1 April 2013 in Music

“Imagine … if one lived in the world of a Beethoven piano sonata.”

Beethoven aside, the metaphor is useful, for is not a composition a world in which a performer or listener lives? A piece of music encourages a journey; it invites travel. Melodies, motives, and modulations: this is the terrain we must trek.

Peter Garland’s Peñasco Blanco refers to “a specific site of Anasazi ruins in Chaco Canyon National Monument, which looks over the expanse of two vast canyon systems.” This landscape, so open and spacious, ironically contradicts the physical structure of the composition. The piano and vibraphone lines are so close-knit that there is little room for anything (or anyone) else. The rhythmic unison is impenetrable. (From a performer’s perspective, it is a nerve-wracking demand for precision.) When, in the middle of the piece, each instrument makes its rhythmic “escape” from the interlocking counterpoint, it feels like an opportunity for a new adventure. Freedom! But in the end, we return to the opening’s formality, to the tight situation of two parts playing in unison. The ABA form creates a world that, in contrast to Garland’s suggested landscape, restricts personal exploration.

Here is the dilemma: life in a piece of music, particularly a notated piece of music, is an entrapment. We may feel invited to journey, but there is no escape from a composer’s chosen materials. Like the leopard in Charles Ives’s song, The Cage, the best we can do is wander “from one side back to the other side.”

Yet, Ives has a knack for offering what you least expect, in this case, freedom by way of the familiar. From gospel melodies and hymn tunes to the noise and bombast of the street dance hall, the Songs are musical snapshots of everyday life in New England, and like a scrapbook, they invite observation more than they invite personal traversal. We witness (or, rather, hear) the scenarios–the landscapes–be they urbane and philosophical, wry or pastoral, but our viewpoint is as a spectator, somewhat detached. Ives’s songs do not confine us in the way that Garland does, because we remain outside the structural cage, looking in.

John Cage’s In A Landscape offers a more abstract idea of living in a piece of music. The lyrical meandering lines create an atmosphere reminiscent of 19th century piano music, but the mood here is aimless. The constantly evolving figurations of pitches, centered on D, are at once static and subtly changing, much like a natural landscape over the course of many seasons. In this landscape, our journey comes to a halt. The piece is a meditation on music as a collection of independent (and not even necessarily related) parts. To experience this music is to accept the improbable and the unpredictable, with little concern for direct exploration. Life in the world of a Cage piano piece is paradoxically immersive and freeing.

Whether captured by its structure and design, viewed from an observational distance, or conceptually set free, tonight’s program is an exploration of what it might be like to live in the landscape of music.

I wrote these program notes in spring 2003 for my Mills College graduate recital of solo piano and chamber music by John Cage, Fred Frith, Peter Garland, and Charles Ives. The concert concluded with a freely improvised trio for piano, guitar, and gu zheng. The opening quote was inspired by a passage in Professor David W. Bernstein’s chapter “John Cage and the Aesthetic of Indifference” in The New York Schools of Music and Visual Arts.