Three Dances by John Cage

Item Type: Sound Recording Duration: 18 min
Event Type: Music Program Origin: KPFA

John Cage, as Virgil Thomson has pointed out, is the master of a school of music unique in the western world. His explorations into the realm of percussion sounds, both those produced in the usual manner by the direct use of percussion instruments and those produced in his own special way, by mutations of the modern piano sounds, have been a stimulus in our musical life, as much for their freshness and beauty as for the remarkable way in which they induce one to listen. For it is difficult to sit back in the old way, as though one were in a bathtub of warm water, and allow this music to saturate the ear, or in any way take its content or procedure for granted. It asks cooperation in order that full pleasure may be had from it. And it must be said that it is not too hard to do this...for the sensuous attraction is high and the intellectual rewards are rich.

Mr. Cage has devoted himself to the problem of formal organization in a medium which has neither tonality in the old sense nor classic thematic mannerism to support its progress. He has developed over a number of years a usable formal procedure, applicable in a number of different ways. By looking sharply at the problem of temporal form he has succeeded in divorcing the concepts of musical anatomy from their psychological union with expressive content in such a way as to free himself from ready-to-hand formations, and at the same time allow the fullest flowing of his own fancy. Looked at lightly, his procedure suggests somewhat Medieval number mysticism. But there is a a clarity of purpose and cleanliness of execution in his works that is quite beyond anything found in the pieces of the 14th century. Indeed, Mr. Cage is thoroughly 20th century, and has had the brilliant idea that just as we live nowadays, getting places on time, checking radio and entertainment time by the second, and depending for communication on various time concepts, so must his musical subjects live. They arrive at timed cadences, really timed to the clock, they exchange greetings at temporal intersections; and meet cheerfully at appointed places. And too, like most modern persons, his subjects enjoy the stranger arriving late of the scene, for in almost all his major productions one or two sounds are reserved for a dramatic entry just before all the rest have become too familiar.

Basically his formal idea is simple, so simple it is hard to grasp. It involves only the prismatic use of temporal shaped. As an example, let us imagine a composer starting with a spontaneous idea that he finds is ten measures long. Now in ten measures it is hard not to find smaller subdivisions. Let us suppose that the material suggests a division into four, three, and three measures. Now we take the square of the idea, ten times ten, which then will be the full length of the piece. Every phrase will now bear the little divisions of four-three-three and so too will the whole work, for the first section will be four times ten, the second will be three time ten and the last three times ten. IN this way every phrase and all the sections bear a basic design that is heard both in the large and in the small. As an organizing device of music of a non-tonal nature, the method is superb. It makes possible a delicacy of structural balance and freedom of poetic thought quite impossible if one tries to employ older structural ideas in the use of new, especially percussive material.

The present pieces, designed to represent a unit, are based on a slightly more complex version of this basic concept.

Those listening carefully to the sounds presented by the mutations of the piano tone will find that the two instruments interlock with different sounds in the first movement, intermesh by about half in the second, and are totally intermeshed with similar sounds in the final movement.

Mr. Cage has indicated by the title that his expressive concern in this work is with the dance. For many years the composer applied himself to writing music for stage production with modern dancers. Something of the feeling of motion he acquired this way he conveys in the piece. The first section presents the dancer on stage, so to speak. His muscular manners are mad evident and his dance is presented as reportage. In the second section Mr. Cage explores the invisible and unreportable event of the dance. The frenzied ecstasy of the last movement is a fusion of the outer and inner events. To this listener there are a few dancelike finales of such tremendous and frightening force in modern music.

The “Three Dances” were first presented complete by Maro Ajemian and William Masselos at the Carnegie Chamber Music Hall in New York during 1946. The first of the dances had been presented previously by Arthur Gold and Robert Fitzdale in Town Hall the previous year. Between the first performance by these same artists at the New School for Social Research, and the two later performances, Mr. Cage revised the two last movements. The work has seen an unusual amount of revision and caretaking work. In its present final version it stands out among its author’s production for two pianos by reason of its brilliance of sound, vigor of design, and its special concern with muscular urgency.

(-from the jacket notes of the original 78rpm records.)

Musical Selections:  Three Dances, for two prepared pianos (1945) (17:27) / John Cage
Performers:  Maro Ajemian, piano
William Masselos, piano
Genre:  New Music
Subject:  New music; Piano music (Pianos (2)); Prepared piano music
People:  Cage, John; Ajemian, Maro; Masselos, William


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