Table of Contents
‘Cage and Satie’ (Musical Times, 114, December 1973, pp. 1227–9) (Michael Nyman Collected Writings)
I rather think that influence doesn’t go A–B–C, that is to say, from [Satie] to someone younger than [Satie] to people still younger, but that rather we live in a field situation in which, by our actions, by what we do, we are able to see what
other people do in a different light than we do, without our having done anything.
It is important with Satie not to be put off by his surface (by turns mystical, cabaretish, Kleeish, Mondrianish; full of mirth, the erotic, the wondrous, all the white emotions, even the heroic, and always tranquility, expressed more often
than not by cliché and juxtaposition).
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Imitation, they say, is the sincerest form of flattery; how much more (or less) flatteringand sincere is cheap imitation? Cage’s Cheap Imitation is the most tangible
recognition of Satie’s indispensability (‘It’s not a question of Satie’s relevance’, Cage wrote in 1958. ‘He’s indispensable’), and interestingly provides a direct link with the first available evidence of Cage’s musical connection with Satie.
In 1945, Cage made a two-piano arrangement of the first movement of Satie’s Socrates for Merce Cunningham’s ballet Idyllic Song.
In summer 1969 Cunningham approached the work again with a view to completing it, by adding the remaining two movements. Cage finished the complete two-piano arrangement in October 1969. However, permission for the use of this arrangement was not granted by the copyright holder.
So Cage chose to imitate the original, with great care and respect, but cheaply – by his accustomed resort to the I-Ching (as a mechanical rather than inspirational guide). The I-Ching was basically used to answer two questions for each phrase of the melodic line of Socrates: which of the seven white-note modes was to be used, and beginning on which of the 12 chromatic notes. The original Cheap Imitation (1969) is for solo piano and was first used for Cunningham’s dance Second Hand in 1970.
The orchestral imitation of the piano version was made in 1972, using the I-Ching to decide which of the 24 obligatory instruments capable of playing the melodic line at any point should do so and for how long. (A maximum of 96 instruments may be used.)
To return to the history of Cage-Satie: three years after Idyllic Song Cage organized a mammoth, 25-concert Satie Festival at Black Mountain College, North Carolina, which included a star-studded performance of Le piège de Méduse [Medusa’s Trap] with Buckminster Fuller as the Baron and sets by de Kooning.
During the 1950s he continued his publicity for Satie largely on paper: in 1950 and 1951 he indulged in verbal (and conceptual) fisticuffs in the letter columnsof Musical America with a critic, Abraham Skulsky, while his best-known appreciation of Satie, the ‘imaginary conversation’ in Silence, dates from 1958.
When that article first appeared in Art News Annual it included (for the first time in the US) the manuscript of Satie’s Vexations for piano, a piece which proposes 840 repetitions of a 52-beat, unbarred motif, made up of four section all over the same 13-bar bass theme,116 in the order: bass alone, bass + two upper parts in rhythmic unison, bass, bass + reversed upper parts.
In 1963 Cage organized a posse of pianists to give what must have been the first performance, at the Pocket Theatre in New York, and another with students at the University of
California, Davis in 1969.117 Of late, Cage has pursued the connection with Satie through Cheap Imitation and the gigantic Song Books, Solos for Voice 3–92 (1970) which is a musical-theatrical exploration of a chance remark he made in the 1969 continuation of his Diary: How to Improve the World (You will only make Matters Worse): ‘We connect Satie with Thoreau’.
An analysis of the musical evidence for the Satie–Cage connection is crucial for understanding both composers, and goes deeper than that attempted by Peter Dickinson in a Music Review article of 1967 (which, incidentally, includes the first English publication of Vexations).
Dickinson points to both composers’ hatred of traditional attitudes, which leads them ‘to the point of declaring anti-art doctrines’;
to Parade, Mercure and Relâche as precursors of ‘the kind of Dadaist happenings that have interested Cage and the avant-garde’; to Satie’s love of incongruities leading him to exploit whatever is to hand ‘in a deliberate employment of accident’
(that is more to the point, if it is true); while he found the combination of music, words and drawings in Sports et Divertissements ‘close to the recent aleatory music where the performer is given a series of indications and diagrams without precise interpretation’.
(The instructions to Vexations provide a more relevant
parallel: ‘Pour se jouer 840 fois de suite ce motif, il sera bon de se préparer au préalable, et dans la plus grand silence, par des immobilités sérieuses’.)
