James Pritchett: Writings on Cage (& others)

John Cage: Freeman Etudes

by James Pritchett

Copyright 1994 by James Pritchett. All rights reserved.

1 (Books 1 and 2)

John Cage's Freeman Etudes for violin are extremely difficult pieces of music -- one might go so far as to declare them "impossible." Even a brief and casual listening to Irvine Arditti's performance of the etudes on this recording is enough to convey to the listener a sense of their formidable complexity. But to appreciate the extent and unusual nature of the difficulties of these pieces, one really needs to look at the score, in which every nuance -- the position of every note in time, every dip and slide in pitch, every change of bowing style -- is clearly and precisely notated. If one were to turn to the score for help in understanding these pieces (which can be as challenging for the audience as for the performer), it would be of little use: it is nothing but details, giving no clue as to the source of the dense knots of notes with their impossible number of qualifications.

The profusion of details in this score presents unique challenges to the performer. In most virtuoso music, the primary physical requirements are speed and agility. One might compare the situation of the performer to that of a track-and-field athlete who must run, jump, and throw the shotput, javelin, or discus. In the Freeman Etudes, the performer faces the typical hurdles of fast playing and tricky fingerings, but there are two further dimensions to the virtuosity required here. First, the violinist must have the ability to make instantaneous changes of loudness and playing style -- to be able to play a fortissimo col legno triple-stop immediately after a pianissimo pizzicato note, for example. And secondly, the Freeman Etudes demand that, in the middle of this bewildering activity, the violinist must pay attention to the most minute detail of each and every note. Many notes are marked to be played slightly out of tune. There are eleven different types of pitch inflections, four different types of martellato (literally "hammered") bowing, and five different types of pizzicato. Cage does not just indicate ricochet bowing (in which the bow bounces off the string), but he goes on to say exactly how many times the bow should bounce -- six times on this note, eight on that, and so on. To return to the analogy of athletics, it is as if our track-and-field star had not only to run, jump, and throw, but to do so in rapid succession, and, at the same time, to have a dancer's control of the body, so that the feet always land in precise locations, the arms and legs bent at precise angles.

While it is easy to recognize the accomplishment of the violinist in performing the Freeman Etudes, one should not overlook John Cage's accomplishment in composing them. Consider the origin of a single event in one of these etudes. It began as a point traced onto paper from a star atlas: this tracing determined the positions in pitch and time of the note. Cage then made separate chance determinations to compose every other aspect of the note: Will it be detached or legato? Will it posses any unusual characteristics? If so, what kind? Unusual timbre or bowing? A pitch slide? A chord? An overlapping of another note? Each answer generated more questions to be asked. If this is to be a pizzicato note, will it be normal, done with the fingernail, "snapped", or damped? If damped, will it be damped with the finger or fingernail? For chords, Cage used the star tracings to determine the first pitch, but subsequent pitches were the result of questions asked of the violinist Paul Zukofsky. Cage would ask him: "If this particular note is played on this particular string, what are all the possible pitches that can be played on this other string?" Zukofsky's answer would then be subjected to chance operations to determine the second note, and the process would be repeated to determine the third and fourth notes, as necessary. Each note of each etude is thus the product of hundreds of different chance operations.

The elaborate -- one might even say extravagant -- compositional method of the Freeman Etudes was not unusual for Cage. Time and time again, from Music of Changes (1951) through Roaratorio (1979) and beyond, Cage composed music that required an enormous amount of labor on his part. This kind of discipline, devotion, and commitment was central to his life and music. "People frequently ask me what my definition of music is," Cage stated in 1979. "This is it. It is work. That is my conclusion." In the Freeman Etudes, he offers the performer a chance to join in the self-altering experience of such work.

