Cage / Cardew

On December 5, Nonce presents Cage’s Atlas Eclipticalis and Cardew’s Octet ’61 at NEC’s Brown Hall. Read up on the Cage/Cardew connection, and why we decided to pair these two great pieces. Then come and listen.

By the time John Cage and Cornelius Cardew met at the Darmstadt Summer Courses in 1958, Cage was already a successful composer with well-established avantgarde credentials in New York. In 1951 he began consulting the I Ching to compose his monumental piano piece Music of Changes, and all of his music from that point incorporated chance procedures. Following the example of his young compatriots Earle Brown and Morton Feldman, his scores gradually became more graphic and indeterminate. A few months before he landed in Darmstadt he had presented a notorious 25-year retrospective concert at New York City’s Town Hall, concluding with the rambunctious, freewheeling Concert for Piano and Orchestra. His cadre of supporters included the indefatigable avantgarde pianist David Tudor, who came with him to Darmstadt that summer. (The two had been the laughing stock of the 1954 Donaueschinger Musiktage with a performance of 12’55.6078″ for two prepared pianos and various objects, including a duck whistle.)

Cardew, on the other hand, was just beginning to break into the European avantgarde scene. A gifted pianist and composer fresh out of the Royal Academy of Music, he went to Cologne in the fall of 1957 to work in Karlheinz Stockhausen‘s electronic studio. He became Stockhausen’s assistant, putting a great deal of time and effort into the preparation of Stockhausen’s massive work for four orchestral groups, Carré. Cardew’s compositions at that time were mostly experiments in the serial language.

February PieceThe summer of 1958 was a major turning point for Cardew and the rest of the European avantgarde. After his exposure to Cage’s ideas on composition, Cardew’s work immediately began to show signs of freedom. In Two Books of Study (1958) and February Pieces (1959-61) he abandoned meter and rhythm entirely. Autumn ’60 (John Cage was a performer in the work’s premiere) is really just a framework for the performers to realize a piece, a scattering of notes, symbols, and instructions, some of which the players are told to disobey. Octet ’61 teeters on the edge between these experimental works – holding on to some vestige of traditional notation – and the graphic notation of his 193-page magnum opus, Treatise (1963-67).

Throughout these developments, Cardew’s mind was on the relationship between the composer and performer. His aim as a composer was stimulation of the performer, an aspect which had been “disastrously neglected” by other avantgarde composers. The freedom he incorporated into his work was meant to encourage the performer to act creatively. After he began composing Treatise, he joined AMM, beginning a fruitful collaboration with legendary improvisers Keith Rowe, Eddie Prévost, and Lou Gare.

Cage, on the other hand, never cared for improvisation. He disliked jazz for its dependence on instinct and taste, keeping performers bound to traditional models. The freedom in his works had to do with a different goal – freeing the sounds. His pieces are not license for improvisation, but an occasion for experience, for both performer and listener. In a piece like Winter Music (1957, dedicated to Bob Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns) chords float through space, each its own center, with no melodic or structural connection from one to the next. Occasionally there may be a perfect fifth, or a dominant 7th chord. Plucked away from any traditional context, they are still a perfect fifth or a dominant 7th chord, but also something else, something new. Having no function, we are free to simply listen to them, as individual sounds among other sounds. To me the effect is not unlike Rauschenberg’s combines of the 1950s:

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A Rauschenberg combine / a page of Winter Music

For many of his works in the later 1950s, including Winter Music, he obtained pitches from observing imperfections in the paper on which he composed. In Atlas Eclipticalis (1961) he traced star charts, creating ‘constellations’ of notes in each part (there are 86 parts, which may be played in any combination). Each note must be separated from the others, and the conductor’s role is to ensure that the presence of silence is felt. Again, each sound is its own center, so that (as Cage might say) each sound can become the Buddha. Without purpose, without function, simply allowed to exist, in a shimmering fabric of sound and silence with the rest of the ensemble. I’m reminded of a story Cage tells in Silence:

Atlas EclipticalisSeveral men, three as a matter of fact, were out walking one day, and as they were walking along and talking one of them noticed another man standing on a hill ahead of them. He turned to his friends and said, “Why do you think that man is standing up there on that hill?” One said, “He must be up there because it’s cooler there and he’s enjoying the breeze.” He turned to another and repeated his question, “Why do you think that man’s standing up there on that hill?” The second said, “Since the hill is elevated above the rest of the land, he must be up there in order to see something in the distance.” And the third said, “He must have lost his friend and that is why he is standing there alone on that hill.” After some time walking along, the men came up the hill and the one who had been standing there was still there: standing there. They asked him to say which one was right concerning his reason for standing where he was standing.

“What reasons do you have for my standing here?” he asked. “We have three,” they answered. “First, you are standing up here because it’s cooler here and you are enjoying the breeze. Second, since the hill is elevated above the rest of the land, you are up here in order to see something in the distance. Third, you have lost your friend and that is why you are standing here alone on this hill. We have walked this way; we never meant to climb this hill; now we want an answer. Which one of us is right?”

The man answered, “I just stand.”