The essence of the matter is contained in the lecture ‘Defence of Satie’ which Cage delivered during the Black Mountain Satie Festival in 1948.
Here, Cage indulged a style of logical and polemical argument that he abandoned in his later aphoristic-mosaic lecture-writings. After giving his most convincing exposition of the distinctions between structure, form, method and material, he concluded that it is only structure (the work’s ‘parts that are clearly separate but that interact in
such a way as to make a whole’) that today’s composers should come to ‘general agreement’ about, the other categories being free.
The music by, and influenced by, Beethoven, defined the structure of a composition by means of harmony. Before Beethoven wrote a piece, Cage maintains, he planned its movement from one key to another; that is, he planned
its harmonic structure. The only new structural idea to emerge since Beethoven is to be found in the work of Satie (and early Webern), where structure is defined in terms of time lengths. Before Satie wrote a piece, he planned the lengths of its phrases. Whether this is true of all Satie’s music, his sketchbooks certainly contain complete pre-compositional rhythmic structures for the ballet Mercure and for Cinéma, the soundtrack for René Clair’s film Entr’acte included in Relâche.
Cage, of course, had based all his music on proportional rhythmic structures since the mid-1930s, after having been introduced to oriental rhythmic systems by Henry Cowell and having found no comfort in Schoenberg’s pitch manipulation system, which provided only a method and was restricted to musical sounds based on the chromatic scale.
The rhythmic structure technique allowed Cage to
formulate this revolutionary concept (since it very simply but radically contradicts the traditional attitude towards form and content): ‘in contrast to a structure based
on the frequency aspect of sound, tonality, that is, this rhythmic structure was as hospitable to nonmusical sounds, noises, as it was to those of conventional scales and instruments’.
(These ‘noises’ were for Cage, initially the sounds of the
percussion orchestra and its ‘reduction’, the prepared piano, but later, notably in the so-called silent piece, 4’33”, were any, including environmental sounds.) Cage found this ‘hospitality’ in Satie too: ‘Just as Klee was willing to draw people and plants and animals, so into Satie’s continuity come folk tunes, musical clichés, and absurdities of all kinds; he is not ashamed to welcome them in the house he builds:
its structure is strong.’
Since Cage was closely involved with Satie’s music in the late 1940s, it is not unremarkable that the music he was writing at the time of the Black Mountain lecture should have many features in common with Satie: melody-modality stasis, flatness of movement (an inevitable consequence of rhythmic pre-planning) and unpretentiousness. (This latter is important: compare the respectful restraint of Cage’s handling of Socrates with the way Stockhausen imposes himself on Beethoven in Op. 1970.)
Significantly the very singular melodic line of Cheap
Imitation is reminiscent of the 1948 monody of Music for Marcel Duchamp and A Dream, which shares with Cheap Imitation even the occasional intrusion of ‘harmony’ in the form of melody notes sounded and then sustained.
Even though Cheap Imitation may refer back to the style and purity of Cage’s pre-chance music, it is in no way a nostalgic throwback to the earlier, highly attractive modal symmetry. Interestingly, Cage has chosen to randomize that parameter which is freest of the almost palpable rhythmic structure found in the accompaniment to Socrates, namely the flowing vocal line (and the instrumental top line when the voice is silent).
(Cage, around 1960, came ‘to no longer feel the need for musical structure. Its absence could, in fact, blur the distinction between art and life. An individual can hear sounds as music (enjoy living) whether he is at a concert’, and has renounced symmetry in favor of ‘interpenetrating multiplicity’, and the multi-modal, multi-transpositional treatment of Cheap Imitation is fully in tune with Cage’s musical experiences of the last 20 years.)
If the rhythmic plotting of Satie’s theater and film music is closely related to Cage’s own number manipulation, so the static, non-developmental style of Satie’s music relates to another important aspect of Cage’s musical aesthetic.
Roger Shattuck points out that typical bars of Cinéma lend themselves to ‘infinite repetition and do not establish any strong tonal feeling’: that is, sounds are treated as separate objects in themselves, not as passing links in a musical continuity.
For Cage, Satie’s empty time-structures bring about ‘a time that’s just time’, which ‘will let sounds be just sounds and if they are folk tunes, unresolved ninth chords,or knives and forks, just folk tunes, unresolved ninth chords, or knives and forks’.
