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John Cage: Etudes Australes


For Cage the resulting etudes represented certain political and social views. Collecting and using the aggregates for independent hands was particularly important, because according to Cage, it permitted the writing of a music which was not based on harmony, but it permitted harmonies to enter into such a nonharmonic music. How could you express that in political terms? It would permit that attitude expressed socially. It would permit institutions or organizations, groups of people, to join together in a world which was not nationally divided. Furthermore, the immense complexity of the music also had a social function. “I’m interested in the use of intelligence and the solution of impossible problems. And that’s what these Etudes [Australes] are all about, and the difficulty would ensure that “a performance would show that the impossible is not impossible.

Grete Sultan John Cage Etudes AustralesMusic notation is a map providing points of orientation that allows players to walk the walk, their idea of how a piece might journey through time correspondingly – hopefully – with the composer’s own. And in the case of John Cage, late-period pieces such as the Etudes Australes, a greater interpretative approach is demanded. Cage specifies notes and chords (without stems) and allies them to a time frame in which they can be placed; but the actual sounds to be used, and their ultimate duration, are left to the performer’s discretion – in this case to Grete Sultan. Fewer pianists show sounder judgement and greater acumen than the late German, who Cage had known since 1946. No one but her has executed the Etude Australes with such thoughtfulness and deft technique – the challenges to keep the right and left hand strata evolving concurrently – no easy task on the piano. So Sultan takes her time. From the margins of audibility, the first sound you hear are single notes gently fluttering in a harmonic mist of massages notes which fade into silence. This process becomes more complex as notes give way to chords as the etudes progress into the later books.

Taking her time allows Sultan to signpost the characteristic sonic traits of the notes and the (later) chords derived from the body of the instrument, individual chords are struck in a conventional way, fingers against the keyboard. Anarchic harmony was Cage’s way of describing randomised layering that resulted as his number pieces ran their unpredictable course; but Sultan’s sensitivity for shape-shifting sound around an emerging structure, her intuition for when sounds should be triggered while others decay, demonstrates the responsibility that comes from open-form freedom. The Etudes Australes maroon erratic, sporadic and volatile sound events inside sanctuaries of silence and once again Sultan has a conventionally played note, a punched cluster or a string from inside the piano made to sing via a sustaining device. Anarchy must never be mistaken for misanthropic chaos.

Label: Wergo
Producer: Heiner Stadler
Released: 1992
Running time: Disc 1 – 72:13 Disc 2 – 45:13 Disc 3 – 52:14

About Grete Sultan
The German-born American pianist, Grete Sultan (born Johanna Margarete Sultan), was born in Berlin into a musical family. By the time she started formal lessons of with her sister at the age of 5, she already could read music. Later, at 15 (1922), she entered the Berlin Hochschule für Musik, where she studied with Russian pianist studied with Leonid Kreutzer until her graduation in 1925. In 1927 she began her studies with Edwin Fischer, who was a major influence on her life and work. She also studied with Claudio Arrau. Another one of her teachers and an important influence on her musical life was Richard Buhlig, an American pianist living in Germany. Grete Sultan established herself as a pianist of both Classical and contemporary works in Berlin. In 1933, after the National Socialists came to power, she was, as all Jews were, banned from playing in public and could only appear in concerts of the “Juedischer Kulturbund” (Jewish Culture Association). With Richard Buhlig’s help, she fled Germany in 1941 via Lisbon, from where she emigrated to the USA by ship. She settled in New York City and took up piano teaching, first at Vassar College and the 92nd Street Y, then at the Masters’ School in Dobbs Ferry, NY. She toured widely, giving all-Bach, all-L.v. Beethoven, all-Schubert, and all-contemporary programs; made her New York debut in 1947. Grete Sultan became associated with the composer Henry Cowell, with whom she gave performances of works by Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky. In New York she met the composer John Cage, who became a lifelong friend and associate; they often appeared in concerts together. Read more…


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