text 20 Sep why yes, yes there is

"Is there a YouTube clip of you playing Copland’s Piano Variations in a tank top?"

text 18 Sep 6 notes How (?)— a reflection two days before a John Cage performance

It happens a lot. I take a trip with a piece of music from “how?” to “how.” The first “how” is actually more like How?! And the latter “how”—as in, here’s how—if less pained, still rarely feels authoritative, rather more practical. I’ve figured out a way—and probably one way out of many—to make it work.  

Often the music of John Cage puts its interpreters in an especially significant “how?” state of mind. Between deciphering the instructions, unraveling the notations, creating a personal performance score (often a necessity), and then of course, practicing the actual music, one has to routinely burrow into a Cage work in a way that one might only wish to luxuriously (or academically or religiously) burrow into, say, a Beethoven sonata. Rarely in classical music do we have to do such delving. With Cage, we do.  

When the John Cage Trust invited me to participate in their performance of The Ten-Thousand Things, they scarcely needed to finish their sentence before I said yes. Anything for them. They asked me to learn 31’57.9864” for a pianist (1954), one of Cage’s last works for prepared piano, and a piece he composed for himself to play, described by the composer as “relatively easy to play.” When it arrived in the spring, I could understand in a glance why the Trust sent it to me so early, considering the performance is in two days, September 20th.

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Relatively easy? Sure, it might have fewer demands than its outwardly virtuosic companion, 34’46.776” for a pianist, which Cage composed for his pianist/muse David Tudor—Cage intended both works to be played simultaneously, though they can stand as solo pieces—but I have to believe Cage meant “relatively easy” literally. As in, relative to its thornier companion, 31’57.9864” is easier.

But looking at it, my brain immediately screamed one thing: HOW?! 

It’s in many ways a conventional score with fixed pitches on a bass-treble staff. And while there are no measures or note values in the traditional sense, time is structured by a second-by-second timeline that runs above the music. At the same time it resembles a graphic score with beams connecting notes sometimes on different staves, systems, even pages. Here’s me studying the score on a plane.

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There are directions to move, subtract and add materials to the piano strings throughout the piece, materials suggested by Cage in the preparation table at the front of the score, though the pianist determines the specific materials to use and their specific placement.

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Also, above the staves are three bars spotted with little dots that directly correspond to the number of notes below them—it could be as little as one dot or, I don’t know, fifty—and each dot indicates, according to where it sits between those lines above the staff, how loud, fast, and how high the hand should be in its attack on a note. So every note on the staff theoretically corresponds to its own dot, with the pianist theoretically deciding which dot to connect to which note. 

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HOW?!

Beyond that, the piece also has its own rules of the road, extensive directions for how to navigate its symbols and notations, including Cage’s method of indicating when to play on the keys of the piano, the “harp” (strings), or on the inside and outside of the piano, as well as auxiliary sounds that can be made a number of other ways. So, see that blizzard of tiny notes above? And see those little “H”s with the arrows? That’s Cage saying to play those particular notes on the strings. Yep!

If this all seems a little, well… not “relatively easy,” Cage gives the performer something of an escape hatch, granting permission in the instructions to read and play the score “in any `focus’ (as many or as few of its aspects as desired being acted upon).” In other words: Do what you can

The irony, probably not lost on Cage, is that for a chance piece, the music couldn’t be more controlled. It’s almost hyper-controlled, from every single solitary note (all notated), to each sound event that should happen in each single solitary millisecond. Durations aren’t free, as they would be in many of his later works. Cage derived the music from chance operations, sure, and leaves some choices up to the performer to insure that no performance will sound alike, but the music itself is tightly, tightly controlled, to the point of virtual impossibility. In other words, he created a fixed score out of chance operations, then decorated that fixed score with chance elements.

(To really geek out on this piece and “The Ten Thousand Things,” check out James Pritchett’s brilliant analysis here.)

Anyway, even though my jaw dropped when I first opened the score, I still couldn’t wait to dive in. I took it with me everywhere, making notes in the music from when to move the preparation materials, to how much time I had to play each phrase or in-between each phrase, to writing in the notes for all those vertigo-inducing ledger lines.

I thought I’d really laid the groundwork for some solid at-the-piano practice.

So on an afternoon in late July I placed the score on the piano desk and tried to practice the first 17 seconds of the piece.

I couldn’t.

Like, seriously I couldn’t.

I had to be in and outside of the piano to complete even a single phrase, and could barely reach (or see) the strings when sitting down. I had no idea where most of the notes were, despite my writing so many of them in. I didn’t even know where to put my score to keep it readable but out of my way. I was paralyzed.

HOW?!

At a crossroads (captured in my journal from the time), the big debate was whether or not to re-score the whole thing by hand so I could understand and perform it better. Could I do it? Should I do it? "Make it playable for you,” a friend of mine reported Cage once saying, and indeed Tudor almost always re-scored Cage’s compositions for performance. But really? 

Yes, really. Not willing to waste a millisecond more, I re-wrote the score, pencilling in every note, color-coding ranges (as few ledger lines as possible), occasionally entering time signatures, and creating a visual system that would separate the keyboard actions from string and auxiliary sounds. It took about a week. I took this picture around 1 a.m. the night I finished.

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Since then, I’ve chiseled away at my “how” every day, drilling passages, wrestling with the timer, practicing choreographies that will accommodate all the notes (I stand throughout the entire piece), testing and switching out preparations, shaping articulations and dynamics, asking friends and scholars for advice and anecdotes, reading about the score to understand its inner-workings. I even figured out where to put my music.

