Why John Cage’s String Quartet is the perfect music for our messy world
At the finals of the 1927 Southern California Oratorical Contest, an idealistic Los Angeles High School senior delivered the winning speech on the newly erected (and short-lived) Lloyd Wright pyramidal stage of the Hollywood Bowl. U.S. Marines had been sent to defend American interests in a politically unstable Nicaragua, and the outraged student orator condemned the move as imperialist American capitalism parading as noble intent.
Fifteen-year-old John Cage then proposed a startling experiment for global interdependence that we’ve only just now, nearly a century later, been able to test. He called for a few “blessedly silent days,” during which we would halt America’s industries, discontinue our businesses, stop everything that runs. “In a moment of complete intermission, of industrial calm, hushed and silent,” he predicted that “we should have the opportunity to learn that other people think.”
Cage would famously go on to devote his remaining 65 years to the search for that silence of liberation. In 1961 he published “Silence,” a book that has never gone out of print. In 1952, his silent piece, “4’33”,” removed intentional sounds from a performer so that we might attend to the unintentional ones of our surroundings.
He titled his diaries: “How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse),” prescient once more about our own pandemic shutdown. Sure enough, our hushed and calm spring proved but a brief intermission for a disputatious nation still uncertain about the practice of harmony.
Cage’s struggle with harmony became for him a contention between creation and destruction. He came to view harmony’s role as the functioning of sounds as though they were a society. He expected music to serve, rather than remain distinct from, the environment. At one point, he likened the incorporation of traditional harmony to the ills of Western capitalism.
When Cage told Arnold Schoenberg, with whom he studied at USC and UCLA in the early 1930s, that he had no feeling for harmony, Schoenberg warned him that he would then come to a wall through which he wouldn’t be able to pass as a composer. “I’ll beat my head against that wall,” Cage replied. He did, in one way or an imaginative other, for the rest of his life.
The piece in which the urgency of this struggle is the most visceral and revelatory is his String Quartet in Four Parts. Completed in 1950, it comes at the end of Cage’s more traditional pieces, before he gave himself over to chance operations in the making of art. It is also, and not coincidentally, the most exquisitely colored and just plain beautiful American string quartet of its time. While not neglected, its importance remains underserved.
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The quartet is a quiet work, a meditation on the seasons, place and purpose, a considered contemplation of form and material. Cage began it in Paris during the summer he turned 37. He was on the verge of prominence. His most ambitious work (and still his most appreciated one), Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano, had had its well-attended and well-reviewed New York premiere. He had traveled the country accompanying his partner, dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham, attracting attention wherever they went.
The Paris summer sojourn, however, was anything but contemplative for Cage. He had little money and, with Cunningham, led a true Bohemian life, while also being well feted at Parisian salons. He hobnobbed with artists; visited Alice B. Toklas; struck up a close friendship with Pierre Boulez. He was drawn to extremes, searching out scores in the Bibliotheque Nationale of the ethereal elementalism of Eric Satie and finding fascination in the violent complexity of Boulez’s early music.
Yet the first movement of the quartet inhabits another world altogether. Melody predominates in the movement, as it does throughout the quartet. Phrases may be appear as structures, but they are fashioned together like surreal mosaics, a fitting of irregular pieces. Cage told Boulez that the quartet contained no counterpoint and no harmony. Melody, instead, is accompanied by a collection of made-up chords, each with a distinctive timbral quality — including whistling harmonics and scraping strings with the wood of the bow — that didn’t change. He called them gamuts and likened them to a collection stones or shells he might pick up on the beach.
Each melodic pitch could come from any one note in a gamut, creating the effect of sounds somehow arising from natural sound. The organization of the quartet is a presumably arbitrary arithmetic sequence — 2½, 1½, 2, 3, 6, 5, ½, 1½ — that, in various complicated ways, determines structure of phrases and the four movements. Its main function, though, is the assurance of unpredictability.
To many ears, this quartet, and especially its first movement, echoes medieval music. It so happened that two decades earlier, Cage had dropped out of Pomona College to travel to Paris, where he became besotted with Gothic architecture. This time in Paris, Cage was deep into Indian philosophy and particularly its associations of summer as preservation; fall, destruction; winter, quiescence; and spring, creation.
The first movement, “Quietly Flowing Along,” tapers off with the first violin gently rocking back and forth between two notes, B and D, preserved in the harmonic aspic of soft, sustained chords in the other instruments. Autumn in New York, Cage having returned home, is heard in the pointillistic second movement, “Slowly Rocking,” melody here coming apart (destruction). The third movement, “Nearly Stationary,” is the first true representation of quiescence in Cage’s music. The movement is as long as the other three put together and little happens. Gamuts become individual events. There are substantial scattered silences. Melody is illusion, not fact. Action is a grace note or the occasional three- or four-note phrase.
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The sensation is of ceasing activity, of letting the outside seep in through the cracks of the string quartet, of Thoreau and his pond, of stopping everything that runs and listening for something else. With utter surprise, the final movement, “Quodlibet” is an upbeat Baroque-ish dance, not even two minutes and out of nowhere. It’s as though a leaf blower has blown all the gamuts pirouetting into the air.
The quartet was written in spurts, interrupted by other projects. “I do not find enough time to be simple and quiet,” Cage wrote in letter from Paris, telling the composer Peggy Glanville Hicks he was jealous of her loneliness.
By the time the String Quartet had its premiere at Black Mountain College the summer of 1950 and its New York premiere the following winter, Cage was on a mission, making news and achieving notoriety as he embraced indeterminacy, and it became easy to overlook the seemingly Old-World String Quartet. But, in fact, much of what Cage would go on to do, radical as it usually was, came out of going to the brink in the harmonic quiescence in the slow movement to learn not what other people think but how he might think.
Cage ultimately made peace with harmony. One of his last inventions was a technique he called “anarchic harmony.” One of the last things he said before his fatal stroke in summer 1992 was that he had just re-read Schoenberg’s textbook, “Harmonielehre,” and that it was “marvelous.”
Cage’s String Quartet in Four Parts has been much recorded.
The first was by the New World String Quartet in 1953, the year after the ensemble gave the New York premiere. Coached by Cage, it is a studied, carefully choppy, slow performance that has lately been excellently remastered. You can find it through Presto Music.
The Arditti Quartet worked closely with Cage, although its 1989 recording, which you can follow with the score on YouTube, is far more sonically startling.
The LaSalle Quartet recording is the loveliest, the flowingly-est, 180 degrees from Arditti.
The early music ensemble B’Rock quirkily alternates the four quartet seasons with Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons.” You can find it on b-rock.org.
For an introduction to Cage’s thinking around the time of the quartet, check out Robert Wilson’s moving video performance of “Lecture on Nothing” from live.nationalsawdust.org.
With live concerts largely on hold, critic Mark Swed is suggesting a different recorded music by a different composer every Wednesday. You can find the series archive at latimes.com/howtolisten, and you can support Mark’s work with a digital subscription.
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