John Cage Edition - Vol. 25: The Works For Piano 16

The John Cage Box: Mining a Treasure-Trove

by Margaret Leng Tan

“Simplicity of equipment and an adventurous spirit in attacking the unfamiliar or unknown are apt to
result in a primitive and vigorous art.”

-Alexander Calder

In the offices of John Cage's publisher, the venerable C.F. Peters Corporation, there was until 1993 a box unpretentiously dubbed “The John Cage Box”. Examination of its contents revealed a tantalizing sheaf of manuscripts familiar only to those dedicated scholars steeped in the Cage oeuvre. These were works which Cage had held off publishing or simply forgotten about. Among them were the dance pieces, Triple-Paced and Ad Lib, Jazz Study and the film score, Works of Calder, all composed between 1942 and 1950.

Triple-Paced was created for the auspicious first collaborative recital of solo dances and music by Merce Cunningham and John Cage at the Humphrey-Weidman Studio Theater in New York City on April 5th, 1944. Two different versions of Triple-Paced exist - the first, a conventional keyboard piece laced with glissandos played on the keys and on the strings, by inserting cloth between the strings to mute them. Both versions of Triple-Paced have the same number of bars and an identical metric structure. At this time, Cage was working with rhythmic structures based on time lengths derived from the East Indian concept of “tala”or rhythmic time cycles. Cunningham explains:
“The use of a time structure allowed us to work separately, Cage not having to be with the dance except at structural points, and I was free to make the phrases and movements within the phrases vary their speeds and accents without reference to a musical beat, again only using the structural points as identification between us.”1 The independence of dance and music, hallmark of the mature Cage-Cunningham collaboration, was already beginning to assert itself in these early miniatures.

Totem Ancestor, from Cunningham's 1942 repertory, was another short dance piece performed at that April 1944 recital. Using a simple bolt and weather stripping preparation of eleven notes, Totem Ancestor is a kindred spirit to Primitive, another prepared piano cameos for dance from the same year (recorded by Margaret Leng Tan on her album Sonic Encounters: The New Piano [mode 15]). The
unbridled energy and titles of both pieces naively suggest Native American influences.

Ad Lib, as the title implies, began as a partially improvised collaboration between Merce Cunningham and dancer-choreographer Jean Erdman to music by Gregory Tucker at Bennington College, Vermont, in the summer of 1942. It was reworked to music by Cage for the performance at the Arts Club of Chicago in February 1943. Jean Erdman recounts: “Ad Lib was in the jazz idiom. We decided with John on the structure - that's the way you always proceeded with John. I was to have the blues theme and Merce was to have the fast theme”. 2

PERFORMER'S NOTE: Cage's hand-copied manuscript of Ad Lib stops abruptly after the last glissando. Since it is obviously incomplete, I have taken the liberty of adding the jaunty melodic ending from an earlier draft of the piece.

During 1942 to 1943, Cage created several jazz-inspired compositions. Besides Ad Lib there was Credo in US, Four Dances (made for Hanya Holm's choreography, “What So Proudly We Hail”) and possibly Jazz Study as well. This last work is attended by a certain mystery exacerbated by the fact that no original manuscript exists. Don Gillespie of C.F. Peters recalls: “I went over to John Cage's one day in 1989 to determine which of the manuscripts and sketches remaining in the Cage box at Peters might eventually be published. We looked at a number of manuscripts and photostats. Jazz Study was a two-page photostat in an unknown copyist's hand with 'John Cage' written below the title. It had been in the possession of Doris Denison, an original member of Cage's Seattle percussion ensemble in the late 1930's. John looked at the score carefully and then said he didn't remember having written the piece - it was so long ago - but not denying that he wrote it. When I mentioned Andras Wilheim had told me, in his opinion, there was no question that it was Cage's work, John said 'Well, if Andras said that, then I wrote it.' He didn't say this ironically but in all seriousness. (Cage had enormous respect for Andras' musicological research and musical judgments.)” In a lighter vein, Paul van Emmerik recounts that in response to his request for permission to perform Jazz Study, Cage replied, “You certainly have my permission to play what you believe I have written.”

