Monday, February 4, 2013

John Cage: Third Construction (1941)

Readers of this blog know that I'm not usually a big fan of John Cage (1912 - 1992). Sometimes I cite him as an example of the questionably fashionable in 20th century avant-garde music. But the other day I heard a very interesting piece by John Cage that made me stop and listen to the whole thing.

In the years 1939 to 1942 Cage was working at the Cornish School of the Arts in Seattle, Washington and touring the West Coast with a percussion ensemble he and Lou Harrison had founded. He wrote a series of three pieces for percussion entitled First Construction, Second Construction and Third Construction. The third one, composed in 1941, has become a classic of the percussion repertoire. One site discusses it as follows:
John Cage's Third Construction, composed in 1941, follows a scheme similar to that the composer used in the First Construction (1939) and Second Construction (1940). Noting the effect of tonality upon traditional aspects of form (e.g. the central role of harmonic progression in a sonata-allegro or rondo movement), Cage sought to create an infrastructure that could similarly be applied to nonpitched percussion instruments. The result was what has been termed "micro/macrocosmic structure" -- that is, a structure in which the whole is reflected in the individual parts.
The First and Second Constructions were both built upon sixteen cycles of sixteen bars each. In the Third Construction, Cage employes a somewhat more elaborate scheme of twenty-four cycles of twenty-four bars each. Within this controlled structure Cage freely exercises other variables. While the length of sections is determined by the macro/micro principal, the rhythmic patterns within the structure create an intricate, multilayered web; Cage's singular timbral sense provides another source of variation and interest.
The four performers called for in the Third Construction play a large and varied battery of exotic instruments, including a teponaxtle (Aztec log drum), quijadas (jawbone rattle), lion's roar (a washtub with a small hole through which a rope is noisily pulled), and an assortment of cymbals, shakers, claves, tom-toms, and tin cans. By combining the endless possibilities of percussion colors and rhythms within a controlled, telescopic structure, Cage creates a work that is continually surprising yet holistically unified.
That certainly gives us some clues, but not quite enough to confirm what the ear hears: the piece seems to be constructed from rhythmic canons. One phrase seems to end with a distinctive triplet. But the structure is complex enough that it is unclear on a couple of listenings just how it is put together. There is a fascinating paper on early music by Cage by Jesse Guessford that discusses the structure of the First Construction and from it we learn that there are cycles, or 'circles' as Cage calls them, of rhythmic motifs rather than canons. The concept is perhaps Asian in origin. Here are some examples of rhythmic "circles" from the First Construction. The Third Construction uses the same kind of structures, but in larger patterns of 24 instead of 16 parts. UPDATE: For some reason, my example won't appear. It is on page 19 of the paper I linked to above, so you will have to go there. The example just shows short rhythmic patterns.

The notion of the 'circle' is just to indicate that if you have four motifs, 1234, you can repeat or retrograde the series, but you can't jump, say, from 2 to 4.

So Percussion are particularly accomplished performers of this music to the point that they perform it from memory! Here is a fascinating clip where they demonstrate a rehearsal technique: singing their parts instead of playing them:

There are three other clips in this series, but I will let you discover them on your own. I want to get right to a performance. It was this clip of So Percussion playing the Third Construction that caught my interest. Most percussion pieces are hard to listen to for very long. But this one kept my attention for the whole ten minutes. I even listened to other performances and was pleased to discover that there is a percussion group at McGill, my alma mater, that also does a fine job. The thing about this piece that interested me was the subtle range of timbres, the obvious structural unity and the delicacy of the sound. Here is So Percussion performing Cage's Third Construction:

Something almost unheard of is that So Percussion has done a number of other videos in which they discuss the piece in some detail. For example, here is the first player, Jason Trueting, discussing his part and the choice of instruments.

The Third Construction was written when Cage was a young man, in his late 20s. It is a period not closely studied by historians as it is his later works from his time in New York that attract more attention. In any case, I was delighted to discover this piece, a unique and worthwhile addition to the 20th century repertoire.

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