John Cage;
44 Harmonies / Cheap Imitation

John Cage44 Harmonies from Apartment House 1776
Cheap Imitation
(The Works for Violin 6; The String Quartets 4)
The Arditti String Quartet Irvine Arditti [violin]

Mode Records 144/45
Duration CD 1: 70:28, CD 2: 64:38

Now, had anyone told me, after a blind-test, that this was music by John Cage, I’d certainly believed they ‘d put me on seriously. He would be one of the last persons I’d connect with this – which, of course, makes this listening all the more interesting, and for sure, I love being had in this surprising way!

First of all, I wouldn’t – at first glance – think of this as modern music. That, however, probably would change after a few minutes, because there are traits and characteristics in here that could not have come directly from the turn of the century 1500 – 1600, which is where I’d put the music at first, harmony-wise, timbre-wise – and atmosphere-wise; in an Anthony Holborne pavane kind of setting! No, after a while I’d think of a contemporary Swede called Lars Hallnäs, and some of his austere, turned-away pieces of Swedish early spring low light over old snow by the frozen lake, brought about through Anna Lindal’s violin – the transparent musical equivalent of Vilhelm Ekelund’s late 1940s’ aphorisms from Saltsjobaden archipelago.

But I’d never guess Cage! Happy I am – it is Cage!

Photo: Zoë Smith 2005

I’m talking about 44 Harmonies from Apartment House 1776, stretching across one and a half CD from Mode; a record company that I hold almost in affection for what they do for contemporary music, in these high-end releases of unusual clarity and artistic refinement.

There are endless associations possible here. One leads to Beethoven’s
late string quartets, in the way they too seem to rise out of someone’s inward thoughts and meditation; an elderly gentleman on a porch facing an aged, forlorn apple orchard in the sweet afternoon light of September; reminiscences of different walks of life dissipating into a great, unfathomable Here and Now… bringing the essence of a lifetime forth like an offering to the light…

The vision of a Japanese rock garden in mist isn’t far off either, in
44 Harmonies. It’s calligraphy as well as aphoristic poetry; the light touch of a forefinger writing profound messages in the sand, slowly erased by the salty wind from the sea, shifting the sand, grain by grain… or the undecipherable hieroglyphics left behind on the shore by strutting ringed plovers… for the glittering stars to interpret from their deep space habitats – and it all connects, as these associations connect in flashing low-level electric discharges in my cerebral cortex, flowing out of my fingers onto the computer keyboard in an orderly distribution of metaphors originating in my defenseless exposure to Cage’s 44 Harmonies from Apartment House 1776

We are here, and it’s now; what a magnificent opportunity!

Photo: Zoë Smith 2005

The work 44 Harmonies from Apartment House 1776 is twice derived from other works. The first derivation took place from the original works, and then another transformation, from the original instrumentation to another instrumentation. The first transformation – from other works – was called imitation by Cage, even though that doesn’t really clearly define what took place.
The first instance of working like this had to do with the solution to a problem, which lead to the work
Cheap Imitation; the second work here. I will return to that later.

44 Harmonies from Apartment House 1776 was originally conceived as a fulfillment of a big commission by a number of American orchestras for the bicentennial celebrations in the USA in 1976. Cage was looking for a “musicircus” of 18th century American tunes. He wanted these pieces to be performed simultaneously, in a “rich confusion”!
44 Harmonies were constructed from, “for the most part both quartets and solos, subtractions of different sorts from anthems and congregational music written by composers who were at least twenty years old at the time of the American Revolution” – and the booklet drops names: Supply Belcher, William Billings, Jacob French, Andrew Law, James Lyon.
In the booklet, each of the
44 Harmonies are equipped with the composer concerned, and the title of the original composition.

A peculiar circumstance is that Cage hardly had any sympathy for this kind of music… but instead somewhat of an aversion… He said that he found an acceptable solution “that would let it [the music] keep its flavor at the same time that it would lose what was so obnoxious to me: its harmonic tonality.”

Photo: Zoë Smith 2005

Cage came up with a systematic scheme that involved the extension and silencing of individual tones within each voice, and he marveled at the result:

The cadences and everything disappeared; but the flavor remained. You can recognize it as eighteenth century music; but it’s suddenly brilliant in a new way. It is because each sound vibrates from itself, not from theory…
The cadences which were the function of the theory, to make syntax and all, all of that is gone, so that you get the most marvelous overlappings.

This 44 Harmonies method was then applied by Cage to consecutive works of his in the following years. It was an opener, enabling him to transform contempt to appreciation, you could say.

44 Harmonies is delivered here in a string quartet apparition. The arrangement for string quartet was achieved by Irvine Arditti, and, naturally, it is the Arditti Quartet that performs it on the CD. Arditti made the resolution to work out this arrangement in 1999. When studying the Harmonies score, Arditti detected its medieval qualities, and saw that the open harmonies were perfectly suited for a string quartet; especially for the non-vibrato playing of the Arditti Quartet.

