís to get the full meaning and purpose of a piece of music. John Cage was an interesting composer to do research on because of his style of composing. Once one understands his logic and exactly why he does some of the things he does, it opens up a door into his music and creations. I found his style of using form most intriguing. If it were not as mathematical and logical, I donít believe that many would be able to appreciate his music for what he was actually trying to accomplish. Being that it is not terribly difficult to see the form in his pieces, is probably why so many appreciate his Woodward 6 work. Cage can be so exact in his writing and composing while on the other hand organize very loose, formless events such as the Musicircus. Case-in-point, this is what composing was to John Cage; the integration of opposites. He uses this philosophy in a unique way; not over doing it, while on the other hand being able to feel itís presence. It is good for the sake of music that there are people such as John Cage that are willing to push and think outside of the envelope. People such as these may be some of the smartest and skilled composers of the century. Individuals such as John Cage know and understand traditional form and harmonic structure but they choose to forget this information that they have learned while searching in an opposite direction for a different way to compose and communicate to others through music.

Works Cited Cage, John . First Construction in Metal. Wergo, 6247-2, 1994. Duckworth, William . Talking Music. New York: Printice Hall, 1995 . Perloff, Marjorie, and Charles Junkerman . John Cage, Composed in America. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1994 . Shultis, Christopher . Silencing the Sounded Self, John Cage and the American Experimental Tradition. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1998 . BACK

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Description: I was into John Cage in college. This is a research paper I did about him and his experiments in sound.
Patrick Woodward Patrick Woodward
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