American Early Modern (later Contemporary) composer John Milton Cage Jr [1912-1992] wrote several works for string quartet. The piece under consideration was the first to be titled String Quartet (in Four Parts) so I shall regard it as the First. It was composed from 1949-1950. I had previously heard this piece several times and was never drawn to it. In fact I have no interest in Cage’s many methods of composition, which are often categorised as deterministic, random, or relating to the I Ching, to name just a few. Personally, I view these methods in a somewhat negative light – I remain a ‘what’ person while Cage is definitely a ‘how’ person.
When the latest New Music Quartet compilation was released, I was taken by their interpretation of the work – some of it even sounded like music, expressing emotions. Coincidentally, I am currently reading Begin Again: A Biography of John Cage, written by Kenneth Silverman. I should like to quote from that book, in what is an enlightening passage relating to Cage’s method:
…when continuing work on his string quartet back in New York, he prepared a ‘gamut’ of only thirty-three sounds – single notes, phrases, chords, grace notes, etc. These he set into a rhythmic structure – twenty-two units of twenty-two measures. The sonorities stand by themselves, unaccompanied by harmony or counterpoint, disconnected from each other. As Cage put it in an Arts Club lecture, “Each moment is absolute.” The listener hears a succession of detached sounds passing by without musical logic.
I’ll keep that in mind while examining the 484 measures. The work contains four, titled movements, although these titles could be seen as composer markings.
I – Quietly Flowing Along
The work opens at a slow tempo as a strange mixture of tones, with a short, unusually optimistic phrase being used twice; feeling somewhat out of context. The introductory feeling returns and occasional pizzicato phrases are heard along with a violin duet. A gentle dissonant chord leads into a more dissonant section with the rough-toned violins eking out a melody. This music is non-confronting, in fact quite peaceful, save for the random dissonant chordal assertions. A persistent two-note motif develops, giving propulsion to the music. Nearing the end, a shrill violin goes solo, until a dissonant chord wafts, then disappears.
II – Slowly Rocking
This part sounds quite like the previous movement emotionally, and, I should have mentioned before, it is all very soft – some might call it scarcely audible. I believe I hear that two-note motif again. A phrase that could have come from a 1950s popular song is presented, presumably occurring by accident. A surge in dynamics is brief, and the sound reverts to something approximating Morton Feldman, who was a long-time friend of Cage and was markedly influenced by him, in different ways throughout Feldman’s development. A tense moment unfolds as the seemingly harmonised chords are stretched taut, with single note violin interjections. The end is perfunctory.
III – Nearly Stationary
The longest movement of the four begins in an introspective manner, with another two-note motif over a selection of pleading string sounds. A sustained note, interspersed with the rhythmic motif, never really gains momentum. For the first time I notice the cello as it adds further random interjections. A brief moment of musical tension occurs a number of times, and the cello is very prominent here. Now, mildly dissonant chordal passages develop and I really appreciate the effect that Cage had on Feldman. This movement is all about stasis, in that I hear no development of any musical threads. The concluding notes are very similar to the opening.
IV – Quodlibet (a light-hearted medley of well-known tunes).
This very brief, rhythmic movement has a medieval character as melodies, yes melodies, are expressed and sound harmonised. They canter to a swift ending.
I believe that I have said all I can about this work, other than I was surprised that it drew me in. The review CD is the recently released set Complete Columbia Album Collection performed by the New Music String Quartet, on the Sony label. There are many other recorded versions, and they come and go but it should be available on Amazon US and UK.
Listenability: And what if I do? Like it…