James Pritchett: Writings on Cage (& others)

John Cage: Imitations/transformations

by James Pritchett

Copyright 2004 by James Pritchett. All rights reserved.

The two works on this recording – Cheap imitation and Harmonies – are both derived from other musical works. Indeed, they are both doubly-derived: first from their older sources (Erik Satie, American hymnists) by Cage’s compositional techniques, and then again from their original instrumentation (piano, voices) to the arrangements on this recording (violin, string quartet). But while the second operation is nothing more than transcription (something we are all quite familiar with), the initial derivation is something quite different. Cage referred to them as “imitations”; I prefer to think of them as transformations.

Cheap imitation was the first work that Cage composed via transformation of other music. As the story goes, it was the result of circumstances, an expedient solution to an annoying problem. It all started with Merce Cunningham’s desire, in 1947, to use the first part of Erik Satie’s dramatic masterwork Socrate as the music for a dance. Socrate is scored for full orchestra and voices, resources well beyond Cunningham’s means at that time. Cage’s solution was to make a transcription of Socrate for two pianos, and it was this transcription that served as the score for Cunningham’s solo Idyllic Song. In 1968, Cage went on to complete his transcription of the other two movements of Socrate, and encouraged Cunningham to extend his dance, as well, which he did. However, Cage had never received permission from Satie’s publisher to make the transcription. In 1947, Cage and Cunningham were relatively unknown, and their small performance was able to fly under the radar of publishers; by 1970 they were very famous artists, and their plan was permanently grounded. The publisher refused to allow the transcription, and so Cage and Cunningham were faced with the problem of a scheduled dance premiere with no music that could be legally performed.

Cage’s inventive solution was to compose a new piece that exactly matched the phrase structure of Satie’s music, and hence of Cunningham’s dance. His technique was a simple one: he took only the vocal line of Socrate (or occasionally the prominent orchestral melody) and systematically transposed it up or down and into different modes. In the first movement, every pitch is transposed separately, but in the second and third the transpositions occur every half-bar. The result is a music that has the phrasing, rhythms and even some of the general contours of Satie’s music, but which is otherwise completely different. This solved Cage’s copyright problem, and he named the work Cheap imitation (Cunningham responded by calling his new dance Second hand).

Cheap imitation is one of my favorite of Cage’s compositions. Not just for its beauty (which is astonishing in itself), but for many other reasons, as well. I love its incongruity (a fully traditional, modal, monophonic score appearing in the chaos of Cage’s work of the late 1960s) and its indefensibleness; its stubborn ability to remain untrammeled by any avant-garde theory, philosophy, or expectation; its subversiveness, although not what you expect from Cage, but rather the subversiveness of love. For this piece is completely, fully, and wholeheartedly about Cage’s simple love of the beauty of Satie’s music.

Even Cage himself found it unexpected – perhaps he more than anyone else. All one needs to do is read what he says about the work in a 1970 interview with Daniel Charles to tell that he was sucker-punched by his love of Satie and of the beautiful solo work he had made from Socrate. Here are some choice comments:

Cheap imitation really stands in complete contrast to my indeterminate works. … Well, that’s all a result of my great love of Satie. … Perhaps I could be blamed for my devotion to Satie. But I would never renounce it.

In the rest of my work, I’m in harmony with myself … But Cheap imitation clearly takes me away from all that. So if my ideas sink into confusion, I owe that confusion to love.

It bothers me even more that, … in Cheap imitation, I acted exactly like I say others shouldn’t. … I still have excuses for it.

Unfortunately, I was so infatuated with my imitation of Satie that I decided to convert it into a work for orchestra.

Obviously, Cheap imitation lies outside of what may seem necessary in my work in general, and that’s disturbing. I’m the first to be disturbed by it.

Confusion, excuse-making, infatuation, being taken away from one’s normal self (even to the point being disturbed by it), the overall tone that is a mixture of elation and guilty pleasure – Cage here sounds practically like a love-smitten teenager. His delight in the result of his clever evasion of intellectual property law led him to transcribe it for orchestra in 1972, and then again for violin in 1977.

Is it coincidental that Cheap imitation broke Cage’s creative drought of the 60s? After a period of tremendous productivity in the 1950s, he hardly composed at all in the period between his Variations II of 1961 and Cheap imitation: maybe a dozen works, almost all of them relatively minor. After Cheap imitation, the floodgates opened, beginning with the overabundant imagination of the Song books, and continuing through the end of his life in 1992. Was it opening – immediately, irrationally, unselfconsciously – to his love of music, of sound, of the simple melodies of Satie, was it this opening that made possible the torrent of scores that followed?

§ § §

The companion to Cheap imitation on this disc, the forty-four Harmonies, also has a history of expediency. These pieces were originally composed as part of the massive Apartment house 1776, a commission by multiple American orchestras in honor of the US bicentennial in 1976. What Cage wanted was a “musicircus” of eighteenth-century American music: a wealth of music performed simultaneously, overlapping, in a rich confusion. So what he needed was a lot of music very quickly. The materials he created for his circus included fourteen tunes derived from dances, four drum solos based on marches by Benjamin Clark, two imitations of Moravian church melodies, and the forty-four harmonies “for the most part both quartets and solos, subtractions of different sorts from anthems and congregational music written by composers who were at least twenty years old at the time of the American Revolution” (specifically: Supply Belcher, William Billings, Jacob French, Andrew Law, and James Lyon).

The situation Cage faced in the Harmonies, however, was exactly the opposite of the one in Cheap imitation. Where he adored the music of Satie, he had absolutely no connection to the four-part anthems of Billings and the others. If anything, he had something of an aversion to this kind of music. So he set out to do something that, in his words, “would let it keep its flavor at the same time that it would lose what was so obnoxious to me: its harmonic tonality.” Following the lead of Cheap imitation, he tried the systematic transformation of the originals, in this case by removing notes from the different voices of the hymns. He struggled at first, trying to find the correct transformational tool. When it finally came to him – a system involving the extension and silencing of individual tones within each voice – he found himself delighted with the result:

The cadences and everything disappeared; but the flavor remained. You can recognize it as eighteenth century music; but it’s suddenly brilliant in a new way. It is because each sound vibrates from itself, not from a theory. . . . The cadences which were the function of the theory, to make syntax and all, all of that is gone, so that you get the most marvelous overlappings.

So the Harmonies represent yet another type of opening, this time a transformation from aversion to acceptance, interest, and joy. And again, this led to more transformations. Cage used the same technique with similar music in a series of works that followed the Harmonies: The various versions of Quartets I-VIII (1976), Some of ‘The Harmony of Maine’ (Supply Belcher) for organ (1978), and Hymns and Variations for voices (1979). Once he learned how to love this music, he just couldn’t get enough of it.

Like any composer of depth, John Cage shows us various sides to his character in his various works. In these pieces made from transformations, it is not the severe Cage, the disciplinarian of the chance compositions of the 1950s, the renouncer who wrote “Lecture on Nothing”. Instead, this is the smiling embracer of everything, the yes-sayer, the author of “Lecture on Something.” As he wrote in that lecture: “And do we need a celebration? We cannot avoid it, since each thing in life is continuously just that.” Enjoy.