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Cage Works Showcase NEC Students


“Music for Piano (1952) is written entirely in whole notes, their duration being indeterminate. Each system is seven seconds. Dynamics are given but piano tone production on the keyboard or strings is free. The notes correspond to imperfections in the paper upon which the piece was written. Their number was the result of applying a time limitation to the act of composition itself.”

John Cage thus describes the first of 85 works entitled “Music for Piano,” composed between 1952-1962, which received their first complete performance at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall last night as part of NEC’s Cage.88@100 Concerts on February 6th  and February 27th. Featuring piano students from NEC’s multiple studios, last night’s ambitious offering included not only the 85 Music for Piano works, but Cage’s most famous “music for piano,” the Sonatas and Interludes.

Stephen Drury, in his characteristic blue jeans and work shirt, channeled the presence of John Cage’s own fashion sense and announced from the stage that the Sonatas and Interludes, originally scheduled for the first half of the program, would instead be played on the second half of the concert. This was probably a wise idea, given the mammoth proportion of the first half.

What constitutes a “complete” performance of the Music for Piano works can be debated, but the composer, at least according to his notes, intended for pieces 1, 2, 3, and 20 to be solo works (2, 3 and 20 were composed in 1953), but suggests that works 4-19, (also composed in 1953), “may be played as separate pieces or continuously as one piece or…” With Music for Piano 21-36; 37-52 (conceived in 1955), according to Cage, “These pieces constitute two groups of sixteen pieces which may be played alone or together and with or without Music for Piano 4-19.” Similar open-ended directives apply to the last two groups of 16 pieces, 53-68 (1956) and 69-84 (1956). Number 85, which would more appropriately be called Music for Piano and electronics, was composed in 1962, while Cage was in Osaka, Japan.

NEC chose a simultaneous performance of the groups of 16, achieved by four pianos placed on stage. The army of NEC piano students sat quietly in rows of chairs along the walls, poised for what was to be a very long evening. JeeHae Ahn delivered a very fine solo performance of Music for Piano 1, which proved to be the most romantic of the entire set. Despite the chance procedures of its composition, the work had a sense of coherence, largely due to the graceful realization by Ahn. The sound events, made musical by varying articulations and expressions (hitting keys, plucking strings), are surprising for the listener in that they are unexpected, but they should be more delightful than shocking. And indeed, the vast majority of the students who performed these works seemed to take great delight in the discovery of each note and gesture. Ahn’s movements seemed almost choreographed, the way she fluidly moved her arm from plucking the strings to touching the keyboard. Music for Piano 2, realized by Henry Burman, was a more reflective work, meditating on resonances and decidedly sparser in terms of tempo and dynamics — the two elements determined by the performer. Burman wisely made much of the articulation of each note, reveling in the attention of the audience. Shuangning Liu’s brief Music for Piano 3 and Christopher Lim’s Music for Piano 20 allowed the audience to appreciate how even music “determined by chance” offers multiple opportunities for stylistic expression.

The four solo works were an engaging introduction to the cycled realization of the next 80 pieces, which, for almost an hour, strung the performances of the various students together in sort of an eerie mental counterpoint. Cage was intentionally ambiguous in indicating duration of these works. He wrote of Music for Piano 21-52: “Their length in time is free; there may or may not be silence between them; they may be overlapped. Given a programmed time length, the pianists may make a calculation such that their concert will fill it. Duration of individual tones and dynamics are free.” He further directed that the time length should be calculated beforehand and adhered to through the use of a stopwatch, an approach used by the group So Percussion a few weeks ago (in the February 6th  concert) in a theatrical and effective way. It was not clear if there were stopwatches or indeed any sort of time restrictions employed in the performance last night, but the students seemed to wander through the dreamlike sound world with the poise of a Japanese tea ceremony.

