Classical Voice of New England
Patrick Valentino
October 1, 2009

“My purpose is to eliminate purpose.”

Thus spake John Cage, in an effort to explain his musical and artistic philosophy. Assessments of his output as an artist and his influence in his field seem to hinge on one’s interpretation of that quote. For those who admire Cage’s ability to think far outside the box of even the most experimental music of his age and organically infuse his artistic creations with Eastern religious philosophies, the term ‘purposelessness’ when applied to music becomes less a pejorative and more a glimpse of the essential nature of the art. For those who feel that a creator who acts without purpose is a creator who can hold no claim of authorship to his own creations, the quote is simply a sensational statement of a man who tried to make the biggest stir in an era when stir-making was heavily in vogue. Finally, for those who are merely amused or challenged by the objective observation of the inherent paradox in acting to eliminate the means by which you act, the quote serves as a fitting introduction to the superficially simple and inherently complex world of artistic thought in which John Cage lived and worked.

Take for example, the work on BMOP’s latest release, Cage’s Sixteen Dances. Written in 1951 for Merce Cunningham’s dance company, Sixteen Dances comes at a time in Cage’s development when he had just started employing elements in his music making (namely chance procedures and the removal of the composer from part of the compositional process) which would later become his trademarks. The work, written for ‘small orchestra’ (consisting of flute, trumpet, violin, cello, piano and percussion), has at its core a balance of compositional acts of chance and volition, and thus is one of those rare looks at a composer in a state of transition.

In the words of Cunningham, the piece is organized around “the nine permanent emotions of Indian classical aesthetics, four light and four dark, with tranquility the ninth and pervading one.” The other emotions, anger, humor, sorrow, the heroic, the odious, the wondrous, fear, and the erotic, are separated by seven interludes (the erotic leads into tranquility with no interlude).

For the musical material, Cage composed 64 short sound-events, which rotate their appearances based on a chart he used to devise the limits of each of the 16 short movements. Not all the sounds are used at the beginning, and as they cycle, by the 16th dance all the original sounds have rotated out and we are presented with entirely new sounds.

So, Cage created a lexicon of, for lack of a better term, ‘sound bites,’ or discernible miniature sonic events (leit-moments?). He also created an architecture of moods, albeit borrowed from extra musical sources, and decided the order in which these characteristic miniatures would appear. He also, it can be argued, devised the chart through which the musical leit-moments cycle to create the different emotional moods and ultimately define the starting and ending points of each movement and the work as a whole. That does seem like a lot of composer-intervention for Cage, but remember this is when he first started using chance systems.

The result is surprisingly musical, and even emotional and witty at times. Cage carefully constructs the leit-moments for their immediacy of recognition and comprehension, and their flexibility in being cast in multitudinous combinations. He even manages to assemble a fairly convincing jazz tune in the middle interludes, while holding fast to his self-imposed limitations.

BMOP’s recording of Sixteen Dances is definitely worth a listen. The group performs with its usual flair and proclivity for all things 20th (and 21st) century, and the decision to release this specific piece, knowing its place in Cage’s development, was inspired.

We must leave the topic of whether or not Cage, when he surrendered most elements of creation to chance, ceased to be a composer in the strictest creative sense, for another time. Volumes have been written about it, and the issue is not going to be solved here. One could argue that Cage deserves credit for devising the systems of limitation in the first place, in addition to the ingenuity it took to navigate through the labyrinth of artistic restrictions. However, one could also argue that there is significance in the likelihood that most commentary on his music bears the same 80%-20% balance as this column, between explaining his methods and actually discussing the piece at hand.

But keep in mind: Sixteen Dances was created before Cage’s discipleship to purposelessness was in full swing. Ultimately, this is a great recording of a piece which is engaging and most importantly, a piece that works. Sixteen Dances functions with evident form, balanced emotion, and ingenious construction, regardless of whether its author created it by scribbling with a pencil nub by candlelight or by tossing cards into an upturned hat.

© 2009 Patrick Valentino