Notes and Editorial Reviews
Music for Piano 1–84
Sabine Liebner (pn)
NEOS 10703 (2 CDs: 114:24)
This is essential Cage, and Sabine Liebner has created a magical performance of it. The term “created” is not used lightly here.
Music for Piano
, composed between 1952 and 1956, consists of 84 brief pieces for unmodified (i.e., not prepared) piano. These are based on a scheme of composition that presents a performer with, minimally, all of the notes to be played. How, and exactly when,
these notes should be played in any given performance, is left indeterminate in specific ways that vary among the pieces. For example, No. 1 of the series consists of conventionally notated whole notes, which have been assigned specific dynamics and accidentals by the composer. There are no bar lines; the individual notes are to be played as encountered in a uniform time flow. A preface lays down rules for performance in Cage’s neat capital letters: “DURATIONS FREE. PEDALLING FREE. MANNER OF PRODUCING PIANO SOUNDS FREE, INCLUDING PIZZ STRING, SCRATCHING AND MUTING STRINGS, PRODUCTION OF HARMONICS, ETC.”
Whew! What is a performer to do? The notes accompanying this release suggest what is required: “A valid interpretation can . . . only be achieved by a player who has a fine sense of the integrity and secret life of the individual sound event, who has an unerring sense for proportions in pitch space that are non causal with respect to time . . . . His or her playing should be precise and should pay attention to the balancing of indifferent beauties.”
Those of us who first heard this music played by John Cage and David Tudor, who surely epitomized these very qualities, were struck by the way they made the integrity and cold beauty of this music seem somehow inevitable. That is just what Liebner does here. In
29:3, Art Lange reviewed her performance of Morton Feldman’s
, another colossal work amenable to a rich variety of interpretive approaches. He observed that “Liebner suggests a view towards infinity, the kind of mythic resonance projected in Mark Rothko’s paintings.”
Music for Piano
has nothing to do with Rothko. (Cage “discovered” the actual notes of
Music for Piano
by circling the imperfections he found on blank sheets of paper.) But here too, Liebner has created a performance suffused with “mythic resonance.”
There are no beginnings, middles or ends, no chords, no tempos. Much of the music consists of silences (sometimes very long ones), which are broken by the appearance, always anticipated, always unexpected, of a single note, or a sudden cluster of them, each with a life of its own. In Liebner’s hands, the different voices of the piano, invoked from inside the piano or keyboard, at times evoke the illusion of an ensemble whose members are engaging in momentary dialogues or counterpoints with each other. It is simultaneously riveting and peaceful. The subtlety and range of the timbres Liebner summons from the instrument are well nigh inexhaustible, but entirely natural; the music remains always itself. You can’t (or at least I can’t) hear the ending of one piece and the beginning of the next. Such things are just another source of silences (and not necessarily the longest ones).
Over the nearly two-hour span of this music, you can find yourself at some points intensely—electrically—involved, at other times wandering around the house or outside, listening to how the music changes as you change perspective, or listening to how other sounds in the environment interact with the music. It will never sound exactly the same, or be experienced exactly the same, twice. It is not music that compels you to react to it in a specific way, but rather invites you to wander through it in ways that will change on each hearing.
Cage sought new ways of composing, performing, and hearing music in all his many works of indeterminacy, of which this is one of the first. How he did this is the subject of many fascinating anecdotes and philosophical discussions, with the consequence that the point of it all—the music itself—can sometimes get lost in the Zen. Liebner gives us a performance that reminds us how compelling this music actually can be. The recording is superb.
I have yet to hear other recorded performances of this particular work, which intrinsically can have no “best” or “definitive” realization. Another complete traversal is on Volume 2 of Steffen Schleirmacher’s complete traversal of Cage’s piano music. Art Lange reviewed this in
22:2. All of
Music for Piano
is on it, including a final piece from 1962, No. 85, which departs from the earlier ones by introducing electronics into the mix. Several other pianists have tackled at least portions of the series. They will all “sound” completely different, of course. Cage wanted both performers and listeners to explore ways this music can be experienced. Sabine Liebner’s splendid performance (coupled with a timely Amazon gift certificate) has kindled a strong desire on my part to do so. It may well have the same effect on you. In any event, don’t miss this one.
FANFARE: Peter Stokely
Works on This Recording
Music for Piano by John Cage
Sabine Liebner (Piano)
Period: 20th Century
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