Cage: ‘Primitive’  [4’28”]

Boris Berman, prepared piano

35 Cage and Stockhausen fly over the Rhine

All aboard for the future of music: Cage and Stockhausen take a spin

If what we have learned about Henry Cowell’s under-the-lid forays makes John Cage’s invention of the prepared piano look less impressive, indeed less certain, history is nonetheless justified in associating the phenomenon first and foremost with him.  There will usually be partial forerunners – in this case, it turns out, even Villa-Lobos.  The fact remains that it is Cage’s works for the instrument, a substantial and consistently compelling body of music, that have secured its place in musical history, not as a gimmick, though the view of it as something whacky persists even today, but simply as a new, occasional and loved resource, like the basset horn to Mozart.

The innovation, it seems, originally had more to do with saving space than anything else.  In 1940, after years of composing all-percussion works Cage found himself with a modest dance commission but no space at his disposal for more than a piano, at which point he recalled Cowell, who had been his teacher for a semester in 1932, placing such objects as a darning egg on the piano strings.  It wasn’t much of a step from there to securing objects within the body of the instrument to obtain percussive effects, and this he proceeded to do for his Bacchanale, using a bolt, a screw and eleven pieces of fibrous weatherstripping.  (Piano lovers rest easy.  Cage claimed always to leave an instrument in better condition than he found it.)  From these modest beginnings the concept of preparation – In case it’s unclear just what we are talking about, incidentally, there’s always a YouTube clip – set out on its rich evolution within his work, climaxing eight years later in the instrument’s Well-tempered Clavier (‘Well-prepared piano’?), the quietly fantastic Sonatas and interludes.

Primitive is a step along this road, 13 of its pitches being prepared by means of screws or bolts.  Signed off in New York City on Christmas Eve 1942, the piece was again composed to accompany a dance, choreographed by one Wilson Williams, soon to found the shortlived Negro Dance Company.  The title is not hard to understand.  Not that the music’s methods can really be called primitive, but as lyrically as it begins it often depicts the primitive.  When it does, as in passages of mindless repeated stomping like those at 1’45” and 3’37”, it can seem surprisingly close to an earlier dance work on a more ambitious scale: Stravinsky’s Rite of spring.  (Hardly a comparison Cage would have appreciated.  “The sooner the world forgets Stravinsky the better,” he wrote to a friend in 1935.)  The piece rattles, it rings, it clatters, it sings.  And it sounds, at 2’58”, for all the world like the Indonesian gamelan so beloved of west coast composers in these years.  The ending is abrupt.  Boris Berman, who has an unfailingly musical way with this repertoire, as much as any interpreter I’ve heard makes perfect sense of it all.

Three links provide entertainment and elucidation.  Nothing to do with this piece, but because it so vividly conveys the singular personality that made it, and also for the sheer joy of the thing, it’s worth tuning in to a wonderfully amiable TV appearance by a seraphic Cage, featuring a performance of his Water walk, composed in 1959 precisely ‘for solo television performance’: America’s got talent indeed.  A less off-the-wall platform for his fully mature position – which entailed him ceasing to make ‘objects’ such as Primitive – is provided by an extended conversation with Jonathan Cott from 1963.  Finally, Cage is thoroughly well represented in that avant-garde Aladdin’s Cave, UbuWeb, as is only fitting; the sound archive alone gives the curious plenty to chew on.

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