James Pritchett: Writings on Cage (& others)

John Cage: Choral music (a timeline)

James Pritchett

Copyright 1998 by James Pritchett. All rights reserved.


William Billings publishes New England Psalm Singer and The Singing Master's Assistant. Billings' two volumes of four- and five-part psalm-tunes, anthems, and canons are among the earliest publications of American music. In the introduction to New England Psalm Singer he writes:

Nature is the best Dictator, for all the hard dry studied Rules that ever was prescribed, will not enable any Person to form an Air any more than the bare Knowledge of the four and twenty Letters, and strict Grammatical Rules will qualify a Scholar for composing a Piece of Poetry, or properly adjusting a Tragedy, without a Genius. It must be Nature, Nature must lay the Foundation, Nature must inspire the Thought.


Cage studies with Schoenberg. When Arnold Schoenberg came to California in the mid-1930s, John Cage took the opportunity to sit in on his classes. Just about all we know about his work with Schoenberg is what we can glean from the stories he told about classes and lessons. Most of these stories deal with counterpoint classes that Schoenberg taught, although some appear to refer to more personal lessons that took place. In the most famous of these stories, Cage attributes his lifelong devotion to music to a promise he made to Schoenberg. Then, when Schoenberg informed him that his lack of a feeling for harmony would be a wall between him and his goal of being a composer, Cage responded, "I will devote my life to beating my head against that wall."

In another story, Cage tells of how, after he had formed an ensemble of percussionists, he invited Schoenberg to hear one of their performances. Schoenberg declined, indicating that he was busy that particular evening. As Cage continued to suggest alternate evenings, Schoenberg continued to turn him down. "No, I am not free at any time," he finally informed him.


Cage composes Living Room Music. Living Room Music for percussion and speech quartet is in four movements: "To Begin", "Story", "Melody", and "End". No percussion instruments are used. Instead, Cage indicates that "any household objects or architectural elements may be used as instruments." Examples given are things such as magazines, a table, "largish books", the floor, a window frame. In the second movement the players perform a rhythmic reading of a text from Gertrude Stein's The World is Round: "Once upon a time the world was round and you could go on it around and around." The third movement is optional. In it, one player performs a melody on "any suitable instrument."

This is an informal music, a home entertainment. Cage's percussion players were frequently not professional musicians—his earliest ensemble consisted of bookbinders he knew. In Living Room Music they are as the amateurs of the past, sitting around the table at home with their parts and playing for their own pleasure.


Cage composes the Solo for Voice 1 and Solo for Voice 2. The first Solo for Voice was written to be performed with the Concert for Piano and Orchestra. The various parts of the Concert were each called "solos": Solo for Piano, Solo for Cello, and so on. The Solo for Voice follows the notational model of the orchestral solos of the Concert: notes of three different sizes, with size indicating loudness. These single tones are not all that is sung, however. The singer sings longer vocal lines of their own devising, using the tones notated as the starting point, the ending point, or a midpoint of the overall line (which option to use is also notated in the score). The texts were either vocalises of isolated consonants and vowels or were excerpts of existing texts, chosen by an elaborate system involving a categorization of different types of English, French, and German prose and poetry.

The piece was renamed Solo for Voice 1 in 1960 when Cage composed the Solo for Voice 2. This work used an entirely different system of composition and notation.


Cage composes Cheap Imitation. Cage faced copyright issues with the use of Erik Satie's Socrate as the accompaniment to a Merce Cunningham dance. In response to this problem, he developed a way of taking Satie's melody and "recomposing" it using chance operations. The result was a unique work that maintained the rhythms of Satie but presented a totally different texture and melodic contour.


Cage composes the Song Books. Commissioned to write for voice, Cage decided to extend the Solo for Voice series. Through chance operations, he found that he needed to write ninety more pieces: Solos for Voice 3­92. In order to stimulate his imagination and facilitate this large task, he developed a system to control the invention of new compositional methods and notations. Each solo was composed by an existing compositional technique, a variant of an existing technique, or a totally new technique. For example, the Solo for Voice 12 is identical to the earlier Solo for Voice 1. Several subsequent solos then use slightly different versions of this same compositional technique. In each case, the texts are selected from different sources: current newspapers and mushroom books, among others.

Any amount of the material of the Song Books can be performed by any number of singers in any arrangement of time and space. The piece is quite overtly theatrical.


Founding of EAR: Magazine of New Music. The magazine was described as "a monthly journal of experimental and poetic music."


Cage receives commissions for the US Bicentennial. In response to commissions for the orchestras in Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Los Angeles, New York, and Philadelphia, Cage composed Renga, which is based on drawings from the journals of Henry David Thoreau. The score indicates that it can be performed either alone or as an occasional piece in conjunction with a "musicircus" appropriate to the occasion: "such as the birth or death of another musically productive nation or person, or the birthday of a society concerned with some aspect of creation productive of sound (e.g., birds, marine animals, weather changes, earthquakes, or plants ...)."

The musicircus for the US bicentennial is Apartment House 1776. It includes a number of pieces based on earlier music, ostensibly to avoid copyright issues. Some of these are tunes that have been randomly altered in the manner of Cheap Imitation. Cage also found a way of randomly recomposing harmonies to adapt choral music for the circus. 44 such pieces were derived from "anthems and congregational music written by composers who were at least 20 years old at the time of the American Revolution." The composers include William Billings, James Lyon, Jacob French, Andrew Law, Supply Belcher.

