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John Cage, Guitar?


Aaron Larget-Caplan (file photo)

“John Cage ― arranged for guitar!” Who would have guessed it? All the compositions on Aaron Larget-Caplan’s Saturday night concert at Arlington Street Church (Boston) came from the pen of the thorny master between 1933 and 1948. The eponymous Stone Records CD release party-concert included guest artists Sharan Leventhal, violin; and Adam Levin, guitar.All the arrangements for this program (piano to guitar) have been completed by Larget-Caplan within the past five years.  Six Melodies, was his first venture.  Once permission was established, the music was published by Edition Peters.  With the success of this initial arrangement, Peters invited Aaron to do a complete series of Cage piano music ― for guitar.  From there, the idea of a recording seemed only natural, and it all culminates this evening – for a live audience.

To this writer’s knowledge, John Cage had never written any music for guitar. So, for Larget-Caplan to imagine this project, and write all of the arrangements, was quite daring. The capacity audience responded most favorably. Five of seven pieces were solos by Larget-Caplan.

Cage’s student work, Three Easy Pieces: Round-Duo-Infinite Canon (1933) opened the show. The simple work for solo piano translated very nicely to guitar. Each of the movements is a two-part linear form, and Larget-Caplan brought ought the independent lines beautifully.

A Room (1943). could easily be classified as minimalist, even though the term had not yet come to use. Again, the two-part writing of this music becomes very well defined, when performed on guitar.

Written in 1948 for Merce Cunningham, Dream makes optimal use of a minimal set of ingredients, creating broad spaces of “openness,” such as we identify in his later works. The piano has foot pedals to allow these effects to work. Aaron’s understanding of guitar, and this music, are very apparent in the creative way in which the arranger utilizes multiple strings (campanella) and harmonics, to duplicate the pedal effects of the piano. An interesting work, though in my opinion, a bit too long.

Guest artist Adam Levin appeared in the final piece on the first half, Bacchanal (1940), a composition for prepared piano. The best solution for incorporating both the “special” sounds, as well as complex rhythms of this music, was to arrange it for two guitars – prepared – which in itself presented interesting engineering challenges. The two-guitar arrangement of this composition is so well considered, it is hard to remember that this is not the original format! Both guitarists focused intently and clearly. An excellent arrangement, and even stronger performance, created universal excitement throughout the room.

Returning to solo guitar after the intermission, Chess Pieces (1944), should probably have been titled “Chess Board.” Inspired by a Cage’s own painting from the same year 1944, it essentially depicts a chess board, and each square contains a fragment of music. Across the board, we see a through-composed piece of 22 systems. Each system runs for 12 “bars.” Neither the score nor painting suggests instrumentation, meter or tempo. The arranger/performer made the decisions for use of pizzicato, harmonics and timbre. This unusual approach to composition resulted in (perhaps) an unexpected, free-flowing, and extremely melodic work . . . quite a delight, as performed here.

Another Cage composition for dance, In a Landscape (1948), is also a serial composition, possessing minimal materials and following a pre-described rhythmic pattern throughout. Some people responded to a lyrical quality that eluded me. The arranger found this the most daunting of his arrangements. His manner of evoking piano techniques on the guitar works effectively..

Sharan Leventhal, violin joined Larget-Caplan, for the intriguing closer. Six Melodies (1944), originally for violin and piano, was presented here on violin and guitar. The arrangement left the violin part completely untouched, while the piano part required considerable thought to work on guitar. The similarities in the violin melody, carried over from movement to movement create a unity of design yet, each tune suggests a new character or mood. Leventhal brought out these important aspects through a warm delivery we have come to enjoy from her performances. The accompanying part is quite different from one melody to the next, while maintaining a sound design that adds to the connection of all six movements. In its “simplicity,” it is actually difficult music to perform.  

The violin part is very specific in what string, and in what position, each note is played.  Also, the violinist is instructed to play non-vibrato throughout. This technique brings an eerie, mysterious character, and it is difficult to perform. To transform the piano part to work on guitar was a job in itself yet again, Larget-Caplan gave honor to the music, blending the guitar with violin, as though this was the intention of Cage himself.

“John Cage Arranged for Guitar” gave us cause to celebrate.

A native of Massachusetts, Frank E. Warren lives in, and operates his music/publishing studio from Boston, MA, where he enjoys working on new commissions and collaborations, while teaching a holistic approach to music composition. 


3 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Those of you who may know Bruce Brubaker’s uncanny recordings of “Dream” and “A Room” have already been celebrating! Is Boston the new home, spiritual home, of the profound music that Cage made early in his career, and then later also….

    Comment by ariel — December 5, 2018 at 9:53 pm

  2. can´t wait to hear this — righteous, and way to go aaron! ole!

    Comment by ed — December 6, 2018 at 8:34 pm

  3. Glad to know this went so well. I’m so sorry that I missed this concert, especially since Aaron’s colorful playing is something I haven’t found in other guitarists. I think after this particular performance, coupled with Brubaker’s recordings of “Dream” and “A Room” and with Steve Drury’s willingness to engage with Cage and the other experimental music of the mid-century, Boston really is the new adoptive home for not just Cage but the American experimental movement. It’s so ingrained in Boston’s musical DNA now that it sits comfortably alongside the early music this city loves so well, too.

    Comment by Ian Wiese — December 7, 2018 at 12:12 pm

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