Collaborating with Silence
One has to acquire a certain mindset and mood when listening to John Cage. If you are doing something that could veer into tedium, John Cage will guide you through. Not boring, but not distracting.
In his work, Cage plays with silence with his sparse piano compositions. In fact, he has always toyed with the concept of silence. His famous 4″33″ should crystallize Cage’s style. Furthermore, in Piano Music by John Cage, five songs (a more accurate label would be sections) do not have any sound at all, just silence.
ETA: As I go into the world of Avant Garde music, I notice that using silence to punctuate created music happens often.
For this review, I am reviewing Piano Music by John Cage (performed by Louis Goldstein), One5, and Triadic Memories(with Martin Feldman). On One5 and Triadic Memories,every time a finger strikes a piano key, it pierces the silence. As if it belonged to belonged a soundtrack to a horror film during a particularly tense just before the horror makes it presence known. The low notes evoke menace and the high notes evoke a sense of the unnatural. In another approach, high notes could represent a playful atmosphere, here it represents something that mocks you, the listener. Or even short shrieks. In fact…
The reference happens at the beginning.
One could not describe Cage’s work as pretty or beautiful, but it does have an absorbing quality that can leave you unsettled. Modern music that does not use traditional song executions such as codas or crescendos can leave one disturbed. The horror of the modern and its unpredictability does have a nerve-wracking quality. Visually, the piano plunking makes me think of footsteps and other forms of movement.
Piano Music by John Cage uses some conventions with each song with titles such as “Sonata”. At the beginning, the first song Dream has this relaxing quality, perfect to listen to on a lazy afternoon. However, this song lures you into this false comfort. Sonata I returns to Cage’s piano hitting style, with the song sounding like something out of a movie involving a sleazy carnival with its playful, yet mean atmosphere. Sonata II sounds like music from a demon possessed Jack in the Box. The whole album sounds evil. Some of the sounds do not resemble piano keys I recognize. In fact, it feels as if Goldstein went inside the piano and plucked the wires. Nearly each song ends with this silent pause. As if to take a breather. It rarely lets up the disturbing atmosphere, but songs such as Sonata VI maintains a place as one of few songs on the album that does not evoke an unsettling feeling. Near the end, the songs go to a much quieter volume, as if letting you know the album will end soon.
Overall, Cage brings a sense of planning to what people could describe as ‘noodling’. However, if you do not have something else to focus on, the music can verge on meandering and tedious. The songs have a slow quality that does not build up to anything. Some songs would have these erratic bursts of quick-moving up and down the scales, but then it would go back to slow hitting of keys.
Now with all my rambling, you (if anyone reads this) wonders, “Yeah, but do you like it?”
I do. I respect Cage’s experimentation and ambition to go beyond what the norm. I’m glad I own these albums.