One way to view the Freeman Etudes, then, is as a celebration of the ability to do hard work. Cage saw this as having implications not just for musicians, but for society as a whole. Cage, in composing the Freeman Etudes, and the violinist, in performing them, are models for society -- they show that no project is too difficult to pursue, provided that one is committed to "work, hard work, and no end to it." Cage described the larger implications of the etudes in an interview in 1983:

These are intentionally as difficult as I can make them, because I think we're now surrounded by very serious problems in the society, and we tend to think that the situation is hopeless and that it's just impossible to do something that will make everything turn out properly. So I think that this music, which is almost impossible, gives an instance of the practicality of the impossible.

The difficulties of the Freeman Etudes are thus not a perverse torture for the violinist, nor are they just an opportunity for showing-off. They are a kind of fable about the ability to do the impossible. Cage's etudes are optimistic and joyful.

Where does that leave the listener? Considering what I have said about the difficulty of these pieces for both the performer and the composer, it comes as no surprise that they pose problems for the audience, as well. I myself have found them challenging listening. Even though I had studied their history at length and knew what to expect, I was somewhat bewildered when I first heard them. In searching for a way to grasp the Freeman Etudes, I recalled the task of the violinist: to make sudden and dramatic changes from one note to the next. In these pieces, perhaps more than in any other work by John Cage, there is a sense that absolutely anything can happen next: there are no boundaries, no connecting thread. Realizing that every note is completely separate from every other note, I have begun to try to listen in such a way that I attend only to the note being played at the moment -- I try to forget a sound as soon as it stops and not to anticipate what will happen next. I lapse in my concentration rather frequently, but the kind of focused, disciplined listening that I am gradually learning is exhilarating and transforming. I don't know that I've yet found a way to completely overcome the difficulties of listening to the Freeman Etudes, but I'm working on it.

2 (Books 3 and 4)

In the Freeman Etudes, the violinist is a model for society by showing that no project is too difficult to pursue, provided that one is committed to the hard work necessary for its completion. Irvine Arditti's mastery of the Freeman Etudes is the product of such hard work. But he goes further: he is continuously improving on his performance, playing faster and faster at each performance. This treatment of the etudes as an ongoing project played a pivotal role in the history of the work, a history in which I had the honor and pleasure of playing a role (albeit a relatively small one). Cage was commissioned in 1977 by Betty Freeman to compose the etudes for the violinist Paul Zukofsky. Cage, following the example of his earlier Etudes Australes for piano, planned a set of thirty-two etudes divided into four books of eight etudes each. Tracings of star maps would determine the rhythms and pitches, and then I Ching chance operations would determine every other aspect of every note -- bowing style, dynamic, duration, microtonal inflections, and so on.

Zukofsky had asked Cage to write violin music that was precisely notated, but he surely had not expected the bewildering profusion of details in the music that Cage was composing. He began to have doubts about the entire project. "While every event was in and of itself completely playable," he noted, "a quick succession of events was something else again, and in many instances was quite unplayable due to the constraints of time." Zukofsky pressed Cage to change the etudes, asserting that they were impossible to play as they were. Cage, who saw the "practicality of the impossible" as the theme of all his etude sets, was unreceptive to this suggestion. Ultimately, he changed nothing, only suggesting in his performance note that the duration of each measure of the music was flexible. The duration of a measure "should be short rather than long," he instructed, "as short a time-length as his [the violinist's] virtuosity permits (circa three seconds)."

Because of the elaborate compositional system and the back-and-forth consultations with Zukofsky that it entailed, it took Cage three years to complete the first seventeen etudes. With the eighteenth etude, however, a serious problem emerged. The densities of notes had been determined by the coincidence of three random factors: a series of I Ching hexagram numbers which gave the number of notes in a given section of the piece, the number of star colors to trace in that section, and the density of stars in that part of the sky covered by the particular star map used. In the eighteenth etude, these factors conspired to produce outrageous numbers of notes in relatively tiny spaces of time. In the middle of the etude, for example, there is a passage of thirty-seven attacks within one measure, each of these having a unique dynamic, the pitches jumping wildly and unpredictably over a four-and-a-half-octave range. In the published score, this passage and others like it are notated simply as a series of closely-spaced lines; too tightly-spaced to be printed, the notes themselves are given in nearby "blow-ups."

