Subtraction Program Notes

Kathryn Bacasmot has once again provided us with great program notes. Thursday at the Gardner Museum should be quite an experience! This is your shovel. The music is your earth. Dig in.

John Cage (1912-1992) For all the innovation the world of music has experienced since 1952, nothing has come close to the watershed moment when 4’33” was first performed. The profundity of its statement regarding sound, listening, and the nature of music remain unmatched.

Providing contextual snapshots to the years leading up to 4’33”, the program today features two other works by John Cage, his String Quartet in Four Parts from 1950, and his Imaginary Landscape No. 4 for 12 Radios from 1951. Like light focusing down to a pinpoint, these pieces exhibit a kind of gathering of fuel for Cage’s ideological fire. One can hear a progression from restrained, quietly oscillating melodic lines, to the absence of melody in favor of partially controlled sound, to sound unfettered. With each step, by subtracting an element he added to our understanding—widening our conceptions.

By 1950, Cage had written his Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano, as well as three (there would ultimately be five) Imaginary Landscape works. Those pieces all dealt with the manipulation of sound, either through inserting objects into the strings of a piano or through some electrical means; in other words, some outside element beyond simply a human performer and acoustic instrument. By contrast, it has been observed that the String Quartet in Four Parts also manipulates sound, but through altering the approach to the instruments themselves. For example, the performers are instructed to employ a light touch and no vibrato. As a result, the sound strikes the ear as both ancient and modern, often shrouded in shade, occasionally stabbed with an angular insertion of volume.

The entire work doesn’t deviate far from certain intervallic spans, and eschews overt tension-resolution/dissonance-consonance relationships. Increasingly interested in Eastern philosophy, Cage integrated into the music the concept of the seasons in Indian culture: creation (Spring), preservation (Summer), destruction (Fall), and quiescence (Winter), which are then reflected in each movement: Quietly Flowing Along (Summer), Slowly Rocking (Autumn), Nearly Stationary (Winter), and Quodlibet (Spring).

Imaginary Landscape No. 4 is the elimination of any formal instruments at all, and the sounds being controlled and manipulated by the performers are not self-generated, but rather ongoing—invisible waves that one simply turns on or turns off, turns up (foreground) or turns down (background), tunes in or tunes out. Each performance will be completely different. Even so, here the sound is still dictated by whatever any given radio wavelength is carrying. But, it is these ideas of tuning in or out of an invisible, ongoing performance that were given a test run here, to be fully realized in 4’33”.

"I responded immediately...not as objects, but as ways of seeing. I've said before that they were airports for shadows and for dust, but you could also say that they were mirrors of the air." This statement by Cage refers to the all white paintings of his friend, Robert Rauschenberg from 1951. The same year he visited Harvard University to stand in an anechoic chamber where he was greeted not by “silence,” but rather “heard two sounds, one high and one low”: his nervous system and his blood flow. These two events solidified in Cage’s mind that absence is just another type of presence, and emboldened him to write the piece that David Tutor premiered in Woodstock, New York, August 29, 1952: 4’33”.

Cage has said, “I love sounds, just as they are. And I have no need for them to be anything more than what they are. I don’t want them to be psychological...I just want it to be a sound.” He was interested in the idea of “interpenetration,” that sounds from the environment be accepted just as much as any notes organized on the page the old fashioned way (or, perhaps as Jonathan Kramer has put it, “The situations are the pieces”). There is a bit of old-fashioned organization here, too, as the work is divided into three movements, each given a specified length (the cumulative length is the work’s title).

4’33” effectively breaks down the 4th wall; there is no longer the illusion that the audience is passive whilst the performer is active. One could suggest that this points at another truth, so often forgotten in our entertainment obsessed culture—that we, too, are part of the performance at all times, whether it is Beethoven or Cage. We bring our histories and our emotions into the hall with us, and those are constantly at play, reacting and interacting with the music, whether it is organized on the page or simply mirroring the air.

Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998) :: Moz-Art à la Haydn A singularly defining feature of Alfred Schnittke’s oeuvre is his emphasis on “quotation of material of very diverse origins,” or, polystylism (polystyle, “many columns”). What makes Schnittke’s use of polystylism so unusual is the unapologetic forcefulness with which the technique is applied. Where another composer may quilt together disparate styles or quotes, Schnittke rips them out, glues them down, and writes on top of them. Sometimes the results are almost nothing short of bone chilling in their dramatic scope. But Schnittke was also a master humorist. Many times you may find yourself smiling out of shock at a sly moment, a coolly delivered, or a razor-sharp, witty turn. Moz-Art à la Haydn is a wink—but of the slightly unhinged variety that only Schnittke could deliver.

The work is based on the surviving bits of Mozart’s lost "pantomime music" K. 446, which was originally composed for the pre-Lenten carnival week of 1783 (though, you will almost certainly recognize a different, well-known, strain of Mozart also inserted). Schnittke also wove in theatrical elements: it begins in darkness, and ends in darkness. The “à la Haydn” is a nod to Haydn’s “Farewell” symphony—the musicians simply begin leaving the stage as the work concludes.

Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) :: Symphony No. 45, “Farewell” Haydn had a way of making a point. Sometime around 1761, at age 29, he was hired by the Esterházy family as Vice-Kapellmeister to Ober-Kapellmeister Gregor Joseph Werner, who was elderly, and becoming increasingly burdened by the workload. Four years later, Werner wrote to their employer, Nicolaus I, Prince Esterházy, complaining (most likely falsely, perhaps motivated by some residual bitterness about becoming too elderly and unwell to excel in his work) that Haydn was “neglecting the instruments and musical archives and the supervision of the singers.” The Prince responded by scolding Haydn, and threw in an extra twist of the knife by adding more work to Haydn’s already full calendar: “Kapellmeister Haydn is urgently enjoined to apply himself to composition more zealously than heretofore, and especially to compose more pieces that one can play” for the baryton, the string instrument the Prince played—a type of viol. Haydn responded with 126 compositions for baryton.

As part of a summer season, Prince Nicolaus moved Haydn and many of the court musicians to his new castle, far out into the countryside (“reclaimed swampland”). The season, as it turned out, did not end with arrival of autumn. Instead, the Prince remained nearly a year—ten months. The musicians began to complain to Haydn about being stranded so far away from their families, and held in suspension from their personal responsibilities. In response, Haydn wrote his Symphony no. 45. It is called “Farewell” for the theatrical stunt woven into the work: as the piece concludes, the musicians begin to leave the stage one by one; a clever way of urging the Prince to let them return home (he got their drift, and did).