John Cage was a giant of modern music, and this year marks two important anniversaries: It has been 100 years since his birth and 20 years since his death. The composer's life and music will be celebrated in the Spoleto concert Orchestra Uncaged, which features his only works that have never been performed in the United States.
The concert will couple music by the legendary composer with that of up-and-coming composer Jonny Greenwood, who is best known as a member of the band Radiohead and who has recently emerged as a serious and respected composer. The concert will mark the U.S. premiere of Greenwood's 48 Responses to Polymorphia.
Of the matchup, festival resident conductor and expert in all contemporary music John Kennedy says, "For me, it's the spirit of Cage carrying on in a younger composer. Jonny's work has an energy about it that fits well with Cage."
Cage's works Twenty-six, Twenty-eight, and Twenty Nine from 1991 are part of the composer's "number pieces" he began writing in 1987 and continued until his death in 1992. The titles usually refer to the number of performers needed, but in this case also indicate the duration of the works. The pieces being performed are diverse in sound and instrumentation. Twenty-six is for 26 violins; Twenty-Eight is for four flutes, four clarinets, three oboes, an English horn, three bassoons, one contrabassoon, four trumpets, four horns, two trombones, one bass trombone, and a tuba; and Twenty-Nine is for two timpani, two percussionists, a bowed piano (a piano played by reaching inside and playing the strings), and strings. The works can be played in a variety of formats, and for this concert they'll be performed simultaneously with the shorter pieces fitting within the larger ones.
That the three works are being played concurrently isn't the only unconventional aspect. In the number pieces, each musician performs a "sound event" in a strict order, but when the performer starts and stops playing can vary due to the notational system Cage employed called "time brackets." For example, an individual player can begin playing any time between one minute and 10 seconds and one minute and 40 seconds and halt between two minutes and 15 seconds and two minutes and 36 seconds. The bracket system ensures that the total time for each work is constant, but gives the performers freedom within that time frame. Cage viewed the numbered works as a metaphor for "enlightened anarchy," in which individuals live together in harmony without sacrificing their freedom to a central authority.
The composer was a proponent of indeterminacy, in which chance — such as when a musician starts and stops playing — was a guiding principle. He often called for instruments to be played in unusual ways or to be tampered with by placing screws, bolts, and strips of leather on the strings and hammers of a piano. Cage was a constant collaborator with artists of many disciplines, working with visual artists Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, but most notably with his long-time partner, dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham. Cage himself was also a poet and visual artist. His most famous — or infamous — piece was the 1952 composition 4'33", which is performed by a musician sit ting silently for a period of four minutes and 33 seconds.
Unlike many of the composer's better-known works from the 1950s and '60s, the numbered pieces do not call for unusual effects. Their sounds are "so intense — like a pinpoint light in the dark," says Greg Stuart, a lecturer at the University of South Carolina School of Music and percussionist who has performed Cage's number pieces. "These do not have the superficial radicalness of earlier pieces, but they are some of his very best works. They're really quite beautiful."
The three works have waited two decades for a U.S. premiere for several reasons, Kennedy says. Most were commissioned by European orchestras, which tend to be a "little more daring." The three pieces require a fairly large orchestra, and these are not the kind of pieces most large orchestras do, he says. In addition, there's no conductor required, so conductors and music directors don't usually champion such pieces.
These late Cage works may surprise those who are only familiar with his better-known and more unusual early music. "His late period music is quite textured and layered," Kennedy says. "This is almost music for very peaceful or meditative listening — not to say that it's easy listening. It does let go of a narrative, a sense of going from beginning to end. It seems to be more of a sound world that existed before the piece starts and goes on after."
Although Greenwood gained fame as a writer and multi-instrumentalist for Radiohead, he has studied classical music. He didn't begin composing concert music until his middle 30s after attending a concert of music by Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki. Premiering in 2011 at the European Culture Congress in Poland, 48 Responses to Polymorphia is Greenwood's tribute to Penderecki's 1961 composition Polymorphia. Penderecki's music makes use of extended instrumental techniques and dense tone clusters.
The Spoleto concert will include Greenwood's Doghouse, commissioned by the BBC Concert Orchestra in 2010. Greenwood has said the piece is an imaginary ramble through the faded scores of forgotten light music works in the BBC orchestra archives. "Doghouse has a lot of driving energy and darkness," Kennedy says. "And it's quite fun."
This will be the first time Greenwood's work has been performed at the festival. "He's an extremely serious composer exploring all the ways he has to make music," Kennedy says. "A number of rock 'n' rollers have dabbled in composing for orchestras over the years, but this is the real deal."