Monday, September 04, 2006

Landmarks (16)

John Cage: Cheap Imitation (1969) Through a set of capricious circumstances, Cage found a way of making new music from old, in this case, from Satie's Socrate. Denied the rights to perform his two-piano, four-hands, arrangement of Socrate as accompaniment to a dance by Merce Cunningham, Cage devised a new piece that retained the rhythms and tempi of the Satie, but systematically substituted a new melody (and a few portions of the accompaniment) for the old. Cage's technique was based upon a non-trivial analysis of Satie's tonal practice, as a marriage or matrix of diatonic modes and chromatic tonalities, and performed a transformation (in contrasting rates of transformation, "harmonic rhythms" if you will, in each of the three movements) that was a consequent projection of that analysis. Through Cage's replication of the temporal structure of Socrate, Cunningham was able to retain the choreography he had already devised for the Satie; the dance was subsequently renamed Second Hand, but traces of the original dance remained clear, in particular, an emotional solo moment by Cunningham, corresponding to the death of Socrates in Satie's score.

The melodic character of Socrate is, at times, white to the point of anonymity, and the sectional changes of tonality and texture are often, if deliberately and charmingly, awkward. Cage's imitation of Satie breaks through both the anonymity and awkwardness, managing to hold restless and unpredictable chromatic modulations and local modal fragments in a surprisingly lucid balance. A friend once played Cheap Imitation in a late night concert and reports that although the tonal moves of the score are practically unpredictable, he had the unique sensation that he no longer was reading the score, but the piece played by itself, his hands guided by something independent of his usual score reading routines. Although, by temperament, deeply skeptical of such claims, I have played the score for myself or friends many times, and can independently verify the experience.

Cage's score was initially for solo piano, he subsequently authorized solo versions for violin and guitar (for Paul Zukofsky and Ned Sublette, respectively) and later (1972), made his own arrangements for orchestra of 24-95 players, without conductor. The failure of orchestras to successfully realize the piece without a conductor was a matter of great musical and social disappointment to Cage. Fortunately, I believe, Cage was able to channel that disappointment into the development of the variety of alternative techniques for coordinating conductorless ensembles that feature in many of his late pieces.

It's probably unneccesary to note that I find Cheap Imitation to be a particularly beautiful example of musical renewal. It is understated and lyrical but relentless and systematic, old but new, locally modal but globally chromatic, all of a piece but unpredictable, and posed, uniquely in my experience, between a meditative stasis and tonal turbulence.

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