James Pritchett: Writings on Cage (& others)

Notes on John Cage's Winter music/Atlas eclipticalis and 103

by James Pritchett

Copyright 2000 by James Pritchett. All rights reserved.

1. The meaning of Winter music and Atlas eclipticalis

We've now played the Winter music quite a number of times. I haven't kept count. When we first played it, the silences seemed very long and the sounds seemed really separated in space, not obstructing one another. In Stockholm, however, when we played it at the Opera as an interlude in the dance program given by Merce Cunningham and Carolyn Brown early one October, I noticed that it had become melodic.
-- John Cage

After listening to this performance of Winter music with Atlas eclipticalis, the question that arose in my mind was: What did John Cage mean by the title Winter music? What is its significance? I know of no explanation of it in Cage's writings or interviews. It does not fit into any of the titling schemes that he employed in the 1950s. At that time, Cage was partial to very plain, functional titles: Music for piano, Aria, 26' 1.1499'' for a string player. Occasionally he would name pieces for their dedicatees: For Paul Taylor and Anita Dencks, Williams mix. A handful of pieces have evocative titles derived from some aspect of their compositional means (Music of changes, Seven haiku) or from their sonic material (Sounds of Venice, Water music). I can't place Winter music in any of these categories. The title is not functional; the piece is not named after a Mr. or Ms. Winter; there is nothing in the manner or method of the piece that makes "winter" an obvious reference.

Without any obvious answers from the composer, I was left to make my own solution to this puzzle. The answer to which my mind turned was that the title refers to the content of the music: Winter music is about winter. What could this mean? Certainly it sounds severe, minimal, static. This suggests the stillness of winter. I began to explore this connection, a poetic image that reveals much about the work.

Before proceeding further, it is perhaps best for me to describe Winter music and its composition. The work consists of twenty pages of music that can be used by anywhere from one to twenty pianists. Varying numbers of events are scattered on the twenty pages, but all the events have an identical profile: single chords. The number of notes per chord and their specific locations on the staff were determined by chance procedures. The notation can be ambiguous with regards to pitch, and Cage provides precise rules on how to interpret these situations. But he is absolutely clear that each event should be played as a single attack. There is to be no breaking up of the chord in any way. If the notes are too widely-spaced for the pianist's hands to reach, then a technique involving sympathetic vibrations is used to compensate.

There is nothing in the notation of the piece to indicate time, sequence, or continuity. One could, perhaps, read the notations left-to-right and top-to-bottom on the page, but Cage does not indicate this in his instructions, and the way in which he has laid out the notations on paper does not encourage such a reading. Instead, each chord is separate from all the others, potentially sounding at any point in time, before, after, or during any other event.

The method of Winter music explains its severe quality. Other pieces of this same period in Cage's work may incorporate a wide range of possibilities, but Winter music limits itself to one. The same simple event -- the single attack -- occurs over and over again with no contrast, no development, no change. And because every event in the piece is an ictus -- a downbeat -- there is no sense of motion here at all. Events do not lead to one another. Events do not have the inner motion of a phrase or even an arpeggiation. It is not surprising that Cage was a little disappointed to find it becoming melodic to his ears over time.

Considered in this way, the title of Winter music begins to make sense. This is a music in which time no longer exists, or in which it is frozen. The sparse and isolated chords of Winter music have more in common with points in space than with events in time. They stand out in the silence, totally separated from one another, the way that twigs, stones, and trees appear against the blank whiteness of the snow.

Winter music is a work about space, separation, immobility, and timelessness. Considered in this way, its pairing with Atlas eclipticalis takes on additional meaning. Cage thought of Atlas eclipticalis as the companion of Winter music from the very first; his early sketches refer to the piece as "Winter music for strings." He discovered the key to the work when he found the astronomical atlas of the title. The star maps provided him with a way to discover the pitches of the music: he used elaborate chance operations to produce tracings of the stars on music paper. Tracings from the maps also determined the location of orchestral events ("constellations" as he called them) in the overall time of the piece.

The stars served more than technical ends, however. They provide another dimension to the theme of timelessness and space. Since the orchestral instruments cannot play chords, the events of Atlas consist of a number of tones played in succession. But as in Winter music, the pacing of the tones is glacial. The individual notes are as "really separated in space, not obstructing one another" as in Winter music. In a joint performance such as the one recorded here, the connection between the quiescent Winter music and the timeless quality of the starry Atlas eclipticalis is clear. It is a connection between earth and heaven; a look up into the sky on a cold, clear night.