The technique Cage devised is one of subtraction: within each individual voice, chance operations determined which few tones would sound. The remainder would be skipped entirely, with the sounding tones extended through part of the intervening space, the rest remaining silence. Thus the original four-part writing was turned into a series of long overlapping tones and empty spaces. "You can recognize it as eighteenth-century music; but it's suddenly brilliant in a new way," Cage said of the results. "It is because each sound vibrates from itself, not from a theory."


Cage composes Hymns and Variations. For Hymns and Variations Cage used the harmonic subtraction technique on two hymns by William Billings ("Old North" and "Heath"). The same process was then repeated five times each on each hymn for ten "variations". Chance operations insured that each version would be unique.

Cage's return to older music, here as elsewhere, is never "postmodern"; never a put-on or in any way self-conscious. It's not even intellectual. Cage's work is always musical, never philosophical, and Hymns and Variations represents Cage's musical transformation of Billings. The result is a kind of hybridizing of musics, much in the manner of plants or animals. There are a myriad variety of dogs, each carefully cultivated through selective breeding from a single original ancestor: the primal dog. If the breeds are all allowed to intermingle freely, ultimately the primal dog will reappear in their offspring. Hymns and Variations suggests that this may work musically, too. Hybridizing the musics of Billings and Cage returns music to its primal roots: the tone, the breath, the pause.


Cage asked to write a piece for tenth anniversary of EAR magazine. As with many such occasional commissions, Cage wrote a quick and simple composition. The piece consists of eleven lines of music in antiphonal style: a solo statement with a choral response.

Everything here is simple, pure, and undistinguished. ear for EAR is completely effortless in its beauty; it has no agenda. There are dozens of works like this that he wrote for one group or another. At the time he wrote ear for Ear Cage was 71; his musical technique was so much a part of his being that composing was like breathing. It reminds me that Marcel Duchamp claimed not to be an artist but a respirateur.


Cage composes Two. Two is a ten-minute piece for flute and piano. The two parts are not specifically coordinated with each other. Each consists of ten short sections of music; the piano's music consists of chords of various sizes and dispositions, while each section of the flute's music consists of a single sustained tone. Each section takes place within a "time bracket": Cage indicates the range of time within which it must begin and the range of time within which it must end. Exactly what rhythms occur between these flexible start- and end-times is left to the performer.

Two is the first of the series of pieces known as "The Number Pieces". They are so called because their titles simply give the number of performers. All of these pieces use some variant of the time bracket technique, and most use the single sustained notes characteristic of the flute part of Two . The ensembles range from solos (One ) to full orchestra (108 ). When a specific number title was used more than once, superscripts distinguished the individual compositions (One, One2, One3, etc.). Between 1987 and 1992, Cage composed forty-three compositions in this manner.


Cage composes Four Solos. The Four Solos are the final four installments of the Solo for Voice series; their official title is Solos for Voice 93­96. These four are composed in the same manner as the original Solo for Voice 1. The texts in this case are randomly selected from volumes located on a particular bookcase in Cage's home. One of the selections turned out to be a photographic slide. Never deterred, Cage searched for some text to use and found "by Kodak".

Cage composes Five. The instrumentation of Five is open-ended: it can be performed by any five voices or instruments or mixture thereof, so long as they can play tones in the proper ranges.

For some, these late number pieces represent Cage's reconciliation with harmony, the wall he vowed to beat his head against. Cage himself believed that he was exploring a new approach to the harmonic element in music, and near the end of his life, he studied Schoenberg's harmony textbook for inspiration. In describing his new experience of harmony, Cage described it as "sounds together . . . just as we would say what is melody, one sound after the other, but harmony is just sounds coming together at the same time."

I find this situation puzzling. The definition of harmony that Cage uses could apply to any of his works from 1951 onwards; from the theoretical perspective, his procedures in 1988 are no different with regards to harmony than those of 1951. What did he mean when he described it as a new experience? What was the new sense of harmony was he exploring in the number pieces?


Cage composes Four. Four for string quartet is the first "number piece" quartet. It was composed so that any of the four instruments could perform any of the four parts.


Cage composes Four2. Four2 for four-part chorus perhaps most strongly reminds us of harmony exercises: hearing it we can visualize the whole notes on four staves, the perfect picture of a harmony textbook. As I become caught up in the shifting sonorities created by the four voices, however, a different feeling of harmony becomes stronger, and the distinction between these last pieces and Cage's earlier work becomes clearer. Let me attempt to explain it, although I do not fully understand it myself.

In the 1950s Cage's music was expansive, his interest was in opening music to everything there is to hear. Silence was a boundless space; composition was "throwing sound into silence." In the number pieces he brought things together; he carefully introduced sonic elements to one another, made a space in which they could develop meaningful relationships on their own. The stage upon which Cage's earlier works performed was open and universal; he always defined the possibilities in the broadest terms available. The number pieces are intimate, exploring the subtleties of a small and personal space. Early in life Cage cast his sounds outward into silence; near the end he reeled them back, into a different kind of silence.

It is this change—from moving out to bringing together—that we are hearing when we identify the late pieces with a renewed interest in harmony. I cannot, however, explain from any technical point of view why this change is apparent. There is no compositional technique in the number pieces that differs in any significant way from what Cage did forty years earlier. The change is in purpose. It is a change in energy; an inner change, a change in content. It is a motion from extending to balancing, from exhaling to inhaling; a shift from yang to yin, heaven to earth, stars to stones.