Listening Log

First Construction – John Cage

John Cage was one of the 20th Centuries most innovative experimental composers who’s genius bought through such compositions as 4 minutes 33 and his “Constructions” one of Cages favourite compositional mechanisms was the prepared piano. Long before the first synthesisers he explored the possibilities of electronic sound sources using turntables and oscillators, pushing the boundaries of what many people might interpret music to be. It is for this reason that to this day, even after his death, John Cage remains a highly controversial figure in the world of Music.

In this blog I am going to do a quick write up of what I discovered from listening to his “First Construction in Metal” composed in 1939. I could not find a score online so what little that I picked op on is from watching a score on youtube as the music was being performed. With my memory, that causes limitations in itself!

In John Cages first construction I hear a certain theme played on the strings of a piano. After 4 bars the Oxem bells join in. The thunder sheet is struck at the very beginning just to capture our attention. After 8 bars we get two bars of break from the melody played on brake drums, Turkish cymbals and orchestral bells. We then hear the phrase or melody come back and joined by the muted gongs John Cage has added a bar on to the phrase with the muted gongs. At letter A we hear a different and augmented phrase with the use of quintuplets which lasts for four bars. The main line then returns in the fifth bar of A. The phrases are always four bars long and I can make out about 16 different motifs. John Cage has taken a mathematical approach usings phrases and groups of phrases to form the structure of his music each section is about 16 bars in length and is built using 4 bar motifs.

at C John Cage has produced a fantastic effect by lowering a gong in to water. This achieves a warping effect on the gong sound that provides an eerie feel. Something I would like to explore in my composing as a representative of wind or something spooky a mind twists and turns out of focus in to something dark and un-settling.

During Section C there is a very un-settling feeling of something wrong happening and on the 5th bar of D there is a slide on the piano strings, a spooky glissando of chaos. This is the kind of thing I wouldn’t be surprised to hear on a horror programme! the fact that John Cage can produce that effect with such “instruments” is a testament to his genius. Before H we hear a refrain of the original phrase and the unsettled feeling has eased. Business as usual, perhaps? the chaos of the human brain. 16 bars before M I really like. It has a driving feeling almost like a preparing for battle. I think this is due to the well placed accents and driving beats played on the other instruments at the first of the bar. The piece finished with a diminuendo and down to a halt. It’s almost like the end of a nightmare. The morendo and diminuendo at the end settles the mind and it’s back to the silence.


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