James Pritchett: Writings on Cage (& others)

John Cage: One8

by James Pritchett

Copyright 2004 by James Pritchett. All rights reserved.

The title page of John Cage’s composition One8 reads:


violoncello solo
to be played with or without 108 (for orchestra)

for Michael Bach

John Cage
April 1991
New York City

The notation of the piece is very detailed, and yet at the same time enigmatic (“it’s doubtful whether a cellist looking at this piece would even know what to do,” Cage later remarked about it). In keeping with the manner of his later “number pieces,” the score consists of a series of musical fragments with variable timings. In this case the notation shows one to four notes in each segment, with precise indications of which strings are to be used for which notes, which fingers are to be used to play them, and the exact manner in which harmonics are to be played. Despite the intricacy of the notation of the music, the instructions to the performer are just two simple statements:

53 flexible time brackets with single sounds produced on 1, 2, 3 or 4 strings. Durations, dynamics and bow positions are free.

Besides the musical notation itself, perhaps the most informative part of the score, the key to its understanding, is the phrase “for Michael Bach.” I am reminded here of the composer Sylvano Bussotti’s 5 piano pieces for David Tudor: that the title was not so much a dedication as an instrumental designation. The same is true of Cage’s score, since Michael Bach is not just a cellist, but an inventor of playing techniques.

That One8 was composed for him tells us much about the way the music is to be played. First, there is the use of his unique curved bow – the BACH.Bogen®. This bow, first developed by Michael Bach in 1989, not only has a curved shape, but also has a mechanism for adjusting the tension on the bow hairs. These two features together allows the cellist to play three or even all four strings of the instrument simultaneously, something which is impossible with a traditional straight bow.

That Cage intended for One8 to be played using the curved bow – and hence that the various sonorities in the piece were each meant to be played with a single attack – is stated in the performance notes (“single sounds”), but is also clear from his own comments about the work. In an interview with Joan Retallack, Cage tells the story of a “very good” Juilliard student who wished to play the piece. “It doesn’t matter how good she is,” Cage said, “if she doesn’t have the right bow to play the music.” He had originally thought of leaving open the option of playing One8 with a straight bow and arpeggiating the chords; after hearing Bach play it, however, he found that he so enjoyed Bach’s playing that he changed his mind and left it as is.

But the curved bow was only one of the technical innovations that Bach brought to Cage’s attention. The other was his astonishing exploration and extension of the use of harmonics. Bach has written a comprehensive study on the playing of harmonics on the cello, titled Fingerboards and Overtones: pictures, basics, and models for a new way of cello playing. The “fingerboards” are drawings that Bach made on cardboard placed under the strings of the cello, using black ink on his own fingers. He made a simple set of these for Cage in 1990, shortly after the composer had decided to write One8 for him, in response to Cage’s question “what can you finger on the cello?” His intention at that time was to provide Cage with a graphic guide to the hand stretches of which he was capable. However, shortly after this, Bach began to consider more and more the complexities of the situation – what he could play on any given string depended to a large degree on what other notes he was playing on the other strings – and he subsequently made many more of these drawings; to date he has made over a hundred of them.

The book goes on to methodically work through all the possibilities of playing overtones on the cello: natural harmonics, artificial harmonics, or combinations of both; harmonics on a single string, on two strings, three strings, or four strings simultaneously. There are tables of all the intervals possible in various situations, discussions of playing in the rarefied atmospheres of the 32nd partial, the difference tones that occur when two simultaneous harmonics are slightly detuned, and the effects possible with pizzicato and glissando playing. Bristling with abbreviations that resemble mathematical formulas, numbers, charts, and diagrams, it is a formidable treatise. It is also exactly the kind of rigorous treatment of the fundamental variables of music – the systematic exploration of the edges of the possible – that is at the core of Cage’s compositional methods; it is not hard to see why John Cage was compelled to write for Michael Bach.

Thus, One8 is truly a work “for Michael Bach”, both personally and technically. But One8 is more than this: it is a work “with Michael Bach”, in that he was an integral part of its actual composition. The fingerboard drawings that Bach provided did not give Cage all the information he needed to compose the piece. The possibilities were too vast to be neatly summarized in even a very large number of diagrams and charts. And so, when it came time to compose the piece, Cage found it necessary to have Bach there as well.

The process for composing each event was relatively simple: first, decide how many tones the event would have (one to four), and then, for each tone, select one pitch from the entire range of possibilities on the given string. Bach’s role was to provide the information on the extent of the “range of possibilities” for each tone of each event. For a three-note chord, for example, Cage would select the first string and the first tone, based on Bach’s range on that particular string. Then Cage would choose the next string to use, and Bach would experiment with his cello to see what he could finger on that string while playing the first tone. Cage would select a pitch from that range, and then they would move to the last string in the same manner: Bach experimenting to determine what he should be able to reach while holding the other two tones, and Cage selecting from that range.

They thus proceeded through the fifty-three events in the piece, the two together acting as a kind of living cello oracle: Bach framing the boundaries of the questions, Cage using chance to provide specific answers within these boundaries. It was a process of discovery, slowly working to find the individual components of each sound, one tone at a time. Knowing this while listening to Bach’s performance, it makes one realize that One8 clearly contradicts the “common knowledge” that Cage’s compositional processes are largely inaudible to the audience and hence are irrelevant to our experience as listeners. In fact, the piece sounds almost exactly like the way it was composed, and our role as listeners is to discover these sounds exactly as Cage and Bach did: one at a time, carefully, slowly, and with delight.

The sounds themselves are, of course, varied – simple, complex, ordinary, extraordinary, robust, fragile, etc. Michael Bach recalls a particularly memorable moment: the sound of three simultaneous harmonics that takes place about 33:45 into this recording. “Each harmonic, played separately, would be very complicated for cellists and almost impossible,” Bach says, “but here all three pitches sound together!” Bach recalls that he and Cage paused after having achieved that particular sound. I like to think that they sat there in Cage’s loft, surrounded by his many plants and flowers, considered the beauty of what they had discovered, and just smiled silently for awhile.