[...] She brought a friend of hers, Oscar Fishinger, who made abstract films, to listen to my work. He spoke to me about what he called the spirit inherent in materials and he claimed that a sound made from wood had a different spirit than one made from glass. The next day I began writing music that was to be played on percussion instruments.
From 1935 until the end of the 1940s, John Cage's activity was particularly focussed on percussive instruments and prepared piano, often included in percussion-only line-ups. These compositions were commissioned by prestigious dance companies such as Merce Cunningham's, with whom Cage created an artistic and life-long fellowship destined to make history.
The un-pitched sound of percussive instruments and the piano's timbral expansion, allowed Cage to deepen in the world of sound, through an unexplored path, with other composers alike, such as Edgar Varèse and Harry Partch.
The emancipation from the traditional idea of harmony, enabled Cage to organize his compositions according to rhythmic structures that determine its form, giving the tempo a central role: sound and silence are given the same attention and are equally defined by their duration.
These ideas are the cornerstone for the following works by Cage, making his 1940s output a fundamental patch, used to understand his subsequent compositions.
John Cage Amores (1943) prepared piano & + 3 percussionists
I. Solo (prepared piano)
II. Trio (9 tom-toms, pod rattle)
III. Trio (7 woodblooks)
IV. Solo (prepared piano)
The prepared piano is here to express erotism and tranquillity: two of the core emotions in Indian philosophy, referred by Cage throughout the 1940s, whilst studying A.K. Coomaraswamy.
Cage wants the piano player to forget the pre-conceived nature of the instrument. The result of the preparation has to culminate in an original instrument, with its own characteristics.
John Cage One 4 (1990)
Throughout his last years, Cage finds himself immersed in countless commissions received for his 80th birthday. James Pritchett defines these compositions number pieces because of their titles, which corresponds to the number of required performers. All of these works include the composition technique of parenthesis: fixed or variable. This technique requires the performer/s to produce sound within pre-determined time limitations. An unquestionable stillness rules these pieces, which can be easily compared to his visual works: sparse sounds float within a time frame.
The layout of the rocks on Royanji's zen sand garden is another reference to the visual arts. In the early compositions of this series, Cage recommends that the sounds have to be "brushed into existence".
John Cage Second Construction (1940) for four performers
Rhythmic structures are at the base of this work. Similarly to the First Construction (in metal), the Second is based on a cycle of 16 bars (divided into 4/3/4/5), repeated 16 times. A rhythmic variation overwhelms the thematic one, which is almost absent. The instruments are mainly drums and resonant metals, with an extensive use of muting (strings dampened by hand) on the prepared piano and produces sounds similar to a siren, thanks to a metal slide.
John Cage Credo in US (1942) for four performers
Besides percussive instruments and piano, Credo in US includes turntables and radio. This is the first time in which Cage uses material composed by others within his own music and relies on the radio as source of unforeseeable sounds.
Giacinto Scelsi I riti: Marcia rituale I funerali d'Achille (1962) for percussion quartet
The concept of a ritual is intrinsic to the musical understanding of Giacinto Scelsi and it appears in the majority of his works. This trilogy, titled Riti, includes d’Alessandro Magno (323 a. C.), for quintet (1962); - di Carlo Magno (A. D. 814), for cello and percussion (1967).
In Funerali di Achille, the rhythm is the cornerstone that symbolizes the solemn funeral procession; the regular pulse is defined by the finger cymbals. Scelsi creates a timbric palette which is rather peculiar, gathering together instruments of diverse nature (wood, metal, drums), seeking the fusion of various sonorities.
The Scelsi foundation describes his connection with John Cage as: 'A search for what is beyond - staring into the future - that they shared, together with a deep friendship'.
John Cage Suite for Toy Piano (1948)
As an alternative to the complex sonorities of percussion instruments, other compositions reflect his interest for a very simple style and for a sound world of static translucence. Satie's influence, considered by Cage as a forerunner, is very present. The Suite for Toy Piano uses nine keys only, similarly to the prepared piano works, which defines, neatly, the acoustic space. This is one of the most joyous works in his catalogue, for the brightnes of sound and vitality of rhythms.
John Cage But what about the noise of crumpling paper (1985)
A celebration of the centenary of Jean Arp's birth, dedicated to Les Percussions de Strasbourg. The line-up is free, has water and paper as an obbligato: an homage to Jean Arp love for the watery world and the forest. Cage mentions sounds that refer to natural events.
Concept: Marco Dalpane
English Rendition: Enrico Bertelli