Knives and forks were sounds instanced by Satie in a statement quoted by Cage earlier in his Silence article, where he maintains that we should bring about a music ‘which is like furniture – a music, that is, which will be part of the noises of the environment, will take them into consideration. I think of it as melodious, softening the noises of the knives and forks, not dominating them, not imposing itself.’ This ‘working in terms of totality, not just the discretely chosen convention’ again brings Satie and Cage close aesthetically.
Yet their awareness of the usefulness of environmental noise-sounds leads in opposite directions. For Satie,
furniture music would be ‘part of the noises of the environment’, whereas for Cage the noises of the environment are part of his music; for Satie ‘it would fill up those heavy silences that sometimes fall between friends dining together’, while for Cage ambient noise filled those empty silences that regularly fell between the notes of his music until about 1960.
Furniture music was designed to be unassuming, not drawing attention to itself. This may in fact be ‘anti-art’ (depending on how you define art), since the traditional attitude is to be interesting and dominating at all costs. No piece could be more barren, undernourished and monotonous (on the surface) as Vexations – a veritable Ring cycle totally devoid of any but accidental variation, the complete antithesis of the climax-ridden bleeding-chunk music of the time (Patrick Gowers has dated Vexations 1893 on stylistic evidence) where variety would appear to
guarantee the impossibility of boredom.
Boredom is a double-edged sword. Satie wrote: ‘the public venerates boredom. For boredom is mysterious and profound … The listener is defenceless against boredom. Boredom subdues him.’
Cage raises the question of boredom in recent Diary: ‘As we were walking along, she smiled and said. “You’re never
bored, are you?” (Boredom dropped when we dropped our interest in climaxes. Even at midnight, we can tell the difference between two China men).’
Boredom is also a paradox: for most listeners, boredom began when climaxes disappeared and lost most of their signposts. In an essay entitled ‘Boredom and Danger’, Dick Higgins (a pupil of Cage at the New School of Social Research at the time of the 1958 Satie article) drew attention to the end of Satie’s Vieux sequins et vieilles cuirasses, where an eight-beat passage evocative of old marches and patriotic songs is to be repeated 380 times.
In performance, the satirical intent of this repetition comes
through very clearly, but at the same time other very interesting results begin to appear. The music first becomes so familiar that it seems extremely offensive and objectionable. But after that the mind slowly becomes incapable of taking further offence, and a very strange, euphoric acceptance and enjoyment begins
to set in.
He goes on to say that, if it can be said that Satie’s interest in boredom originated as a kind of gesture – there is a certain bravura about asking a pianist to play the same eight beats 380 times – and developed it into a fascinating aesthetic statement ‘then it can be said with equal fairness that Cage was the first to try to emphasize in his work and his teaching a dialectic between boredom and intensity’.
Cage has never interested himself in such naked repetition, being ‘averse to all these actions that lead toward placing emphasis on the things that happen in the course of a process’; yet the ethical seriousness of performing Vexations is fully in tune with the devotion that his own music demands.
Cage set an invariable, ritualistic ‘rhythmic structure’ for the Davis performance, which began at 5.40 one morning and was to go on till 12.40 the next morning. Each player had to play for 20 minutes, and prepare himself for his stint by a 20-minute period of silent contemplation sitting to the left of the currently-playing pianist. To fill the allotted 18 hours 40 minutes, performers had to play 15 repetitions over 20 minutes, each repetition being timed to last exactly 1’20’’.
Although the processes involved in making a version of any of Cage’s indeterminate pieces enable the performer to
choose any duration, whether two seconds or two days (the performance has to fill the time available, as in the 1969 Vexations), it may have been the extremely liberated attitude towards time expressed by Vexations that led Cage to have faith in longer durations over the years.
Although he maintains a lofty impartiality, he did admit in 1966 that ‘I very much enjoy our current ability to listen to things for a long time, and I notice this becoming a general practice in society’.
Today Cage is concerned with society on a rather more fundamental level, as it is mirrored in microcosm in the symphony orchestra. For in Cheap Imitation nothing is left to chance (in performance, that is). A strict rehearsal schedule is prescribed (for the first time in Cage’s music): for the first week all players must familiarize themselves with the whole 30-minute melody, while during the second week each player plays his part as specified.
A special way of listening is required; if any player is not up to scratch he is asked to leave, and if the quorum of 24
cannot be made up, then the performance has to be cancelled (as was the first performance in Amsterdam). But just as Cage claims he wants to improve the world but is convinced that things will only be made worse, so he seems to be aware of the unrealizability of his proposals.
