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John Cage: Etudes Australes

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Grete Sultan John Cage
Photograph by Nick Jonas

John Cage The Complete Etudes Australes – Grete Sultan: pf

Guru to some, charlatan to others, John Cage constantly challenged the very idea of music, using randomness as a basis for composition, doctoring instruments to produce new sonorities, and including the widest array of sounds in his works. He wanted to break down the barriers between art and life, “not to bring order out of chaos… but simply to wake up the very life we’re living”. In his twenties Cage studied with Henry Cowell, who had already written pieces for piano in which the performer plucked and beat the strings directly. He also studied with Schoenberg, and their arguments about harmony (Cage thought it unimportant) led Schoenberg to say of him: “He’s not a composer; he’s an inventor – of genius.” Cage’s works in the 1930’s, mainly for percussion, are based around numerically ordered rhythmic patterns more akin to Eastern than Western music – another aspect of Cowell’s influence. In 1938 he started inserting screws, wood and paper onto the piano strings in order to produce percussive sounds. Much of his most expressive music was written for what came to be called ‘prepared piano.

Grete Sultan John Cage Etude Australes Book1 No. VIII
Grete Sultan John Cage Etude Australes Book1 No. VIII

In the 1940s Cage’s attitude to music underwent a profound change as a result of his study of Zen Buddhism. In an attempt to rid his music of all vestiges of self-expression and intentionality he started to introduce chance as a guiding principle first in the composition and then into performance. Music of Changes (1951) is the pivotal work; it was Cage’s last fully determinate piece, but was composed using chance processes. Here as elsewhere, most of the chance works were written out not in conventional notation but as visually startling and often ambiguous graphic designs. As these became increasingly irrational and anarchic, Cage developed a cult following during the 1960s, though many fellow musicians, such as Pierre Boulez, believed that his emphasis on randomness was a conceptual blind alley. This did not deter Cage but in the last twenty years of his life, Cage returned to more organisational methods of composing.

In the seventies Cage united his earlier innovations by producing pieces that continued to be radical and – some would say – intentionally offensive. However, there was no doubt that these were singularly Cage. They were neither unreachable nor impossible to comprehend; they were original in their concepts as well as in the manner in which they affected listeners. Approaching it has always been de rigeur that one must continue to listen to such works several times to feel their full impact. One such set is Etudes Australes divided into four books and a total of 32 etudes. Echoes of the Goldberg and the Diabelli? Perhaps, but also so radical in their construction that very few pianists dared to even attempt them. The Etude Australes are based on Atlas Australis, a book of maps of stars as they can be seen from Australia.

Using a complicated process involving the maps of that firmament and decisions made with the aid of favourite 65-choice Chinese chance manual, I-Ching, Cage marked the locations of certain stars on a transparent paper. These were transferred to music staves arranged in groups of four – an upper and lower clef for the pianist’s right and an upper and lower clef for the pianist’s left hand. The resulting notes reflect only the horizontal positions of the stars, and not all stars are used, because the maps used a variety of colors, and Cage’s chance operations limited the choices every time to specific colors. In the end Cage would have a string of notes and ask the I Ching which of them are to remain single tones and which are to become parts of aggregates. In the first etude this question is answered by a single number, in the second by two numbers, etc. So as the etudes progress, there are more and more aggregates: in the first, most sounds are single tones, in the final, thirty-second etude; roughly half of the sounds are aggregates. The aggregates themselves were selected from the list of available aggregates. This music was written specifically for Grete Sultan in 1974, an artist of considerable genius, when Cage heard that Sultan had been preparing to attempt his Book of Changes.

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