2. Petr Kotik and 103

I spoke with Petr Kotik about the connections between Cage's first orchestral work (Atlas eclipticalis) and his last (103) and how fitting it was that they be joined on this recording. 103, like Winter music and Atlas eclipticalis, is a piece in which everything is stripped to a minimum. It is one of the series of works that Cage composed in the last few years of his life, a series sometimes referred to as "the number pieces" because their titles are simply the number of instruments in the ensemble. Although written for an orchestra, the piece is really composed as a collection of 103 independent solos. Each instrument plays a series of single tones; each tone has a window of time within which it may begin and end ("time brackets", as Cage called them).

Our conversation then turned to Kotik's views on the use of a conductor in 103. Cage indicates that the piece should be performed without a conductor. Instead, the players should refer to a large digital display showing the elapsed time of the performance. Using this chronometer, they then make their own decisions about when to start and stop playing within the limits of their various time brackets. In the performance on this recording, Kotik does not follow Cage's instructions. "It is almost without a precedent that a composer would involve himself with such performance decisions," he says. "How music is performed is, has been, and always will remain the domain of the performer." He sees the decision whether to use a conductor or not as being no different than any of a number of performance decisions (whether to use a baton or not, etc.). "What is important is the result, not the way one uses to achieve it."

Kotik feels that Cage's political and philosophical beliefs led him astray when it came to the orchestra. "I am sorry that he did not live to hear what I was doing with the orchestra. He had this idea of the orchestra as being a group of individuals who can proceed on their own to create this kind of music. Which is not possible unless you create a different kind of orchestra."

Kotik feels that Cage's insistence on a conductorless ensemble was a mistake that stands in the way of the music's destiny. When he was offered the chance to prepare the work with the Janacek Philharmonic Orchestra, he knew that he would have to conduct -- he told me that he would refuse to participate in any situation where there is no conductor. He spent two months preparing the work: using chance operations, he worked out the precise points of attach for every note of every one of the 103 parts (the performers determined the endings of the notes during the performance). He rehearsed with the players for four hours and conducted during the performance; the results were beautiful. "This way," Kotik explained, "the orchestra, under my guidance, was able to fully concentrate on the way each sound was produced, and the performance was ensured from the possibility that the players would start to 'do what they want.'"

Outwardly, all Kotik did was move his arms to signal the passing of time; he became a human clock. So why was it necessary? In his view, the orchestra needs a conductor, "someone who stands in front of the orchestra who knows the music, can recognize mistakes, and enforces a high degree of integrity. The conductor, by moving his hands as a clock, is replacing the digital screen by the analog showing of his hands. However the main difference between the digital screen and the analog conductor is not the time indication: his is more or less the same. It is instead the presence of a conductor who truly leads the orchestra, instead of the impersonal presence of the TV screen." Kotik believes that if you could bring 103 good soloists together, "you could do it with 103 soloists, but an orchestra! -- that's another animal altogether. An orchestra is only as good as the worst player."

Kotik has been criticized for his decision to conduct 103; there are those who feel that he should not ignore Cage's explicit instructions. But while steeped in his extensive experience with Cage's work, Kotik is also completely in touch with his own musical vision, a vision that flows directly from his identity as a performer. "Cage had little understanding of the mechanics of performance," Kotik told me. "He hated to rehearse; he had no use for the mechanisms of performance." Petr Kotik sees himself as the guardian of the success and integrity of the actual performance experience. He hears something in the work beyond what the composer does. And once he locks in on his vision, "no one -- not even the misguided ideas of the composer -- is going to stand in the way."

A little later in our conversation we touched on the source of this attitude. In 1975, Kotik prepared a performance of Cage's Song Books. Despite his misgivings, Kotik followed Cage's directions: there were no rehearsals of the piece with all the performers together. In performance, one of the singers behaved irresponsibly and sabotaged the piece. Kotik was shocked and embarrassed; Cage was furious. Kotik tried to deflect Cage's wrath by pointing out that, with no rehearsal, there was no way to know what was going to happen in the performance. "But you are the director!" was Cage's response. That encounter was a turning point for Kotik. "That line completely changed my attitude towards anything he [Cage] would say or do," he told me. From this disaster emerged a new sense of mission: "If I do something, I am completely responsible," says Kotik. He now knows that he cannot hide behind a composer's ideas, which may have seemed valid at the time, but which have proven to be unworkable. Instead, he must do what is necessary to bring the musical vision to fruition. Whether one agrees or not, the beauty of the performances on this recording is very difficult to argue with.