Greetings my fellow Iowavillians,
This coming December, the Iowaville Community Center and the Iowaville Orchestra will be presenting a concert representing the dissolve of time and the preservation of sound in the works of various composers, ending with portions of John Cage’s Atlas Ellipticalis. Since the stirring yet successful concert of contemporary music featuring the work of Bob Dylan, I have decided to take the idea of music one step further, reflecting on the works of contemporary artists and their eclectic musical interpretation. December’s concert will present musical ideas of form, sound, and time. How each of these works differed in their approach to presenting these ideas will hopefully resonate with the anticipated audience. To continue on with the idea of historical background before the curtain rises, I would like to present this information of why I am choosing such a range of compositions to represent the ideas of form, sound, and time.
Beethoven’s works are either infinitely famous or infamously discredited following their premiere. Even today, the classical music listener may hear a few Beethoven symphonies over the other, and typically would hear more of his orchestral than his vocal or chamber works, or even his one opera. The fact that the work is set in a string quartet is noteworthy, as the fugue subjects arrive like a solo line, which feels very exposed and it sounds as such. This idea of solo sounds is an idea I feel connects to Cage’s work in that any piece of the orchestra that is paired with a designated part still creates its own unique timbre, much like the Grosse Fuge with its exposed line.
Another composer to consider when looking at John Cage’s work through the lens of history is through the American modernist composer Charles Ives, whose work ran a few decades before Cage came into the forefront of the compositional world. Ives’ compositions give an insight into what was evolving in the modern musical world, especially in the Unites States in the 20th century. Ives’ piece The Unanswered Question starts almost like Ralph Vaughn Williams’ orchestral work Variation on a Theme by Thomas Tallis; the constant drone of the strings keeps the notion that sound is constant. Ives places a solo trumpet in a different location in the room when performing this piece, and this creates an additional dimension to the work in that music becomes a piece that is measured by space and time. John Cage mentions this when discussing his appreciation for sound and what music is (Cage video, Friday lecture). I believe that the tonal consistency of the string section in Ives’ piece gives a complementary frame for Cage’s work to be heard.
Finally, John Serry Sr. wrote for the free bass accordion and created a work to be played by an accordion. I am placing this piece in our concert because we have a remarkable accordion player by the name of Arnold Berg who has agreed to share in this contemporary work. The use of one voice in the solo bass accordion not only ties in with Beethoven’s soloistic fugue subjects, but ties with Cage by use of non-traditional instruments in traditional form, as Cage started to do when he composed pieces for what was called a “prepared piano,” which contained anything from a hammer to a rubber chicken in the keys to create non-traditional sounds.
I wish to conclude this introduction to our December concert event by saying that John Cage’s works are something to be explored, and giving justice to listening to his music gives us great insight into how we create music. When music is created, performed, and listened to, we adhere to the ideas of the composer and the preservation of those ideas through the performers. When we look at John Cage’s music, we see many controversial subjects arise: the absence of thought to create art, the absence of performer intent to create music for music’s sake through a changing world, and the dynamics of sound and how it can be organized. Beethoven was able to create music despite being completely deaf during the last ten years of his life through adherence to counterpoint and harmonic tendencies that fit in the classical style. Arnold Schoenberg was able to utilize serialism and atonality to create his music, which led him to reach out and experiment with form so long as he had his backbone of atonal structure with him. Charles Ives uses these same techniques when he wrote rows and systems of musical patterns, which I hope you will see when you attend our concert this December.
Pierre Boulez, a colleague and acquaintance of John Cage and a student of Olivier Messiaen, created a system to categorize his music with pitches, rhythms, and dynamics to create order from what sounded and sounds like a chaotic work. John Cage’s work, however, seems to not only break from traditional form, timbre, ensemble, and instrumentation, but seems to break free even further than Boulez was. I ask myself this as I listen to Cage: if the 20th century is a new era, why would we not find a completely new way to organize and create if we are striving to create music that is completely original? The mere fact that John Cage’s works are categorized by a stopwatch and on the time continuum is what separates his works from other modernist composers of his time. He lectures about nothing; he creates nothing, but rather takes what is already present and places a frame around it. If we are able to come together to see this art as it is, we will have set out to see what John Cage and many 20th century modernist composers, and even revolutionary composers like Beethoven, set out to display for the sake of music and art.