Monday, November 08, 2010

In A Landscape

Last night, unable to sleep, I went down into the basement and did a bit of sorting and filing.

(Organizing everything in the basement is an ongoing project; so far, I've created two or three divided room spaces. About half of my book collection is down in the reading room, with comfortable lighting, reading, and my big black couch. I have all my music gear down there that doesn't fit into the music room upstairs, including the vast majority of music scores and books.)

Last night I spent some time sorting through my piano scores, deciding what to bring up to have by the piano, to have at hand for when I feel like playing.

This afternoon, I played through a favorite early John Cage piece, In A Landscape. This is a piece for solo piano from 1948. You can hear a very good recorded performance of the piece here. There are other recordings of the piece—it's even been marketed as a precursor to New Age meditative music—but this is the one I like best. When I play the piece, I tend to follow this model, rather than others.

John Cage: Writer (1993), edited and introduced by Richard Kostelanetz.

A book found and read recently, added with pleasure to my collection of books by Cage, and about Cage. Kostelanetz is one of the best editors and commentators on Cage and his legacy. He has produced a vast body of Cage-related work that is among the most insightful and worthwhile. Kostelanetz begins his Preface to this book—selected writings that was being prepared with Cage's support, and published a year after he died—with a very direct statement:

To me, John Cage has always been a writer as well as a composer, as major a writer as he is a composer, and so for the past quarter century I have been writing about his writings, as well as anthologizing selections from them as poetry, as social thought, as esthetic philosophy. That accounts for why it is a pleasure to edit a selection of his previously uncollected writings—pieces that haven't appeared in any books published under his name or with his name in the title. Customarily, such writings might be classified as poetry or esthetics or reportage, but since those categories don't work for Cage, here they appear in chronological order, in sum illustrating my thesis about Cage as a major American author.

I agree completely.

Cage was at least as important to 20th C. writing, including poetry, as he was to music, and just as influential. He was an experimental artist in whatever artform he worked in, in the sense of: experimentation, invention, exploration. He pushed art farther in several directions than it had ever been pushed—which is the source of both his fame and, in the minds of people who felt pushed too far, his notoriety. Whether people are fascinated or infuriated by Cage says a lot about them, but not much about Cage. I am firmly in the fascinated camp, for whatever that's worth.

Cage wrote short notes about his compositions for the catalog of his music publisher, C.F. Peters. Kostelanetz gathers these together in this book. Here's what he wrote about In A Landscape:

In A Landscape (for harp or piano, 1948) was written in the rhythmic structure of the dance by Louise Lippold. it is similar to Dream [another solo piano piece from the same period, for the dance by Merce Cunningham] but the fixed gamut of tones is more extensive. Its performance depends on the sustaining of resonances with the pedal.

The piece is indeed rather dreamlike. Cage did a lot of music during this period wherein the musical elements are repeated, compressed, and stretched following mathematical relationships. Cage was also interested in the formal aesthetics of Hindu mythology, and this is sometimes reflected in to the shapes and titles of the pieces.

In terms of In A Landscape, it's interesting to hear the basic motifs return at certain times, in sections that are determined in length by the mathematical rhythms tied to the dance. The opening theme, for example, returns one last time near the end of the piece, in a perfect recapitulation. But this is not at all a traditional musical form from Western classical music, such as a sonata or rondo. It is measured and precisely placed, and what happens in between can in no way be called a development of themes.

In A Landscape is a good piece for me to play before bedtime. It's good night music. Music that helps calm the mind, calm the emotions, return one to tranquility before lying down to find sleep. I have other music to attend to tonight before bed, but I will perhaps play through In A Landscape again, in hopes of finding a better night's sleep for myself.

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