Music 36

John Cage (C) and Ruth Crawford Seeger (CS)


June 1, 2005

Dartmouth College










selections from Sonatas and Interludes (C)

I, IV, XIV,XV and XII (with introductory talk)

Brent Reidy, piano


4'33" (C)

Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, harmonic, guitar, bass guitar


selections from Twenty-Two American Folk Tunes (CS)

Art Baron el. bass; Larry Polansky el. guitar


vocal solo from Four Walls (C)

Patricia Kelly, voice


selections from The Adventures of Tom Thumb (CS)

Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, narrator; Martin Habermehl, piano


Folk song arrangements from American Folk Songs for Children, American Christmas Songs for Children, Animal Folk Songs for Children (CS)

Patricia Kelly and Anna Diamond Polansky, voice; Larry Polansky, piano


A Note on the Class and This Concert


In this class we looked at it, in some detail, the life and work of two of the most important American composers of the 20th century: Ruth Crawford Seeger and John Cage. The class was open to all, and one of our goals was to accommodate all levels and variety of musical knowledge and experience, committing ourselves to explaining the music and thought of these two artists in ways, often, that did not necessarily require, or even benefit from, terminology and ideas intrinsic to music theory and history. We felt free to use those ideas when we needed them, but always attempted to explain their significance in ways that clarified them to everyone in the class. Clearly, if these two composers are really as interesting as we suspected they were, their work and ideas would transcend argot, and have implications both within and without music. In my opinion, this approach was at least partially successful (at least we all had fun and learned a lot), and the music and readings rewarded our inspection at every level.


Concomittant with this notion of inclusion, I felt that no understanding of music is complete without some form of action. “Action” was, in many ways, one of the preminent motivations of these two composers. They never stopped “doing,” growing, changing. I suppose I could have asked each person in the class to make a piece of some sort, somehow related to Cage and Crawford Seeger. But because of the enormous scope and variety of this work, it became a wonderful challenge to require that we all participate in an informal performance at the term’s end.


By performing, I hoped we might each gain a deeper, more tactile understanding of the music, whatever the particulars of our own musical backgrounds. And by performing as a class, I hoped we might investigate some conventional notions about what it means to “perform,” who might do it, and why. But finally, I simply suspected it would be a lot of fun.




(About the cover: each program has a different one. A number pictures were drawn on transparencies by member of the class, and a computer program was used to generate random numbers to determine how many transparencies to use, and which ones.)


Notes on the Pieces


Sonatas and Interludes

John Cage (1946-8)

The Sonatas and Interludes (1946-48) hold a strange place in Cage's compositional output. The set is his first major masterpiece; the first in a handful of landmarks in Cage's long career. Also, the pieces are performed often and have been recorded over two dozen times — a very strange thing for a Cage composition.


Once one hears a performance of the Sonatas and Interludes, it is easy to understand why they have been so well received. However, once one hears two or three versions of the pieces, it is also easy to understand why they have been recorded so often and stood the test of time. Not only are the twenty short pieces brilliant, whimsical, touching and beautiful, but they also are kaleidoscopic in nature. The pieces were composed at the height of Cage's work with the prepared piano, that is, a piano modified with screws, nuts, bolts and more. Though Cage left very precise instructions as to where to place screws and bolts, the types of screws used, the type of piano used and numerous other variables lead to a nearly infinite amount of score realizations, each with radically different timbral and harmonic qualities. While one can listen to seven versions of Ludwig's Eroica and discern the variations in performance, much like sorting out the subtle differences among varieties of Pinot Noir, comparing different versions of the Sonatas and Interludes is akin to sampling a Gin and Tonic to a Mojito side-by-side.


Apparently, Cage had none of this in mind when he composed the pieces. He had, instead, much more heavy things to consider. He had recently studied with Arnold Schoenberg in an effort to understand serial and chromatically dissonant music. This drive, however, was stalled by Schoenberg's acidic teaching methods. Instead of pursuing harmony, Cage experimented with percussion music and dance accompaniment. On top of all this, Cage had just divorced his wife (and music partner) and the public didn't get his avant-garde music. In reaction, Cage backed away from this emotionally charged mess by addressing music through an Indian philosophical stance, that the point of music is to "sober the mind" through "tranquility." This composition is the first of many embracing this mantra.