While Cage strove in these indeterminate works to remove “ego” from the compositional process, removing it from the audience may always be a continuing challenge. Monday night proved to be a poor night for a two-and-a-half-hour concert, and several people left during intermission, having witnessed the premiere but finding the call of homework, childcare, and early morning wakeups too strong a pull away from Jordan Hall. I was reminded of an anecdote that Cage relates in the preface to his groundbreaking 1961 work, Silence: “This Lecture on Nothing was written in the same rhythmic structure I employed at the time in my musical compositions…. One of the structural divisions was the repetition some fourteen times, of a single page in which occurred the refrain, ‘If anyone is sleepy let him to go to sleep.’ Jeanne Reynal, I remember, stood up part way through, screamed, and then said, while I continued speaking, ‘John, I dearly love you, but I can’t bear another minute.’ She then walked out.”

Under most circumstances, the length (some would say excessive length) of a concert, might merit one or two sentences, but this element of unknown time is crucial to Cage’s whole paradigm. Without judgment, Cage is prepared for the frustrations and divided attentions of his audience. Like Ms. Reynal, I admit I found myself itching to at least stand, if not scream, toward the end of the 85 pieces. This is no reflection upon the performers themselves, and it did have the positive effect of making Music for Piano number 85 all the more engaging. Christian Gamboa’s solo piano sounded positively lush, even with its use of electronic feedback, after the seemingly relentless sonic counterpoint of slamming lids, plucked strings, and prepared notes.

The vast majority of the attendees were stalwart and seemed prepared to engage with the Sonatas and Interludes on the second half. While these works, completed in 1948, were meant to be a set performed by one pianist, last night’s performance took a similar approach to the works on the first half and divided the set among 13 students. Having witnessed Vicky Chow’s phenomenal solo performance at MIT a few weeks ago, I was somewhat skeptical as to how this might work, but this approach offered a different experience of the Sonatas and Interludes that had both positive and negative ramifications. Listening to a single pianist play the entire set allows for the nuanced and delicate details of Cage’s score to come through a single interpretive lens. Having multiple performers, as was the case last night, offers more of an interpretive mélange, which is engaging but disrupts the cohesion of the set. That said, it was a more effective showcase of the talents of NEC’s piano students than the collaborative Music for Piano exhibition of the first half. Santiago Lomelin brought a delightful sense of Debussy to Sonatas 2 and 3, with his graceful and attentive phrasing. Grace Kim was restrained in her performance of Sonata 4, but this was to excellent ends as she focused on the not-always-obvious motivic continuity between the first and second halves of the work. All the students, in fact, seemed to have a good sense of their pieces, embodied in Samantha Angstman’s almost imperceptible bounce to the groove of Sonata 5, or Janet Lee’s facile expression of virtuosity in the third Interlude. Emely Phelps’s exquisite performance of the last three sonatas brought attention to the hypnotic ostinati of the “Gemini” sonatas (14 and 15); it highlighted her excellent sense of breathing rhythm and her expressive dynamic contrasts in Sonata 16. The final meno mosso was a tender and fitting conclusion to the evening.

It is easy in prepared piano music to give percussive effects precedence over actual keyed pitches, but every single performance honored all the sounds, with a reverent humility that Cage no doubt would have applauded. NEC is proving to be a core player in Boston’s celebration of Cage’s centenary, with further concerts on March 5, April 2, and May 3. Performing Cage’s music is always a risky business, and while I question the wisdom of grouping the Music for Piano pieces with the Sonatas and Interludes, one hopes that NEC will continue to offer concerts such as these beyond the posthumous celebration of the composer’s 100th birthday. The opportunity for the students to engage with this repertoire is profound, not because of a chance to play prepared piano or to learn how to work with an indeterminate score, but because of the questions Cage asks about performance. The composer challenged the assumption of music as communication, hoping for this ideal: “The performers [become] disinterested to the point that they [become] unself-conscious, and a few listeners in those brief moments of listening [forget] themselves, enraptured, and so [gain] themselves.

Suggested Reading/Viewing:

Stephen Drury explains and demonstrates prepared piano (in the Sonatas and Interludes) here.

John Cage, “A Composer’s Confessions” (1948) in Kostelanetz, Richard, ed. John Cage: Writer (Cooper Square Press, 2000)

John Cage, “Lecture on Nothing” and “To Describe the Process of Composition Used in Music for Piano 21-52 in Silence (Wesleyan University Press, 1961, 1973).

Rebecca Marchand holds a Ph.D. in Musicology from the University of California, Santa Barbara and serves on the faculty of Longy School of Music and Boston Conservatory.

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