Robert Schumann, in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, hailed
Felix Mendelssohn as the Mozart of the nineteenth century, the
“brightest musician who sees through the contradictions of our
time most clearly and is the first to reconcile them, and he
will not be the last artist.” This is high praise and a bold
prediction coming from one of the foremost musicians of the
day. Such praise is borne out in these near perfect piano trios.
This is music that is replete with every emotion. Even as they
are set in minor keys with somewhat turbulent opening movements,
they sound sunny and hopeful, full of wit and charm and no small
amount of youthful joie de vivre.
Mendelssohn’s own piano playing must have been remarkable, given
the sheer virtuosity of the piano writing in these works. The
c minor trio opens with a rollicking theme and the piano never
quits. A beautifully lyrical Andante follows, and Mendelssohn
shows his ability to create a gorgeous melody that, while somewhat
sentimental, is never over the top or maudlin. A fleeting scherzo
is followed by a jaunty finale. The second trio is no less a
masterpiece, flashy without being gaudy, packed full of the
wonderful tunes that only a Schubert could match. It struck
me as amusing that the theme of the Scherzo is remarkably similar
to Legrenzi’s Che fiero costume, known the world over
to beginning students of singing.
The Schweizer Trio is nothing less than superb in these performances.
Particular kudos goes to Martin Lucas Staub, whose keyboard
skills are beyond reproach. It is fairly evident that Mendelssohn
was thinking beyond the salon when he composed these works.
They are so full in scope and rich in tone that he must have
had a concert hall in mind. Having said that, Mr. Staub never
lets the formidable piano parts overwhelm his string playing
colleagues, who by the way, play with spotless intonation, elegant
phrasing and youthful panache. I particularly admired the manner
in which this ensemble was able to take the fast movements at
an almost roller-coaster tempo, yet never leave the listener
feeling out of breath. The playing is of such high quality that
the music just flows out effortlessly. One is left believing
that there is no other way to play this music, and this is a
delightful quality. I was thrilled by repeated listening to
Over a period of three
years from December 2003, I have spent a lot of time in the
company of Harry Partch – not literally, of course, as he died
in 1974, but working my way though an article and some eight
reviews that can all be found on MusicWeb. Then, at the MusicWeb
annual lunch (January 2007), the name of John Cage caught my
ear. For reasons that my subconscious was not prepared to divulge,
my curiosity was tickled. Partch and Cage have on occasion been
paired off, as a sort of American "Debussy and Ravel"
– was there any real connection between them?
This may come as a bit
of an anticlimax but, other than them both being American originals
with "far-out" ideas, I can’t really think of one.
In fact, they are more on the lines of diametric opposites:
with my tongue ever-so-slightly in my cheek, I could say that
Partch was a seminal genius who got branded as a crackpot, and
Cage was a crackpot who got branded as a seminal genius.
John Cage (1912-92) was
nothing if not controversial. With his rise to prominence, an
obliging World split into two opposing camps. His supporters
saw him as a prime mover in the fields of experimental and electronic
music, with abiding interests in "chance music", new
ways of using traditional instruments, and practical application
of his Zen Buddhist beliefs.
His detractors, the more
radical of whom would have preferred the "nothing"
option, complained that he just made a lot of silly noise, did
unspeakable things to the private parts of otherwise perfectly
respectable musical instruments, and came up with a load of
airy-fairy claptrap to justify his bizarre buffoonery.
Partch, who was renowned
for his considered and candid conclusions, didn’t have too high
an opinion of Cage: "When he was younger, I found him rather
charming, albeit shallow. Then later, when he was famed for
the opening of doors to musical insight, I found myself obliged
to use the word ‘charlatan’ . . . Pretty sounds do not necessarily
make significant music, and serious words frequently cloak hokum
. . . I’m all for common sounds as valid materials [but] one
has to have control, so that his common sounds will mean
something. . . I feel that anyone who brackets me with Cage
is bracketing actual music with metaphysical theories, and what
I think is a serious effort with exhibitionism." [Letter
to Ben Johnston, 1952, reproduced in Innova Enclosure 3]
Who is right – the "pro"
camp or the "anti"? You tell me. The only opinions
I can voice with any certainty are that Cage was not really
a crackpot – even if he did give that impression to his detractors
– and in all probability he caused the expenditure of as much
hot air as all the other Twentieth Century composers put together.
