If there is one meta-idea that this issue of Sound American is meant to convey it would be that music does not simply appear out of thin air. A great deal of effort goes into a successful performance of any music; not simply the hours spent technically practicing the basics of playing instruments, but time also spent thinking, planning, explicating a piece or refining a musical language.
This mental work is absolutely essential to John Cage’s music and, if done correctly, is not noticed by an audience while listening to a performance. For example, the Number Pieces can be viewed as simple works requiring a minimum of technical skill for performance, as they tend to eschew complicated rhythmic or melodic figures in favor of long, quiet tones, but the amount of planning, thinking and strategizing to create a performance can be staggering.
To illustrate this point, Sound American travelled to the Upper West Side of Manhattan to be a documentarian fly on the wall at a recent rehearsal for an upcoming performance of Cage’s Four by JACK Quartet, one of the most brilliant young string quartets performing today.
To give a little context to what you will hear, John Cage’s Four is his first Number Piece for string quartet and was originally composed for the Arditti Quartet in 1989. The piece is structured in three sections, marked A B C. Each of the parts is given a number 1-4 (you’ll hear these numbers and letters referred to throughout the rehearsal). There are three ways that the piece can be performed:
A full performance is 30 minutes long and consists of each section being repeated ABC pause ABC.
A 20 minute performance would consist of the outer movements as in AC pause AC.
And the 10 minute performance, which JACK was preparing, consists of the middle section repeated, i.e. B pause B.
It is important to mention the pauses because Cage has structured a change in timbre into the work by having performers switch parts during this pause. They then start from the beginning of whatever section their performance calls for (in JACK’s instance B) and perform the section again with the different orchestration. The change in orchestration puts the same pitches in different registers (i.e. a low note on violin would be a relatively high note on cell) and creates a slightly different feeling to the piece for the repeat that obfuscates, along with the ambiguity of the time bracket system, the listener’s ability to recognize on recording that the piece is being repeated.
Technically speaking, Four does not offer much of an obstacle for JACK and the only truly mechanical part of the rehearsal was a brief but knotty discussion on intonation and how best to construct a consonant sonority in the central fixed time bracket in the piece given the multiple possibilities of instrumentation. (For a discussion of fixed and flexible time brackets, visit the Number Pieces page of this issue).
The bulk of the work for JACK consisted of making informed guesses morph into decisions, and then solidify into performance practices. For example, discussions turned towards how to pass the sheets between players during the pause, how many clocks to use to keep track of the timings within the time brackets, the subtle differences within a dynamic range of ppp-p (very very soft to soft), and whether it is philosophically right to make a decision about when begin and end your notes or let them happen in the moment.
The important thing about hearing JACK make these decisions is their place in the historical timeline of Cage. As mentioned elsewhere in this issue, those performers that had the possibility of working directly with the composer enjoy a huge advantage in the interpretation of his work, which can sometimes be purposefully vague and abstract in its notation and directions. This can create a solid performance practice tradition that is rooted almost completely in person-to-person transmission, something truly special. Unfortunately, those that have not had the benefit of this experience can fall into an attitude of thinking that, because of the ambiguity of the score, anything goes when performing Cage’s work. Nothing could be further from the truth, and often this results in self-indulgent, bad music (not to put too fine a point on it). JACK represents a new generation of musicians, the first to really tackle Cage’s work in a rigorous manner and without the benefit of knowing the man himself. As is evident when listening to this rehearsal, they bring a certain light-hearted rigor to their preparation and are confident enough to inject their own musical voices into Four without sacrificing the intent of the composer. These kinds of attitudes are going to be responsible for John Cage’s very special place in a canon of American classical music; a body of work that changes and grows organically over time as generation after generation of virtuosi gather together and ask the same questions that JACK quartet was grappling with at a Manhattan apartment in the fall of 2012.
A Note on the Podcast
Though this rehearsal was one of the most focused I’ve been to in my 25 years of being a musician, it still had certain elements of a rehearsal that can produce tedium for the outside listener. It is the nature of the beast. Therefore, the rehearsal itself was edited to the salient points in which JACK deals with specific issues. Each of those issues is then separated by a short snippet of Four to provide some structure and followed by JACK’s full performance of the 10 minute version of Four from that afternoon. We’ve stayed away from bookending the performance with more talking as the delicate nature of the composition felt that it needed to fade into silence as it would in concert.