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Cage 100, Part 2: Freeman Etudes

available at Amazon
J. Cage, Freeman Etudes,
Books 1 and 2, I. Arditti

available at Amazon
J. Cage, Freeman Etudes,
Books 3 and 4, I. Arditti
John Cage (1912-1992) would have celebrated his 100th birthday on Wednesday, and Washington's museums have come together to host a series of performances for the John Cage Centennial Festival over the next several days. On Thursday evening, the Phillips Collection got in on the act, with a solo recital by violinist Irvine Arditti that was billed as the "American premiere" of Cage's mind-blowing virtuosic showdown, the Freeman Etudes (the program clarified that it was Arditti's first American performance of the complete set). As described in a study by James Pritchett, Cage began this set of etudes for solo violin at the request of Betty Freeman in 1977, with Paul Zukofsky in mind as the performer. When Zukofsky pronounced the work unplayable -- probably on some level one of the things that the composer was hoping to achieve, music so detailed, with all of those details generated by chance operations, that it could not be played -- Cage halted composition at the end of the second book, only to take it up again when Irvine Arditti expressed an interest, expanding it to four books.

Cage followed a painstaking process to create the work, beginning by tracing points on star charts to determine the initial pitch and duration. Cage assigned all other performance parameters with a series of chance determinations -- articulation, dynamics, unusual effects -- that also indicated the series of pitches that he would follow. Pritchett, who studied this score in great detail and was the one who helped Cage reconstruct his long-forgotten method when he took the etudes back up, estimates that "each note of each etude is thus the product of hundreds of different chance operations." The result, lasting around ninety excruciating minutes without a break, is multifariously perverse, in the lovably eye-twinkling way that only Cage could muster. The compositional plan is a sort of anti-composition, akin to the readymades of Marcel Duchamp. A computer could be fed the pattern of random generators used by Cage and spit out another thirty-two Freeman Etudes. No note can be connected to any other note to make a melody or a form, by the composer's own design, reducing the performer to an assembler of random sound objects.

There is really no way to critique such a performance, either. The act of deciphering the score -- take a look at this excerpt of the score of Etude 18, and your eyes will cross -- to try to determine if the performer is actually hitting each note on pitch (or off pitch, as some notes are required to be), with the right dynamic, pitch distortion, number of ricochet bounces, and so on, is impossible. Arditti could play a rough approximation of the score and almost no one would know the difference. In fact, Arditti had to do just that at the end of one of the etudes, when his highest string broke under the pressure of all those scratches, squeaks, and squawks. To his credit, Arditti soldiered on, playing something vaguely resembling the piece, impossible to render correctly with the three strings he still had. (Returning from the green room with his restrung instrument, he observed drolly, "I only have two E strings left.")

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, ‘Freeman Etudes’ at the Phillips (Washington Post, September 8)

Michael Lodico, Cage 100, Part 1: John Cage sans champignons (Ionarts, September 7)
The piece is often hailed as virtuosic, and the vociferous ovation from the specialist audience -- some of whom had zoned out or even slept for much of the performance -- was an appreciation of Arditti's accomplishment. To think of the work in those terms, to my mind, is to misunderstand what Cage was after on a fundamental level. The question of whether the piece is unplayable is actually irrelevant, since most listeners, if they are honest, have no way to assess if a performance is good or bad. The concept of virtuosity requires three things: challenging music, a talented performer who attempts to play it, and an audience that can distinguish whether the performer was up to the challenge or not. Without that last part, virtuosity is beside the point, and that seems to me exactly what John Cage was saying by writing this music and calling it, to make the irony explicit, "etudes" (the same goes for the Etudes Australes and Etudes Boreales). Rather than trying to assess if this music is unplayable, it seems to me that the real question is whether this music is unlistenable. I cede the point that Cage's ideas have been influential, but I refuse to admit that the experience of listening to these pieces is more about beauty or pleasure than it is about endurance.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It can be both equally about beauty and endurance. I was thinking perhaps a selection from the etudes rather than the whole thing might have made a greater impact in live performance. It was a little much. But I can't shake the feeling that no matter how the notes were generated (and the density of information therein), I can see these pieces as almost a natural extension of serialism and Webern.