When Playing the Notes Is Enough

One (or two) of my favorite Cage pieces is (are) the little-known Experiences Nos. 1 and 2. The first one, supposedly written in 1946, is for two pianos, the second from 1948 for solo voice. I say “supposedly” because the solo voice version, written on an E.E. Cummings poem, uses the same melody as the piano duo version from two years earlier, and it seems odd that Cummings’ phrases would have fit so snugly the melody that Cage had earlier written for pianos. I discovered both pieces on the old Voices and Instruments vinyl disc of 1976 on Brian Eno’s Obscure label, and subsequently, as a student at Oberlin, played the duo version along with Doug Skinner, who’s since gone on to a musical career of his own. On the Obscure recording, the piano duo is played by Richard Bernas, apparently by overdubbing, and the solo is sung by Robert Wyatt of Soft Machine British psychedelic rock fame. To this day, those are the best, most touching recordings of those pieces out there. I’ve uploaded them for you here:

Experiences No. 1
Experiences No. 2

I’ve been looking for newer recordings, on CD. But every other recording I find is too fast, too textural, too “expressive,” too classical – too Uptown. They’re ultrasimple pieces, all white keys, nothing but pentatonic scale in No. 2. As with much of my own music, I sense that classical musicians find the bare notes too uninteresting, and think they have to “interpret” them to breathe life into them. There seems to be no sense anymore that a pure, stately, slow melody (such as one finds in Renaissance polyphony or Japanese Gagaku) can be beautiful. Post-Ligeti, post-Carter, post-Debussy, everything has to be turned into texture, into an illusionistic surface that transcends the notes. No! No!, a thousand times no! Sometimes the notes, played slowly and with dignity and clarity, are all one needs, as in Socrate, as in Musica Callada, as in In a Landscape, as in Snowdrop, as in Symphony on a Hymn Tune, as in The Art of Fugue

It strikes me, though this would be difficult to document, that the ’70s were a high point for performers understanding that principle, and we’re now in a deep trough, because lately I’ve had a difficult time getting performers to play my simple music slowly enough; they encounter so little technical challenge that they start to rush, trying to buoy what they fear is dull music through some hint of the virtuosity they’re so proud of. But such music turns trivial when played as quickly as it’s easy to play it, as does much of Cage’s music of the 1940s. Bernas and Wyatt and Eno, coming from the pop world, exhibit far and away a more instinctive understanding of the Zen simplicity Cage was aiming at than any of the more recent renditions. I fear I’ll never find another really beautiful recording of Experiences 1 & 2 again.

An odd thing about Experiences No. 2 is that Cage omitted the final two lines of Cummings’s Sonnet, which I think are the best lines:

turning from the tremendous lie of sleep
i watch the roses of the day grow deep.

But it’s still a gorgeous song, and most gorgeous of all when sung the clean, blank way Wyatt sings it.

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Comments

  1. David D. McIntire says

    Kyle,
    at the first minimalism conference year I asked Christopher Hobbs about that Obscure catalog, his material in particular, and whether there might be a reissue at some point. He seemed glumly certain that it would never happen, that the mega-conglomerate that now holds the rights to that material has no interest whatsoever in re-releasing those recordings. A great shame. I’m personally remorseful that I sold those LPs many years ago, confident in the misplaced optimism that there would be CD versions comong along soon. Apart from Brian Eno’s ‘Discreet Music,’ none ever have.
    KG replies: A shame indeed.

  2. Rod Jones says

    Actually, 6 of the original 10 Obscure records have found their way onto CD, albeit in “blink-and-you-miss-’em” editions but it does look as though some of the really lovely ones aren’t going to make it; the Hobbs’ pieces that David mention; the Jan Steele pieces, particularly his setting of Joyce’s “All Day’”, on the flip side of the Cage disc that Kyle was talking about. I’d be willing to pay over the odds for CDs of these.

  3. says

    Beautiful little things! I’m so happy you’ve articulated the trouble I keep having over and over, where the slow, still, delicately expansive things I write keep getting sped up, over-artsified, and generally destroyed by very good musicians… who nevertheless are terrified of simple slow things. I just received a recording last week of a young soprano singing a slow song of mine, actually at around the tempo I wrote it, with very understated expression, and I’ve been grinning ear-to-ear since, wondering why everyone else won’t do the same. Thanks for putting that idea into words!