Given the harmonic and stylistic similarities between Jazz Study, the piano part of Credo in US and particularly the last of the Four Dances, all from 1942, I would agree with the unanimous opinion of Mr. Gillespie and the other eminent Cage scholars, Mark Swed, Paul van Emmerik and Martin Erdmann, that Jazz Study is, in all likelihood, by John Cage. As to the reasons for Cage's excursions into the jazz idiom, Mark Swed points out that not only was jazz one of the rare musical genres that embraced percussion in the forties, Cage was also actively performing the jazz-influenced percussion pieces of William Russell on his West Coast and Chicago concerts.

There are only two instances of Cage venturing into film music: “Dreams That Money Can Buy”(1947) made by Hans Richter and “Works of Calder” (1949-50) by Herbert Matter. Both are art films with Cage himself performing the prepared piano accompaniments. These early forays into the genre were not particularly happy experiences for the composer and it was not until his final year that Cage approached the medium again, and then very much on his own terms, with the film, One11, which may or may not be played together with his orchestral piece, 103.

“Dreams that Money Can Buy” paired the talents of the artists Max Ernst, Fernand Leger, Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, Alexander Calder and Hans Richter himself with the composers Paul Bowles, John Latouche, Darius Milhaud, John Cage, David Diamond and Louis Applebaum respectively. Financed by Peggy Guggenheim and considered highly avantgarde for its time, the film revolves around Joe, a poor young poet with a rich imagination who offers dreams for sale. Cage was responsible for creating the accompaniment to the Duchamp dream sequence, Discs and Nudes Descending a Staircase”. Cage's modal and presciently minimal Music For Marcel Duchamp, simply prepared with weather stripping, rubber and a solitary bolt, reinforces the hypnotic power of the visual images. These consist of Duchamp's “rotoreliefs” or optical discs (revolving spirals which entrap the eye in three-dimensional cylinders of space) alternating with an animated, real-life version of his famous Cubist painting, “Nude Descending a Staircase”. Much to Cage's annoyance, he was not informed of changes made to the film after the music's completion. The score's final seven ascending repetitions were given short shrift and the composer's specific instruction, “Do not release pedals until all sound has ceased”, was blatantly ignored. For Cage, who was still working with rhythmic structure and time lengths, this rude truncation of his efforts must have been painful indeed.

In 1949 Cage was approached by the Swiss filmmaker, Herbert Matter, to provide the music for his documentary vignette on Alexander Calder. Burgess Meredith (who had always upheld a lively commitment to the arts beyond his acting career) would be the producer and also narrator of the text by John Latouche. Accompanied by Cage's fluid prepared piano score, the opening section of this tri-partite film focuses on a young boy's discovery of the natural universe. In the middle section, the boy
happens upon Calder working in his studio and we are introduced by the narrator to Calder's kinetic wire sculptures and mobiles seen through a child's vision. In keeping with Calder's activity, the prepared piano timbres have given way to percussive metal sounds enhanced by discreet electronic effects. Cage may have improvised the percussion interlude; in any event, no score survives. In part three, the prepared piano complements the elegant movements of Calder's mobiles and constellations set against images of the natural environment.

Works of Calder requires an extensive preparation comparable in complexity to that of the Sonatas and Interludes. Cage was not entirely satisfied with the Calder score: “ the Matter film, I had high-faluting ideas about superimposing inaccurate performances of a single prepared piano line with each time microtonal shifts of pitch and slight timbre changes (to be achieved by re-positioning of screws and other mutes), all of this arising from the lovely accidents that mobiles by their nature of moving present to the eyes. However, the machines neccessary to do this were not available.”3 Nevertheless, “Works of Calder”won the prize for the best musical score at the First Art Film Festival in America, held in Woodstock, New York in September 1951.

For historic documentation and authenticity, I have included both the percussion segment and Burgess Meredith's narration from the original soundtrack of the film. A few years before his death in 1997, I had the good fortune to speak with Mr. Meredith. He was delighted at the renewed interest in Works of
, so much so that he offered to narrate the text afresh for my recording even though I was perfectly happy to settle for the vintage version!