For instance, during
the late 1960s, when I was a university student, Cage was a
hot topic for many an informal debate over a pint or six of
a Saturday night in the pub. It’s true, I swear! Granted,
we also debated rather coarser matters, interspersed with lots
of "rugby songs", but there was no two ways about
it – in those heady days, Cage was about as "right on"
and as "far out, man" as you could get.
It was even possible
– but only just – for intense arguments over Four Minutes
and Thirty-Three Seconds to distract our juvenile minds
from contemplating the aesthetics of passing bits of mini-skirt!
Yet, no matter how much the said work of art – if that’s how
you choose to define it – resonated with the mood of the Sixties,
it’s as well to remember that it was written quite a while earlier,
in 1952, while the hippy generation was just learning to manage
much as anything, fuelled the long-running furore over the definition
of "music", a lot of the argument being similar to
a much earlier debate amongst mathematicians, over whether "0",
being "nothing", could be counted as a number. For
those odd few who don’t already know, 4’33" is the
work where the pianist lifts the keyboard lid, sits perfectly
still for a while, then shuts the lid – the cue, I presume,
for a storm of applause.
Apparently, the idea
for the piece resulted from a visit to an anechoic chamber.
Cage, never particularly conventional in his approach to music,
explained that he wanted to hear what silence "sounded"
like. Really? And here am I, expecting that he was at the very
least hoping to establish conclusively, "What is the sound
of one hand clapping?" Mind you, that’s always struck me
a daft question – shouldn’t you first ask, "Is it possible
for one hand to clap?"
Anyway, Cage was surprised
to find that he didn’t hear "nothing". Instead he
heard the real sound of his blood pumping and the virtual sounds
generated by his own auditory system. Thus, having realised
the impossibility of complete silence, at least in the ears
of the perceiver, he fashioned 4’33" supposedly
to demonstrate that fact to the rest of us. Presumably, he wasn’t
aware that Smetana, to the ultimate cost of his sanity, had
already answered that one.
What surprises me is
that he found this surprising. What doesn’t surprise
me, not one bit, is that in 2002 Cage’s publishers sued composer
Mike Batt – he of "Wombles of Wimbledon Common" fame
– for plagiarism! Batt, you see, had included in his album Classical
Graffiti a silent track. It wasn’t, as you might expect,
Batt’s "One Minute Silence" that got their danders
up, but the fact that he’d credited the track to "Cage/Batt".
Unbelievable? Well, it was reported by the BBC, so it must be
true, mustn’t it?
Another surprise, to
me anyway, is that 4’33" exists in at least two
versions. The one most commonly played – and I use that term
reservedly – is the "Tacet" version. This had three
movements, which are usually played attacca, so as to
save time messing about with the keyboard lid, and each is marked
simply tacet but is of course otherwise blank.
However, Cage insisted
that he originally composed a much more complex piece in "small
units of silent rhythmic durations which, when summed, equal
the duration of the title". He also thought that he might
have made a mistake in the summation. I harbour doubts about
this, because originally the work had no specified duration
– the first performance happened to take 4’33", and that
stuck. I also doubt whether it matters – would all this "complexity"
have had any significant effect on the work as perceived by
There is also a somewhat
apocryphal theory that the title refers to the "absolute
zero" of temperature, -273° C, on the grounds that 4’33’’
= 273 seconds. This is, at best, a specious connection, particularly
as it conveniently sweeps under the carpet both the minus sign,
a small matter of 0.15 C°, and the fact that the duration
of 4’33" was completely accidental.
Nevertheless, it persists
in attracting certain people – presumably those who, for reasons
best known to themselves, not only insist on ignoring the fact
but also perceive a relationship between 1 second of time and
-1 degree of the Celsius temperature scale. I have a feeling
that these same folk would look at you daft – and completely
miss your point – if you asked them how many furlongs equal
one apple pi plus 3.1418 nutty fruitcakes.
Nonsensical as this "theory"
is, ironically it does suggest a connection between 4’33"
and another piano work of Cage’s, ASLSP (1985). The title
stands for "As SLow aS Possible" – I’ll leave you
to ponder on why ASLSP was preferred over the straightforward
acronym ASAP, and why it camouflages an otherwise obvious grammatical
error. I gather that a typical performance takes about 20 minutes
and, because it’s very slow, the piano notes have plenty
of time to die away completely.
