Erased John Cage

ENS.124 | 11.11.11-11.13.11; 6.23.13 | 7’
4 Clarinets, 3 Trombones, Percussion (1 player: Marimba, Glockenspiel, Xylophone), 3 Cellos

Midi Rendition of “Erased John Cage”

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Erased John Cage

A tribute to a composer whose actual music perhaps even more than his influential ideas has greatly inspired me over the years, Erased John Cage was suggested by Robert Rauschenberg’s well-known artwork Erased De Kooning, in which Rauschenberg used an eraser to efface nearly all traces of a drawing by the abstract expressionist master. Unlike that work, however, in Erased John Cage I am neither interested in symbolically stepping free from my forebears, nor making any kind of historical or ideological point whatever. Instead I have attempted to forefront aesthetic surface by means of technical process to emphasize the incredible beauty and vitality of Cage’s works.

For this composition I began with John Cage’s Suite for Toy Piano (1948), which uses only the ten notes of the diatonic scale available on a toy piano’s limited keyboard. I then “erased” them from the ensemble: in each movement, those notes used of the possible ten sound continuously until they appear in the Suite for Toy Piano; then for the duration of the note as it appears in Cage’s score that pitch is silent. Thus, all the rests have been replaced with notes, the notes with rests, creating a kind of negative of the original score. The resulting music is characterized by long tones interspersed with short and medium notes, intentionally somewhat resembling the music of Cage’s later “number pieces”, as well as the various “quartets” of the 1970s, in which eighteenth-century American hymn tunes are subjected to various processes of subtraction to create lovely palimpsests.

To provide variety, in each of the five continuously-performed movements I have introduced orchestrational devices to provide an analogue to the original score’s textures. These include staccato pulsations in the second movement, trills to create a more chromatic harmonic field and emphasize the lyrical nature of the fourth movement, and octaves in the final movement’s repeat. Finally, rapid flourishes which cannot be reproduced “negatively” are performed by a percussionist, as if showing through the paper, the traces that remain.

As this work is about absence and presence, it is perhaps appropriate I composed it on 11/11/11, simultaneously Armistice Day and Nigel Tufnel Day. Erased John Cage is dedicated to Christopher Cerrone and Adrian Knight, because as it turns out—despite considerable evidence to the contrary—sometimes drinking and arguing about music is not necessarily a waste of time after all.