  4. dave says

    Kyle,
    I accidentally opened both audio files in “tabs” on my browser a few seconds apart letting them play at the same time and have been delighted with the reults. I dare say Cage would have approved?
    KG replies: I tried to recreate the effect and couldn’t. Sounds like it would be beautiful.

  5. says

    I recently heard a Russian pianist play Cage, Satie, and Feldman here in Seattle and it was all wrong. He tried so hard to make it dramatic, and it just died.
    This is often a problem with classical players, and especially singers. They think it is their job to make the music “more interesting.” Which is why Wyatt is so great, bless him…
    Rod, I can only think of five of the Obscure records that are on CD: Eno, Budd, Nyman, Bryars, and Penguin Cafe Orchestra. What is the sixth? I know there is another release of Tom Phillips’ IRMA, but that is a completely different performance.

  6. says

    Thanks for these — the music and the observations. I used to own this LP too — bought it in college — but inexplicably gave it away or sold it along the way, and have fruitlessly looked for it in CD form since. Lovely to hear these recordings again.
    Wyatt projects like a pop singer — that is to say, for a microphone, not for an opera house. Fits the song better. I wouldn’t call his style “blank” — he employs very slight portamenti, also more pop than classic. And does the producer (Eno?) add artificial reverb at the end? Also quite pop!
    Swingle Singers shared the projection, the pop portamenti, and the vibrato-lessness with Wyatt. Hadn’t realized that before — thanks!
    KG replies: I have to admit, I love the portamenti, the slight Brit accent, and Eno’s added reverb.

  7. Rod Jones says

    Steve,
    Almost incredibly, the other one that was issued on CD was Toop & Eastley’s “New and Rediscovered Musical Instruments” which Virgin put out in about 1997. It’s been long since deleted of course.

  8. matt field says

    the first time i heard satie’s gnossienne it was played very clearly and beautifully by john white. every time i hear it now it’s ruined the players being so “expressive”.

  9. says

    Kyle, I too love those old Obscure albums and treasure my copies. And that Cage performance sounds beautiful. But Richard Bernas is doing much more than just playing the notes. He’s shaping the phrases, he’s emphasizing particular pitches… the performance is very expressive in its own way. It’s true that In a Landscape is too often played faster than Cage’s metronome marking (paradoxically, by pianists who claim to be Cage specialists), but any good performance pays attention to the fifteen-bar pattern, and the phrasing and dynamic markings in the score, and the interplay between left and right hands… So isn’t there actually a lot of interpretation going on, however subtle it may be?
    KG replies: Of course you’re right, but maybe I wouldn’t call it interpretation. I think what’s so lovely is that the dynamics and tempo are so even and uninflected. I even wonder if he overdubbed the two pianos by playing while listening (via headphones) to a metronome. I think it comes down to trusting the material, and knowing the audience won’t get bored if you just keep playing with even regularity, that there doesn’t have to be an emotional climax anywhere, no matter how subtle.

  10. says

    KG wrote: I tried to recreate the effect and couldn’t. Sounds like it would be beautiful.
    Something like this, I imagine (the re-encoding has introduced some obvious artifacts here, but I didn’t want to post a FLAC file for size/playability reasons).
    KG replies: Thanks, someone else already sent me a mix. I think Cage would have enjoyed it.

  11. says

    Even some of us composers who are not exactly minimalists have this issue with performers not trusting the notes. I had an interesting moment years ago when Ralph Shapey conducted a piece of mine, tried to get his performers to milk a little tune, proudly declaring that he wasn’t afraid of “that dirty word romanticism.” I didn’t have the wit at the rehearsal moment to say that what I wanted was not his overheated emotion, which was killing my little moment, but lyricism and simplicity.
    Kyle, I hope you get a chance to hear Rodney Lister play your music — this aspect of his playing has always been remarkable. When our Dinosaur Annex performance of Cheap Imitation fell through for lack of players willing to rehearse for nothing, Rodney played the piece on solo piano with utter concentration and trust.

  12. says

    I love Wyatt’s voice, and that sort of voice in general, and I wish I could hear it more in classical contexts. A year or two ago I wrote some very simple songs on texts by Walt Whitman, and I’ve found it very difficult to find classically-trained singers who were both able and willing to use this kind of simple, spare, no-vibrato sound. I would have used pop singers, but they tended to have trouble with the rhythms. A singer with a prog-rock background seems to be exactly the right way to get around that dilemma (assuming it’s not someone from the big-and-dramatic side of prog-rock).
    The first thing that occurred to me when I read your second paragraph was: Pärt!