If you stretch your fancy
a bit, you could imagine a decaying note being akin to the decline
of thermal activity as absolute zero is approached. So, when
the note reaches its "absolute zero", what do you
hear? Simple – an "excerpt" from 4’33"! Neat,
eh? Personally, I find myself torn between smug satisfaction
at the plausibility of what I’ve just said, and embarrassment
at how easy it was to pull philosophical wool over my own eyes,
never mind yours.
To get back to the tale:
in 1987, Cage adapted ASLSP for the organ, to bestow upon the
World his Organ²/ASLSP (As SLow aS Possible).
Whilst this improved the continuity of what must have seemed
a fairly disjointed piece, it substantially undermined the entire
"absolute zero" argument (boo!). Life is full of surprises,
for I have so far found no mention of any subsequent storms
in academic teacups over whether an indefinitely-sustained,
constant sound is really a sound at all, or merely a recalibration
As inevitably as day
follows night, these works – or rather their tempo marking –
provoked profound musicological cerebration. At rock bottom,
it boiled down to this: no matter how long the performer takes,
he cannot help but fail to observe the most important marking
in the entire score – that of the basic tempo. With time stretching
from Now to Plus Infinity, 20 minutes has got to be way too
fast. I wonder, why do people always have to rush everything
these days? Well, it turns out that they don’t, not always.
Unbelievably, five years
after Cage’s death, it got really "heavy, man". In
1997 a conference of musicologists and philosophers was convened,
almost exclusively to indulge in an orgy of in-depth discussion
of the implications of this tempo marking, particularly in view
of the fact that an organ theoretically imposes no time limits.
Broadly speaking, the
conference concluded that ASLSP could actually be quite a lot
slower than that 20 minutes. Having cracked this singularly
knotty philosophical nut, the wielders of the weighty sledgehammer
moved on – to address, with commensurate delicacy, a burden
of proof lying beaten and bruised amongst the shattered shards.
I’ll bet that Cage –
by all accounts a genial, charming and fun-loving chap who regarded
his life’s work as "purposeful play" – would have
been laughing his socks off in his grave when the conference
solemnly decided to establish a "practical" project.
To prove how much more slowly the piece could be played, they
planned a performance of Organ²/ASLSP that would last
for, not an hour, not a day, not even a week, but 639 years.
No, that is not a typographical error. Roll it around
your brain: six hundred and thirty-nine years. [Health and
Safety warning: if you feel your brain starting to melt, stop
thinking immediately, flush the inside of your head with plenty
of cold water, and seek immediate medical advice]
At this juncture, I start
to wish that Cage had scored the work for a phial containing
a radioactive isotope, which could then have been buried in
a time-capsule to mark the commencement of the performance.
This would have had the added advantage that nobody would have
had to listen to any of it. Sadly, he didn’t, because if he
had it would have saved an awful lot of bother.
The choice of playing
time is easily explained, as it is intended to reflect the age
of the instrument on which it is performed. Hence, subtract
the year in which the first church organ seems to have been
built, 1361, from the year that the "performance"
was scheduled to start, 2000. From this simple bit of arithmetic
the planners extrapolated a mystical arch, stretching from the
time that the organ was invented, and symmetrically straddling
what – you may recall – we used to call "the Millennium".
Obviously, planning a
performance of such gargantuan span required a fair bit of time
and effort. For starters, someone had to calculate a timetable,
detailing the dates on which the notes are started and stopped.
This isn’t as simple as it sounds because, for example, leap
years and double-leap years have to be taken into account. Then,
they needed somewhere to play it. The location chosen was St.
Burchardi’s Church in Halberstadt, Germany. This was a nice,
even sentimental touch, because St. Burchardi’s is where the
very first proper church organ was installed.
Here we get another connection,
albeit tenuous, to Harry Partch. One of the reasons that this
organ was "proper" was that its keyboard was the first
with twelve keys to the octave. Partch famously called the inauguration
of this organ "the fatal day of Halberstadt" because
– as far as he was concerned – it marked the start of
Man’s slide down the slippery slope into the Desolation of Twelve-tone
The sentimental touch
was also an expensive touch because, over the last 190 years,
the said church had been variously used as "a barn, a hovel,
a distillery and a sty". Disused and dilapidated, it first
needed extensive restoration – and a new organ! However, because
it would be fully booked for the first 639 years of its life,
this new organ was designed and built specifically for this
performance. Actually, that’s not quite correct: rather, it
is being built. Taking advantage of the very broad basic
tempo, the planners have gained a certain "efficiency"
by phasing the building work to proceed in parallel with the
The performance itself
is a bit of a cheat, because at any given time the notes currently
sounding are held down mechanically by the "autonomous"
organ. So, unless a key is scheduled for depression or release,
there’s nobody actually playing the music. Alright, maybe
I’m being a bit unrealistic but I’m no more picky here, about
the definition of "performance", than many members
of the Cage camp are about the definition of "music"
I’ll leave you to wonder
about "routine" matters such as arrangements for the
"heredity" of performing personnel, or securing the
"performance" against mechanical or electrical failures,
acts of God, war or insurrection, or any of the other myriad
contingencies under which your house insurer refuses to shell
out. Instead, let’s look briefly at the progress of the music.
