Tuesday, April 1, 2008
Coping with Cage
In a few days I will be giving my first piano recital since the 1970s. It all started because I've been asked a lot, recently, about why I've become so ... retro, so musically backward-looking. "Why don't you have any of those wild avant-garde music happenings like you used to in the 1970s? Those were the days," they tell me. So I decided to give them more than they bargained for … a whole evening of John Cage.
I think that the instructions in Cage's piano piece Seven Haiku say it all. "There are times when the notation may seem irrational. In such cases, the player may use his own discretion." Well, guess what? It's all irrational on some level. And so.…
I've taken this to be a carte blanche to interpret the scrawls, scribbles, and weird proportional notations in a completely personal way. When Cage has indicated a few notes to fill a sixty second space, I see no reason why those two or three notes can't be an excuse to take off on a massive flight of fancy (without straying from those notes as such) nor do I see any particular reason to play the notes by striking the keys with my fingers — there are many other ways of coaxing these same notes out of a piano, from keychains and pingpong balls to old-fashioned plucking the inside of the piano.
Most importantly, I have refrained from any sort of practicing — well. I have tried to do so, though at times I couldn't help myself. I think that Cage would have wanted me to play as though these vistas of strange notes were being unveiled for the first time. Just as Cage used the I Ching and other chance mechanisms to select what appears on the printed page, I'm using the printed page as a sort of I Ching in and of itself, a springboard for a leap into the unknown.
Eschewing conventional practice means, also, that I will playing from music … and I am extending this even to the infamous 4'33" of silence; after all, Peters Edition, publishers of Mozart and Beethoven, have a handsome, 4-page edition of this work which set me back $20. No pirated editions, nosirree; Silence will be played (or rather not played) from a proper score. I may even hire a page turner.
Why is it still important to play Cage's music? It's all pretty old hat by now, and the radical ideas seem curiously passé. But I think there's life in the old rebel. It's worth reiterating the philosophies for this new and increasingly materialistic generation. And, while there are few who would consider Cage the greatest twentieth century composer, he might well arguably be called the most influential.