Contributed by Kong Tze Shiuan (BMUS2, YST)
While the music of Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry played on almost every inch of American soil in the 1950s, a relatively unknown young man from the West Coast of America was inserting screws and bolts into pianos, and composing pieces entirely out of silence, and using cactuses as instruments.
As one of the leading pioneers of the post-war avantgarde, John Cage’s music was bizarre. As a composer, Cage is often associated with his prepared piano works or experimentation with chance operations. However, he undertook many disparate approaches to composition at different stages of his life. For instance, his earlier works encompassed mathematical approaches to rhythm and sound and disregarded traditional harmony. While Cage experimented widely with unconventional treatment of musical elements, his school of thought transcended the traditional notion of “music” with his utilisation of chance and improvisation, as seen in works such as Music of Changes (1951) and Child of Tree (1975). In the latter, performers are asked to use various plants as instruments, whereby the musical output was determined through the chance of their choices.
Often, journals glorify Cage’s induction of chance and improvisation into music, thus eclipsing his (equally revolutionary) pre-aleatoric works which were ground-breaking in the more conventional facets of the musical spectrum. String Quartet in Four Parts and Six Melodies for Violin and Piano (both 1950) encompass one of Cage’s most significant explorations of rhythmic structure and neo-harmonic approaches, as a culmination of his compositional research from 1938-1948. Both pieces are anchored on simplicity and have an almost similar atmosphere to them – Cage even refers to Six Melodies as a “postscript to the Quartet” in one of his letters to Pierre Boulez, at the time an equally revolutionary figure in European music.
During the compositional process of Six Melodies, Cage was influenced by Erik Satie, particularly the latter’s Choses vues à droite et à gauche (sans lunettes) for violin and piano. Cage similarly disregards melodic and harmonic aspects of the musical phrases and instead manipulates the phrase lengths, creating a formal structure in the process. Six Melodies was conceived in a micro-macrocosmic form; a term conceived by Cage to describe a structure that self-constructed itself based on a series of rhythmic patterns.
Furthermore, Cage employed the gamut technique – a series of chords with a fixed number of sonorities which allowed him to create composite melodies which contributed to more complex textures – all in a similar fashion to Satie’s Rose Croix pieces of 1891-1895. Satie’s use of a “mosaic-like motivic technique” enthralled Cage and spurred him to develop his gamut technique which was similar to Satie’s in its total detachment of musical effect from the atmosphere of the piece to create deliberate monotony. Stripping the music to its raw, minimalist form, Cage enables listeners to fully immerse themselves in the harmonic progression from one gamut to another. The selection of a particular gamut to be used was dependant on whether it contained a note that was part of the melody, while the other notes in the gamut were completely unrelated and did not form any directional harmony. Throughout the piece, the violinist is also instructed to play with minimal weight exerted on the bow, without any form of vibrato – giving the piece a greater simplistic and monotonous feel.
Six Melodies can be perceived as an artistic innovation or scrutinised for its radicality with furrowed brows in utter confusion, not knowing what to make of it. Regardless of whether one is interested in his music, or just in the culture and philosophy of the twentieth century, John Cage’s influence on the development of modern music is still omnipresent and relevant up till today.