Kick-off was on 5 September
2001, Cage’s 90th. birthday. This was a year late,
but in the long run I don’t suppose it’ll make much difference,
except to astrologers and sundry other mystics. In the 17 months
required to "play" the first bar’s opening rest, the
organ of course emitted no sound. In other words, we started
with 163,938 consecutive complete performances of 4’33",
give or take the odd one or two.
The first sound, which
emerged on 5 February 2003, continued unchanged – apart from
the addition of the octave doubling of one note on 5 July 2004
– for fully two years and five months. And so it dragged on.
Currently (April 2007), the chord A3-C4-F sharp4 is sounding,
and will continue so to do until it completes its six-and-a-half
year run on 5 July 2012. Thereafter, though, things start to
get really exciting, so watch this space.
Lest the anti-Cage camp
be inspired to seize their quill pens and write letters of complaint
to the Times, or even the Radio Times, we must get one thing
absolutely clear. John Cage had no part whatsoever in this
project. For one thing, the planning and management of the
project, which must meticulously detail every last jot and tittle,
would have run contrary to his aleatoric principles. For another,
I doubt that this lovable and fun-loving man would have found
much fun in the wall-to-wall deadly seriousness of it all. The
discussions of his tempo marking, and the project spawned by
them, all arose only after his death – so please don’t go blaming
Cage for any of it.
Even so, it almost goes
without saying that Cage would have hugely enjoyed all the controversy.
More than anything in the history of music this – what Cage
would have called a "happening" if it had been played
for laughs – has polarised opinion, if not quite to the extent
of "pistols at dawn", then not far short of that.
It is either an awe-inspiring enterprise or a preposterous waste
of time and effort. There is no middle ground, so if you’re
still sitting on the fence, get off it at once.
I’ve weighed many of
the arguments pro and con. However, the reason that I’ve come
down on the "anti" side of the fence has nothing to
do with any of these. In my opinion, and to the best of my current
knowledge, the entire exercise is based on a seriously flawed
I suspect that the deliberations
of that learned conference were blinkered by the mechanics
of going "as slowly as possible". Yet, Cage wrote
a piece of music. It is pretty well axiomatic that the
entire raison d’être of music is to be performed.
Regardless of whether the performers are people or machines,
the sole purpose of performance is to create an object of
human perception. Indeed, Cage’s Zen beliefs might well
have prompted him to ask, "Does music really exist if there’s
no-one there to hear it?" Certainly, unless you’re a follower
of Descartes, sound exists independently of any observer, but
for music to exist there must be an observer – a listener
– who implicitly understands that it is music.
In the science of mechanics,
the motion of an object can be arbitrarily slow. However, because
music is an object of human perception, it can be said to be
"moving" only if its observers can perceive its motion.
Even the mandarins of the BBC in the 1950s understood this –
it was the principle underlying Music and Movement, a
sort of primer of ballet and mime which in those days was broadcast
to schools, thereby inflicting eternal, squirming embarrassment
on hapless real "small boys" such as myself.
Although there can be
an accidental "logic" in mechanical sounds, logic
is one of the defining characteristics of music. You could even
say that perception of this logic is the key to the door on
all the wonderful things music does to our minds and hearts.
In particular, the speed of music is not "the number of
notes per unit time", but the rate of progression of the
logic – a distinction that Ligeti, for one, explored to stunning
We’ve one more step to
take. If we progressively slow down a piece of music, the events
that define the music’s logic get further apart. Is there a
point beyond which we can no longer sense the logical flow?
This depends on memory. As long as we can remember "the
story so far" – or at the very least the previous logical
step – then we stand a chance of making sense of the current
one. This limiting interval between logical events is, I suspect,
shorter than we might imagine – taking an educated guess, I’d
say it lies somewhere in the region of the listener’s attention
span. Go much beyond that with nothing new coming in, and
the average mind, bored out of its skull, will conclude that
nothing is happening and turn its attention elsewhere.