Satie would have been flattered to know that through his music, the most radical, ‘anarchistic’ composer of the century should be exercising his mind with such problems. A wry smile spreads over his face …
John Cage: Piano Works (Full Album)
John Cage (1912–92) is regarded as one of the most influential and controversial composers of the 20th century. It is not only his music that this reputation is based on – his ideas were revolutionary, and he cast doubt on the supremacy of European art, and music when it was unchallenged and such views were considered heretic.
Cage rejected the status held by harmony, instrumentation, and even the development of music from one point to another. He disconnected harmony from rhythm to liberate western music from its hitherto privileged hierarchies – iconoclastic stuff for 1940s America!
Cage studied with Schoenberg in Los Angeles, and although he adopted the 12-tone technique, he abandoned Schoenberg’s expressionist style. Cage was also influenced the maverick composer – Erik Satie. Satie had also ridiculed the musical establishment, and Cage arranged Satie’s longest work, Socrates (a monodrama for piano and voice) for two pianos. It is worth mentioning that Cage’s favourite Satie composition was Vexations, a short work for piano, with instructions that it may be performed 840 times without pause or change.
00:00:00 Three Easy Pieces (1933): Round 00:01:54 Three Easy Pieces (1933): Duo 00:02:36 Three Easy Pieces (1933): infinite CaNon 00:03:11 Three Easy Pieces (1933): Quest 00:04:01 Metamorphosis (1938): Metamorphosis I 00:06:17 Metamorphosis (1938): Metamorphosis II 00:08:54 Metamorphosis (1938): Metamorphosis III 00:13:59 Metamorphosis (1938): Metamorphosis IV 00:15:13 Metamorphosis (1938): Metamorphosis V
00:17:43 Jazz study (1942) 00:20:20 Tripled paced (first version, 1943): Tripled paced – 1a versione I 00:21:16 Tripled paced (first version, 1943): Tripled paced – 1a versione II 00:22:07 Tripled paced (first version, 1943): Tripled paced – 1a versione III 00:22:43 Ad lib 00:25:46 Soliloquy 00:28:21 Ophelia 00:34:45 Two pieces (1946): Two pieces I 00:38:22 Two pieces (1946): Two pieces II 00:42:07 in A landscape 00:50:08 Dream
00:56:24 Suite for toy Piano – versione per Pianoforte – I 00:57:42 Suite for toy Piano – versione per Pianoforte – II 00:59:09 Suite for toy Piano – versione per Pianoforte – III 01:00:20 Suite for toy Piano – versione per Pianoforte – IV 01:01:52 Suite for toy Piano – versione per Pianoforte – V 01:02:47 Seven Haiku I 01:03:00 Seven Haiku II 01:03:11 Seven Haiku III 01:03:34 Seven Haiku IV 01:03:50 Seven Haiku V 01:04:14 Seven Haiku vi 01:04:32 Seven Haiku viI 01:04:52 For M.C. and D.T.
01:05:40 Waiting 01:09:21 Socrate (1918) Drame symphonique en trois parties Transcription for two pianos by Cage (1944–1968): I Portrait de Socrate (Le Banquet) 01:15:47 Socrate (1918) Drame symphonique en trois parties Transcription for two pianos by Cage (1944–1968): II Bords de l’Iliussus (Phèdre) 01:22:39 Socrate (1918) Drame symphonique en trois parties Transcription for two pianos by Cage (1944–1968): III Morte de Socrate (Phédon)
01:38:23 Cheap imitation (1969) I 01:44:26 Cheap imitation (1969) II 01:53:28 Cheap imitation (1969) III 02:09:39 Etudes Boreales I (Piano) 02:15:13 Etudes Boreales II (Piano) 02:20:44 Etudes Boreales III (Piano) 02:26:22 Etudes Boreales IV (Piano) 02:32:04 Etudes Boreales I (cello) 02:37:32 Etudes Boreales II (cello)
02:43:12 Etudes Boreales III (cello) 02:48:41 Etudes Boreales IV (cello) 02:54:22 Etudes Boreales I (cello & Piano) 03:00:07 Etudes Boreales II (cello & Piano) 03:05:51 Etudes Boreales III (cello & Piano) 03:11:30 Etudes Boreales IV (cello & Piano)