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The music is a mirror. If I feel stressed or distracted, this reflects in the piece, and not subtly so. It simply doesn’t work. And so, as always, Cage’s work comes to resemble a kind of meditation practice unto itself. At first the mind scurries, resists, panics, doubts, but over time and with practice, it relaxes and opens up to demanding tasks with ease. It enjoys and embraces stillness and chaos alike, finding beauty and life in both. 

For classical musicians, the journey from “how?” to how” happens often, and yet every time it happens for me I’m astonished, indeed mystified, uncertain of how it happened or if it could ever happen again. I’ve come to trust in this magical process, leaping with each piece into the void of faith and routine.

Two months ago, I wondered, truly wondered, if I’d ever actually play 31’57.9864”. Now I look forward to the performance in two days with excited curiosity, like it’s Christmas. In the meantime, there’s this Berio program I have to prepare for December. I’ve started practicing some of the music, but can’t wrap my head around it yet. I fear this will finally be the one—the program I can’t figure out. I look at the music and think to myself: “How?”

text 9 Sep fall

tonight, brushing my teeth, i laughed thinking about the time i spent an evening with a prominent new music ensemble after their concert, and how i’d wanted to look my best, and how, at the end of the night when i scurried out into the middle of 9th avenue to hail them a cab, i tripped, flew forward and landed flat on the pavement, scraping my hands and hearing them scream.

text 17 Aug brevard memory

I only remember one person from the two weeks I spent at Brevard Music Center before I packed my things and left without saying goodbye, not even to him. I don’t remember his name, but he was big with blonde hair and a southern accent—Arkansas, I now remember. A kind of trumpet jock, we would pal around every day, and I attached myself to him as I had many a trumpet jock before and after. Well, one night I remember practicing and he kind of wandered into my room and asked if I would show him how fast I could play. “Play the fastest thing you can,” he demanded. Of course I refused. “Please,” he continued. “Don’t be weird. I just want to see.” And on and on this went, with him pleading for me to play fast and me saying no. Now, if you know a trumpeter, try to imagine walking up to one of them and asking them to play their highest note for you. It would never happen. But anyway, finally I surrendered and played a chromatic scale up and down the span of an octave as fast as I could. “Come on, you can play faster than that,” he said. I tried again. “No really, go faster.” And it probably wasn’t long after that that I left. 

photo 11 Aug berio in bed (at Easky House, Easky, Ireland)

berio in bed (at Easky House, Easky, Ireland)

photo 24 Jul re-copied score. took five days. head is mush. that was step one. #johncage #whatididforlove

re-copied score. took five days. head is mush. that was step one. #johncage #whatididforlove

photo 21 Jul 2 notes today in censored phrase markings (robert palmer’s first piano sonata)

today in censored phrase markings (robert palmer’s first piano sonata)

text 18 Jul 2 notes Re-scoring Cage: a debate from my journal

Tried reading 31’[58.9864” for a pianist]…tonight/today @ Third Street. Oh no. Oh no Oh no. It’s impossible music. Am I in over my head? Do people really play this? Did Cage? I wondered if I should rewrite it, page by page, but that’s a tremendous amount of work, too… and will it help? Probably would. I’d write measures in either 2/4 or 3/4 etc. and put auxiliary matters above the staff—harp notes too. I could try for one page and see what difference it makes. But shit, I’m a little spooked. [David] Tudor re-wrote whole scores. Augustus [Arnone] does too. I suppose my time has come. I could color coat according to 8ve. RH regular [for] loco, yellow [for] 8ve [higher], pink [for] 15ve [higher]. LH regular [for] loco, orange [for] 8ve [lower], brown [for] 15ve [lower]. And still be spatial, but just replot it. Fuck, really?  Doesn’t have to be pretty. Maybe have it go by minute? One page per minute? No… because there are long breaks @ times. But I might owe this to the piece, and there IS still time. I’ve done good work, but if I really do want to do this piece live or solo as apiece, I need to approximate as little as possible, to not prepare it loosey-goosey with a “this is as good as it can get” attitude. Maybe it’ll be okay, and the more I dive in and separate the pieces, the better. Better than just running through it imperfectly and indefinitely and inconsistently till September. Also, will get me writing notes again, which is perhaps a good thing considering I want to write my [new work for piano]. Rehearsing with Lara went nicely—I’m glad I WENT, and now it’s just about preparing a good lineup of ideas for Saturday. Keyboard came today; I’m excited to try it. Will attach a contact mic tomorrow and see what results. Sheesh… write every note of the Cage again? Fuck. Like copying a Schubert symphony. With repeats. Well, painful or not[,] I can also write chords…patterns… Two pages a day? Three is maybe best. Three pages a day and I’d have it in a week. And I should do it at the piano. I mean, is it possible to make impossible music possible? Easy? Easier? Well, legible—let’s start with that. I need to just fucking SEE what’s going on in a way that I—not Cage—can understand. In Winter Music I could work with the score itself; it was messy and perhaps not, metrically at least, what Cage wanted (though I argue it could be/was) but this? It’s different. Durations aren’t free, and it’s not all on the fucking keys.

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photo 17 Jul 2 notes the good news: I finished my initial mark-through of Cage’s 31’57.9864”. the bad news: this is supposed to take me 4 seconds

the good news: I finished my initial mark-through of Cage’s 31’57.9864”. the bad news: this is supposed to take me 4 seconds

photo 15 Jul won’t stop can’t stop

won’t stop can’t stop


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