For similar reasons,
there is a corresponding limitation on performers: if they go
too slowly, they will lose track of the measure of the music.
Hence, Cage’s title-cum-tempo-marking ought to read something
like "As Slow(ly) as is Humanly Possible".
We may argue over exactly how slow this might be, but I doubt
that anyone could come up with a convincing argument that the
tempo chosen for the ASLSP Project is anywhere near the right
ball-park. I suspect that even Treebeard would fail to find
If I were to be blunt,
I’d say that a piece of music that takes going on for ten standard
lifetimes to perform is about as useful to us as a chocolate
fireguard. The whole thing could have been achieved with much
less hassle and a sight more cheaply, but with every bit as
much "meaning", if 4’33" had been stretched to
fill 639 years. All it needed was a large "egg-timer"
stopwatch – powered, of course, by thoroughly "green"
solar panels – and situated in (say) Tibet. As far as I’m concerned,
this is all just a wee bit over the top, just to get an entry
in the 2641 edition of The Guinness Book of Records.
Still, for better or
for worse, the project’s up and running, at least until such
time as the last person who is interested in keeping it going
gets bored with it. To quench your thirst for excitement, you
can go to the web-site and eavesdrop on the "current sound".
If you doubt the validity of my arguments, I can almost guarantee
that 20 seconds of this will change your mind. However, if you
gamely persist for a further 10 seconds or so, you may get a
bit of a surprise. I did.
Diligently pursuing my
duty as a reviewer, I girded my loins, gritted my teeth, and
soldiered on through the pain barrier. After a while I noticed
some "noises off". My mind gratefully clutched at
these straws, which would have seemed meagre had I not been
so desperate. Could I make sense of them? Might I catch a snatch
of conversation (such as, "Where’s the bloody ‘off’ switch?")?
A little while later – though it seemed like an eternity – I
heard a "catch" in the sound, rather like the glitches
you get in streamed audio, quickly followed by what seemed to
be the same "noises off".
My attention now riveted,
my pain put on hold, I listened on. Guess what? That’s right;
after about the same interval, it happened all over again. This
wasn’t "the current sound", but a sample of
the current sound played in a loop. I felt a bit cheated, not
of the experience of a lifetime but mostly of five minutes in
which I could have been doing something much more interesting,
like watching paint drying, or grass growing, or a DVD of a
teenager waking up on a Monday morning. Heck, even the sound
quality isn’t up to much. Take a tip from me: if you want to
experience a fair reflection of the "current sound",
in decent-quality audio, induce some mains hum in your amplifier
and listen to that.
There will, of course,
be a major celebration to mark the conclusion of the project.
However, as planning is still in the very early stages, as yet
no details are available. Nevertheless, it is generally expected
that the occasion will be marked by the release of a complete
recording in a special, de-luxe commemorative edition.
For practical reasons,
it is unlikely that this will take the form of a 4,201,107-CD
boxed set. Even shoe-horning it into a low-grade MP3 "song"
would require a file size of somewhere in the region of 200
terabytes. Obviously, this would make even the fanciest of today’s
MP3 players gip, but there is every reason to be confident that
technological advances during the project’s course will result
in much more efficient and compact storage systems.
In the meantime, for
those cats whose curiosity is already getting the better of
them there is this CD, warmly recorded in 24-bit, high-definition
sound. This compresses the entire work into a time-frame of
around 72 minutes, which is some 4,667,895 times faster than
the projected performance. Yet, even at this comparatively breakneck
speed, it still manages to prove my point.
After a few minutes of
my undivided attention, and in spite of my best efforts at due
diligence, I found those images of wet paint, short grass and
somnolescent teenager starting to beckon seductively. My mind
slowly drifted into dreamy contemplation of the word "somnolescent",
becoming lulled by its lazy liquidity . . . I awoke with a start,
and re-joined the performance. It seemed very quiet. Shortly
thereafter, I noticed the CD player, displaying an admonishing
"stopped." But don’t let me put you off – if your
attention span is more robust than mine, you may well find it
a deeply affecting experience.
Performances of the original
piano version gallop by in typically just over a quarter of
the time. Regardless of any help from things like sophisticated
– and silent – electronic metronomes, that says much for the
intense concentration and immaculate control exhibited by the
organists, Bossert and Ericsson. I wish I had their stamina.