If Zukofsky felt that the first two books of the Freeman Etudes were unplayable, then there was no possibility that he would even attempt the eighteenth etude. Cage, reluctant to press the matter, simply stopped composing right in the middle of the piece. Now even he was convinced that he had gone too far, that his compositional process had run amok and created music that could never possibly be performed. Zukofsky thought that since the more difficult etudes could not be played live, they would have to be created artificially on tape and released in recorded format only. Cage, clinging to his vision of the solution of impossible problems, disliked this plan. Reluctantly, he had to admit his inability to continue. He packed up the unfinished manuscripts of the last fifteen etudes and went on to other projects.

This was the state of things from 1980 until 1989. In the meantime, the first sixteen etudes were published and performed. In particular, Irvine Arditti was drawn to these pieces. He not only refuted Zukofsky's claim that they were unplayable, but played them even faster than the three-second-per-measure tempo given as a probable maximum in the score. In the summer of 1988, he played the sixteen etudes in fifty-six minutes, hence at a tempo of two-and-a-half seconds per measure. He continued working diligently at them, trying, like a track-and-field athlete, to improve his times. By the end of that same year, he had taken ten minutes off his total performance time -- down to a tempo of only two seconds per measure. Cage, hearing Arditti's performances, was impressed and baffled at the same time: he did not understand why Arditti continued to play them faster and faster. In directing the performer to play a measure in "as short a time-length as his virtuosity permits," Cage was thinking of this duration as a fixed quantity, different for each performer. Arditti, however, had interpreted Cage's direction in an open-ended way: he thought that it meant to play "as fast as possible." Hearing this, Cage realized the solution to his problem: in those passages of the eighteenth etude where there are an impossible number of notes, the performer would be instructed to play "as many as possible."

So it was that, after having let them sit in a drawer for nine years, Cage again took up the unfinished Freeman Etudes. But now a new difficulty arose: after such a long break, he did not recall the details of the complex system he had used to compose the pieces. Even worse, the etudes were at different stages of that process, and within the troublesome eighteenth etude, the state of completion varied from measure to measure. His working notes were of little use: the long lists of pitches, numbers, and cryptic abbreviations were practically indecipherable. From the distance of nine years' time, the Freeman Etudes might as well have been composed by a stranger.

It was at this juncture that I entered the picture. I met John Cage in 1984 when I began working on my doctoral dissertation in musicology. My subject was his chance compositions of the 1950s: I took his manuscripts and reconstructed the precise systems of composition used to create each work. In a few cases these systems had been described by Cage in his writings, but in others the procedures used were a complete mystery to me -- and, after a thirty-year interval, to Cage himself. Over the next few years I spent many hours at his home poring over his old papers;I completed my dissertation in 1988. The problems I had addressed in my work were identical to those that Cage was facing in completing the Freeman Etudes, and so in 1989 he called me up to ask for my help. I was delighted, since I had been trying to find some way to repay him for his kindness and openness during the course of my dissertation research. In September he gave me all the manuscripts for the last etudes and asked me to tell him what he needed to do to finish them. I delivered a report to him a few weeks later, and he began composing again. The Freeman Etudes were finally completed early in 1990, thirteen years after they were begun.

Considering his role in the history of the final sixteen Freeman Etudes, it is fitting that Irvine Arditti should be the first to record them. Hearing his playing, one can easily imagine how Cage would be inspired by it to resume work on his impossible violin music. As I am writing these notes, the recording session for this compact disc is still in the future: I've yet to hear Arditti's solution to the eighteenth etude. But his approach to the etudes is still that of an ongoing project in increasing virtuosity; however many notes he plays here, and at whatever tempo, his work continues. Even as you are listening to this recording, it is quite likely that, somewhere, Irvine Arditti is practicing the Freeman Etudes; by tomorrow, or next week, or next month, there is no telling to what impossible heights he will have climbed.