Let us fast forward four decades to One2 which John Cage made for me in 1989, drawing upon all the things I like to do to a piano. In keeping with Cage's practice of using numerals for the titles of his compositions since 1987, “one” indicates the piece is for a single performer and the superscript “2”
designates it as the second work in the solo performer series.

One2 is to be played on one to four pianos. A three-dimensional piece of performance-theater, Cage wrote it with my particular choreographic approach to the piano in mind: in addition to playing on the keys, I move in and out of each piano's interior and traverse the distances between the instruments. The
damper pedals of all the pianos are wedged so that the strings vibrate freely throughout the piece. The pianos have, in effect, become sound sculptures. I decided that three pianos would be optimal because this allows for the most dramatic configuration and a broad spatial distribution of the sounds. By strategically positioning the pianos, their open lids would act as baffles deflecting and reflecting
to maximum effect the sympathetic vibrations produced. Using chance operations to determine the
pitches, Cage made individual scores for each of the four pianos. Each score consists of relatively short musical units or events drawn from the following: 1) keyboard chordal aggregates 2) keyboard tremolos 3) single prepared tones 4) single bowed, plucked or muted tones 5) an auxiliary sound of a long sustained nature to be used only once with respect to each piano. It is up to the performer to choose the auxiliary sounds and piano preparations as well as whether a designated note would be plucked, muted or bowed (with a bow made from fishing line threaded under the strings). For the
auxiliary sounds I chose a Japanese cup gong, timpani mallets applied to the bass strings, and
a glass tumbler also applied to the bass strings. (Cage's suggestion of “a gyroscope or top in
contact with the interior piano structure” proved impractical.)

Unlike the other number pieces, One2 does not rely on time brackets as a means of organizing temporal space. Instead, Cage suggested that I follow my “inner clock”, simply responding to the sound events and their aftermath. This would spontaneously determine my progress between the pianos. As with other late Cage works, the performer is expected to deal responsibly with the challenges of indeterminacy, drawing, in whole or in part, upon the reservoir of possibilities provided while assuming the role of co-creator.

Cage and I discussed One2 at length when I visited him the day before his sudden death in 1992. We talked about space/ time as embodied in the Japanese concept of “ma” (where time and space are perceived as coincidental and indivisible), that what occurred in the intervals between the sounds was just as meaningful as the sounds themselves, of the pianos as independent yet interpenetrating entities, that I was merely the bell-ringer who went about sounding the bells while letting them speak for themselves. (“Simply let sounds be sounds”, as the oft-quoted Cage maxim goes.) His final parting words, “Margaret, play whatever comes to hand when you get to each piano without knowing what you are going to do until you get there”, were not intended as an invitation to frivolity, but rather, an expression of confidence arising from the deepest familiarity with the resources at hand.

PERFORMER'S NOTE: Given the ambulatory nature of One2, I would recommend adopting a Cagean attitude when listening to the piece - to accept the occasional creaking floorboard and footfall as integral to the sonic experience rather than as annoying intrusions.


1 Merce Cunningham: Fifty Years by David Vaughan, pg. 30 (Aperture Press)

2 Merce Cunningham: Fifty Years, pg. 27

3”A Few Ideas About Music and Films” by John Cage in Film Music Notes, Vol.10 (Jan-Feb 1951), pg. 12


Margaret Leng Tan is recognized as “the leading exponent of John Cage's music today” (The New Republic) and “the most convincing interpreter of Cage's keyboard music” (The New York Times). She appeared in the Public Broadcasting System's American Masters films on John Cage and Jasper Johns
and has participated in major events honoring the composer in the United States and abroad. Tan's highly acclaimed discography on Mode, New Albion and ECM are regarded by critics as definitive recordings of Cage's music. Her commitment to repertory transcending the piano's conventional boundaries has inspired many composers to create performer-specific works for her. The world's only professional toy pianist, Tan has transformed a toy into a legitimate instrument as heard on The Art of
the Toy Piano
(Point/Universal). Originally from Singapore, she now lives in Brooklyn,
New York.

Tan is the editor for C.F. Peters' John Cage Piano Music Volume IV which includes works on this recording.