What remains is the listening, which in this situation is a very pure act of relaxed concentration, as the music unfolds in what seems to be an involuntary and effortless letting-go of aims and considerations, of nervous side-glances – yes, a fully fledged moment of focused absentmindedness at age three with a bucket of sand, while the wind blows through the leaves above and the city soars its effervescence backdrop…

The second piece on the CD –
Cheap Imitation – is a much better known work by John Cage. It has been repeatedly recorded, and one of the first recordings I heard was the famous one made at Mills College in 1976, with John Cage himself at the piano (released on Cramps Records).

Cheap Imitation is the first Cage work that utilized transformations of other compositions. There is a special story behind this piece, starting all the way back in 1944. Merce Cunningham wished to use the first part of Erik Satie’s Socrate for a dance endeavor, but the scoring of Socrate – full orchestra and voices – surpassed Cunningham’s resources (even though, of course, a score for voice and piano is in existence). Cage found him a solution by transcribing Socrate for two pianos (without voice!); a transcription that consequently was used for Cunningham’s dance piece Idyllic Song.

There were no copyright or related problems back in those days, when neither Cage nor Cunningham were very well known – and I suppose no one bothered even to ask permission from the publishers anyhow. It was a different story in 1968, when Cage went about transcribing the remaining two parts of
Socrate – with Arthur Maddox - for two pianos.

When Cage and Cunningham prepared to use the new transcription for a new dance performance, the both now famous as well as infamous artists were denied permission by the French publishers. The premier was scheduled, so it was a dire situation. Cage wasn’t put of, though. He immediately – in a spur of his well-known ingenuity – set out to compose a new piece, starting from
Socrate. The new work exactly matched the phrase structure of Socrate, which also made it suitable for the dance score that Merce Cunningham had already completed, with Socrate in mind. Cage isolated the vocal part of Socrate – and sometimes the main orchestral melodic line – and transposed it up or down and into varying modes. In part 1 every pitch is handled separately, while in the two remaining parts, transposing is done every half-bar. The result is a ghostly, winded mirror image of Socrate. The pitches and their octave registers were severely altered, but the atmosphere and language of Socrate can be sensed, though, for all practical and judicial reasons, it is a new piece, completely apart from the original Satie Socrate. Cage used the I Ching chance operations to decide how to make his transpositions, and in line with Cage’s title for the new work – Cheap ImitationCunningham entitled his dance work Second Hand!

As the work turned out as almost entirely a one-voice composition, it comes across in clarity and transparency; characteristics that had been sought by Erik Satie himself. The dynamics are reduced too, staying in the soft range. This makes for something very humble, withdrawn, inward – almost turned-away in a sense that you feel like your eavesdropping when listening.

Cage prepared a second
Cheap Imitation on Socrate in 1971 – 72, for 24 – 95 players, and a third one in 1977 for solo violin; the version played here by Irvine Arditti.

Photo: Zoë Smith 2005

Satie’s Socrate was finished in 1918. It was a commission from Princess Edmond de Polignac (1875 – 1943), a benefactor of many French or immigrated composers, like Gabriel Fauré, Maurice Ravel, Igor Stravinsky, Darius Milhaud, Françis Poulenc etcetera. Socrate is dedicated to her and her husband.

Satie said about his composition

The aesthetic of this work is dedicated to clarity; simplicity accompanies, directs it. That is all. I wanted nothing more.

He also said:

In writing this work I never wished to add anything to the beauty of the Platonic dialogues: this is only an act of admiration, only about the fantasy of the artist, only a modest homage.

It occurs to me that this could also be said about Cage’s relation to Satie, whom he admired so much.

The text that Satie used for
Socrate was brought in from three dialogues by Plato: Symposium, Phaedrus and Phaedo, in French translation by Victor Cousin. Satie deliberately omitted any philosophical content, choosing only parts that related events, and which somehow reflected Socrates’ personality.

On a CD from
Wergo Schallplatten you can study the piano-and-voice version of Socrate as well as Cage’s Cheap Imitation, performed by Hilke Helling [alto] and Deborah Richards [piano] (Socrate) and Herbert Henck [piano] (Cheap Imitation).

A masterly piano performance of
Cheap Imitation has also been recorded by Steffen Schleiermacher on Dabringhaus & Grimm.

The only other violin version I’ve come across of
Cheap Imitation is one by Paul Zukofsky on Musical Observations. I find it attractive because of its close miking and extreme dryness; qualities which might deter others. I’m one for the dusty close-ups, though.

However, after Irvine Arditti’s recording of John Cage’s
Freeman Etudes on Mode, I am biased for him; I can’t deny that – because you won’t find a sharper definition, a more diligent approach and fearless, withheld execution of impossible structures than there, in Arditti’s Freemans!

As for the Arditti violin recording at hand, Cage’s
Cheap Imitation - released early 2005 - it also is one that will bring you into the Arditti realm, if you’re not already there. The non-vibrato playing and the sawdust feel is one that cannot be mistaken. It has a bleak transparency that comes as close to a contour of silence as one gets; lines scribbled in mist by spiders; traces of minerals in rocks, satellite photos of Mongolian deserts…

Yes, it’s hard to get deeper into Nothing through Something – and enjoy it immensely, emotionally and intellectually – than here, inside the vehicle of
Cheap Imitation, Ardittiwise!