Thursday, October 31, 2013

Suite Sounds: I Hear What the Caged Bird Doesn't Sing

The Harrisburg Symphony's next concert is called "Suite Sounds" and Stuart Malina will conduct two Suites - one, Richard Strauss' throw-back tribute to the 18th Century with music for Moliere's play, Le bourgeois gentilhomme (The Would-Be Gentleman) completed in 1917;the other, Ottorino Respighi's "Ancient Airs and Dances" (Suite No. 1) - in addition to the 5th of Johann Sebastian Bach's Brandenburg Concertos. But I'll be posting more about these works in the near future.

The concert is Saturday, November 9th at 8pm and Sunday, November 10th at 3pm at the Forum in downtown Harrisburg. There's a pre-concert talk with Dr. Timothy Dixon of Messiah College an hour before each performance.

The program opens with a short work by American composer John Cage that is all about sounds. It's one of his most important works - 4'33'' (which is pronounced "Four Minutes, Thirty-three Seconds").

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John Cage at the Piano
Years ago, when I was a crass graduate student, I was having dinner with a guest composer at a fancy restaurant where they had on display one of those odd musicians who made something of a living by playing the piano and singing requests.

It was not that I didn't like her selections even if I didn't particularly care for the way she was performing them, but the volume was too loud and so I decided to make a request, since the waiter ignored me when I asked if they could turn the sound system down.

“Would you sing John Cage's 4'33'', please?”

Other musicians who were there that evening got the joke and laughed. Our songstress was somewhat confused and chose to ignore me as well.

The piece by John Cage, however, is not a joke.

Because it seems simplistic in its premise – a musician (or several musicians) sit there, playing nothing for four minutes and thirty-three seconds – most people describe it as four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence.

But they're missing the point: what the musicians reveal by not playing is what other sounds might be going on around us (or inside us) that we would otherwise miss.

Silence, philosophically, does not exist in our concert halls (or in our daily lives). I am sitting at my desk thinking about what to write next and I hear the faint hum of my computer, the distant (but not distant enough) dull (but not dull enough) white-noise of passing cars and trucks on the highway a ¼ mile away, the mail truck which has just driven past my house (again? that's the second time in a half-hour) and, oddly enough, one of my cats sleeping on the chair beside me who is snoring. And just as I type that, a neighbor across the street has started using a leaf-blower on her front yard. My stomach just growled (time for lunch).

But is that music?

"This is not a pipe"
This illustration of a famous (or infamous) painting from 1929 by the Belgian painter RenĂ© Magritte, La trahison des images (Ceci n'est pas une pipe) or “The Treachery of Images (This is Not a Pipe)” is a visual approach to the challenges behind Cage's idea.

Of course, the average person is going to look at it and say “but it is a pipe.”

No, technically, it is a representation of a pipe, not a pipe itself.

Well, that's treading it pretty fine, isn't it?

But that's the idea behind the “treachery” of the image Magritte is warning us about: knowing the difference between a pipe and an image of a pipe.

“Just try filling it with tobacco” was Magritte's response to the inevitable argument, the artistic equivalent of “put that in your pipe and smoke it.”

Which brings us back to Cage who, in the 1940s, after having studied with Arnold Schoenberg in Los Angeles (I know, doesn't that just blow your mind?), was stretching definitions much the way the surrealists of Europe had been doing already for decades, stretching the definition of what could be considered art.

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What is music?

Normally, a definition of music would include statements like these:

(1) – sounds that are sung by voices or played on musical instruments
(2) – the art or skill of organizing sounds into something that contains melody, harmony and rhythm
(3) – an agreeable sound

Most music that we think of will naturally fall into one of these definitions. But, like Magritte's pipe, adhering to these definitions limits us to the possibilities of other... well, possibilities.

It also leads us into the temptation of viewing anything we don't like as “not music.” And yet what was music to one generation might not have been music (by this argument) to a previous generation. We forget that a lot of people thought Bach's music terrible in his day and that Beethoven, in his 7th Symphony, was considered “ripe for the madhouse.”

Times change, tastes change: all you have to do is look in your parents' yearbooks. Or if you're old enough, your own...

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John Cage and Cat
As for John Cage's still controversial work, what brought this about? What made him think of it?

There had been other pieces in which “silence” had a rather significant role long before Cage wrote his 4'33'' in 1951.

One of Erwin Schulhoff's “Five Picturesques” for piano, the one called In futurum, was notated entirely in rests – while the pianist sat there and played nothing, the pianist also has to count like crazy. That was in 1919.

In 1897, Alphonse Allais, a friend of Erik Satie, himself known for his culture-tweaking sense of humor, composed a funeral march for a deaf man that consisted of 23 blank measures. (Cage admitted at the time he was not aware of this piece, despite his great fondness for Satie.)

Perhaps Cage's first ideas were more humorous: in two of his songs, he directs the pianist to play the instrument with the keyboard cover closed. He told an audience in the late-40s he wanted to compose a piece that would be 3½ to 4½ minutes long (the standard length for a piece of “canned” music) and then he'd sell it to Muzak, the purveyors of elevator music. He'd call it something like “Silent Prayer.”

But then, in 1951, Cage entered an anechoic chamber at Harvard University. Have you ever been in one of these? Technically, they are more than sound-proofed which merely keeps (or at least is supposed to keep) outside sounds outside. But this room is constructed so the floor, walls and ceiling absorb any sound that could echo around inside it, sounds you might create while sitting there.

Presumably, there are no sounds to be heard in such a room.

But Cage heard two distinct sounds, one high and one low.

The engineer explained to him that the high sound was his nervous system in operation and the low sound was his blood circulating through his body. He could hear them internally and because all other sounds externally were masked, it increased his awareness of sounds that would otherwise go unnoticed.

Even in a place where there should be no sound, Cage heard sounds.

In his 1961 book, “Silence,” Cage writes, "Until I die there will be sounds. And they will continue following my death. One need not fear about the future of music."

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What will you hear when you listen to the entire Harrisburg Symphony play John Cage's 4'33'' in the fine acoustics of the Forum?

Oh, that's right: because it was premiered by pianist David Tudor in 1952, it's usually considered a piano piece, but Cage said it was for “any instrument or combination of instruments.” That way, it doesn't need to have credit given to an orchestrator.

It's also in three movements of different lengths, if it's going to be done correctly.

The question still remains, “is it music?” Or is it a philosophical work that challenges us to reconsider what is the nature of music?

I think I'll leave that as a rhetorical question.

Dick Strawser

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