Two: one approach to performance

In my first post on Cage’s Two, I described the notation of the piano part and Cage’s instructions for reading it.  Cage leaves the precise timing of the musical phrases (for lack of a better term) within their available brackets up to the performer.  He also leaves the specific timing and durations of the individual chords within these phrases to the performer.  This much is clear.  What isn’t clear to many people is how, as a performer, you are supposed to make those decisions.

One approach to take is to just make it all up on the fly as you play.  As you reach each time bracket, you just decide on the spur of the moment when to get it started.  You can then play through the chords in whatever tempo and with whatever durations come to you at the time.  So long as you end the phrase within the appropriate bracket, you’re adhering to the notation as Cage gave it.

This is, in fact, the approach I started taking to the piece.  In keeping with Cage’s style and with my own inclinations, I tried to be as open-minded about the phrases as I could.  I avoided making the same decision over and over:  I started some phrases at the beginning of the available bracket, others towards the end, etc.  I resisted the natural inclination to read the chords in the relative locations as written (remember that Cage indicates that, while the order of chords is fixed, the two hands are completely independent of one another).  I tried different durations for the chords, although I adhered to my imposed general rule that loud chords are short and soft chords are long (a rule that Cage made explicit in later works in this series).

The process of learning the piece is thus an exploration of possibilities.  I worked with a timer (I use the Chronolite app on an iPad), playing through phrases to get a feel for how long it takes to play them and for how long the brackets truly are.   I tried to get an intuitive feel for what it’s like to play a phrase slowly and what it’s like to play it quickly, and how this relates to the strictures of the time brackets.

This also has been a process of exploring my own mind.  It doesn’t take too long to develop a repertoire of ways of think about the different phrases and to start pulling those out of your bag of tricks as the timer clicks its way through the ten minutes of the piece.  Ideally I was looking to be able to just spontaneously act on the material without a lot of careful planning and forethought.  At first that was difficult:  I’d find myself ending brackets with fewer chords too soon, or I’d get all balled up with some particularly tricky sequences, ones where the held tones are awkward to play.  I’d help myself out by writing in ways of splitting some of the more difficult chords between the hands, by writing in note names where it was hard to read the notation, etc.   With these aids and some practice the music flowed more smoothly.  My mind was quieter, not always asking “what do I do next?” in that somewhat panicky interior voice.

It has become fun, and I’ve discovered interesting ways of combining the chords.  Holding one hand for a long duration while playing the other quickly and sharply can create unexpected overtones, for example.  It can be difficult to really wait to start a phrase:  you get impatient to start playing something once the start bracket becomes active.  So I’m learning to wait, to let a long silence just sit there.  I try to vary playing the chords more quickly or more slowly, holding things longer and shorter times, and so on.

I suppose I have been trying to do something along the lines of what Cage described (with what he calls a “intentionally pontifical” tone of voice) in his article “Composition as process:  indeterminacy” (1958):

He [the performer] may perform his function . . . more or less uknowingly, by going inwards with reference to the strucure of his mind to a point in dreams, following, as in automatic writing, the dictates of his subconscious mind; or to a point in the collective unconsciousness of Jungian psychoanalysis, following the inclinations of the species and doing something of more or less universal interest to human beings; or to the “deep sleep” of Indian mental practice–the Ground of Meister Eckhart–identifying there with no matter what eventuality.

Now I don’t know that I’ve touched my subconscious, the collective unconscious, or the Ground, but I am cultivating a fluidity within the material and an awareness of my mind doing its decision-making thing.  It’s simultaneously a musical exploration and a psychological one.

People sometimes ask what makes a “good” Cage performance.  I would say that it is largely a matter of intention, as counter-intuitive as that may seem.  As I’ve tried to relate here, you have to approach the task with an attitude of seriousness, curiosity, and open-mindedness.  If your intention is to demonstrate your own cleverness, to make a case for your concept of what Cage should be about, or if you just want to do something goofy, then it will all fall apart and fail to be as compelling as it should be.  If you drop the notion that it’s all about you and really listen to the music, then making it up as you go along can be a perfectly wonderful way to realize a piece like this.

There’s another approach you can take, which I’ll describe in my next post on this piece.

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