Cage, free

The three movements of John Cage’s Concerto for Prepared Piano and Orchestra (1951) seem to form a kind of dialectic of freedom and order. In the first movement, the orchestra operates under a somewhat, for Cage, strict score, with a definite rhythmic pattern, harmonic interventions, and even a refrain. The piano, meanwhile, operates free from any sort of chart, expressing itself whenever and however it pleases, and is not subject to the program that guides the orchestra. In the second movement, the relationship reverses: the piano no longer enjoys free movement but provides the rhythmic pulse and melodic motifs, while the orchestra becomes unhinged from the score and engages in improvised expressive flourishes.

The stage is set, then, for a synthesizing third movement, a breaking down of the piano-orchestra opposition into a new unity. And in some sense, that’s exactly what the piece delivers. As Cage himself says, “the third movement signifies the coming together of things which were opposed to one another in the first movement.” But what results from the coming together is hardly a grand synthesis or the outcome of any logical development of the piece; that is, neither the piano nor the orchestra represents a new master signifier or organizing stratum, and the piece also refuses a democratic leveling and blending of the elements into a new whole. Put in a different way, both melodic (piano) and harmonic (orchestra) themes, rather than finding a new synthesis, are left behind. What remains, however, is the rhythmic structure. Significantly, even the rhythm itself remains largely unexpressed, as the primary indication of its existence occurs in the silences that end each cycle (set of measures). It’s this minimum of rhythm, this feeling of form that doesn’t have to be attested to, that allows the instruments, individually and collectively, the freedom not only to express themselves outside of melody and harmony, but to not be limited by the consciousness of this freedom, which frequently finds articulation in more silence.

Cage’s (non)dialectic of freedom is, of course, a refusal of the transcendent, both as an agent of transformation and as a new state of existence. Similarly, the synthesis of instruments it promises is never a fully congealed one; its “coming together” is always followed by silences that suggest a “falling apart.” Rather than organizing instrumentation under a new unity, or even, especially, a new regime of difference-under-the-one, Cage opts to try something more difficult, more anarchist: pure difference.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3:

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