Does this mean anything to the listener? So there are many versions of this piece and, yes, Cage was dealing with a lot when he wrote them. In reality, it means not that much. Today, we hear only one version and our own problems are far more important (and perhaps even more interesting) than Cage's were. The answer for most is that, "No," these interesting details are not too important (this sad omission might spell the end for concert notes — but what are we do in the awkward minutes before the lights dim when sitting next to a mere acquaintance or a first date?). What is important is the sonic experience itself and that above all is the primary reason these pieces have remained some of the most performed of Cage's: they are beautiful and incredibly interesting. Enjoy.




John Cage (1952)


(Pronounced either “Four thirty three”

or “Four minutes thirty three seconds”

or both or neither – that is, silently)


4’33” is Cage's most famous and “most important piece.” Its detractors claim there’s not much to it, but not so.


Where did Cage get the idea? By studying Zen with Suzuki in the late 1940s, from seeing all-white paintings by Rauschenberg in 1949, and in a hospital where Cage’s job was to entertain children without making any noises that could disturb patients. Thus, the piece might be a religious experience, an artistic alignment, a child’s game, or none of the above.


Is it silent? In every performance, there will be background noises, and the performer and audience will make some noises, intentionally or unintentionally. If such noises are the piece, then it is outside the control of the artist, the performer, and the audience, and they all learn to listen. Or maybe the point is that true silence is unobtainable (outside anechoic chambers). Perhaps there is no point.


Why 4’33? Cage reports that the length was determined by I Ching chance operations (including a mistaken calculation) in order to remove any influence of the artist. There can still be other reasons why the piece is 4’33”: Maybe because 433 is a prime number, but primarily because 4’33” is 273 seconds and absolute zero is -273 degrees Celsius. Cage sought absolute zero in music. His message might be that nothing can amount to a lot. But 4’33” is not nothing. It is a lot of time. So his message might be that a lot can amount to nothing. Or maybe he has no message.


Why three movements? Cage chose three instead of two or ten movements not by chance. The reason might be that three equal movements would last 91 seconds each, and 91 is prime. But the three movements might be 17, 23, and 233 seconds. Or they could go on for 47, 53, and 173 seconds. Those are also all primes. However, actual scores list different lengths: 30”, 2’23”, and 1’40” or 33”, 2’40”, and 1’20”. None of these are primes. Anyway, in the final score, which will be followed strictly in this performance, Cage did not specify the lengths of the movements or how (or whether) beginnings and ends of movements should be marked. Possibly he wanted the movements to be marked by nothing, which would give nothing structure. But then the nothings that mark the beginnings and ends of movements could occur anywhere (or nowhere), so the piece would have an infinite number of structures at once, which amounts to no structure.


Which instruments? Not specified. The score notes, “the work may be performed by an instrumentalist or combination of instrumentalists,” which means “any instrumentalist(s).” However, what is missing defines a hole, so 4'33” is defined by which instruments are not played. The piece is usually played on piano, but, unfortunately, I do not play piano. I will perform a blues version using guitar, harmonica, and bass, using a different instrument for each movement. The order of the instruments will be determined by the I-Ching, though I will throw nothing. The lengths of the movements will be unmarked, so they have no lengths.


How long is the (w)hole? The score notes, “The title of this work is the total length in minutes and seconds of its performance,” but later it adds, “the work may … last any length of time.” A contradiction implies everything, so the piece need not last 4’33’’. It lasts as long as the artist wants. I will decide as I perform, so it will be nothing like improvisation.



Twenty-Two American Folk Songs

Ruth Crawford Seeger (1937-8)


"I Ride An Old Paint"

"Charlie's Sweet"

"London's Bridge"

"The Higher Up the Cherry Tree"

"Sweet Betsy From Pike"


These five pieces are selected from Ruth Crawford Seeger's first book of American folk song arrangements, Twenty-Two American Folk Songs. While she apparently completed and readied the work for publication by 1938, no records remain to suggest it was ever shown to publishers. Only nineteen of the original twenty-two arrangements have since survived, and the book was finally published in 1995 more than forty years after her death.


Unlike other more commercially-oriented and watered-down books of piano arrangements, RCS's work still sounds fresh and original. She wrote it at an important stage in her life and with a specific purpose in mind:  to reconcile the modern with traditional American music.  The melodies are derived from her work with Alan Lomax and Carl Sandburg, and RCS explains all the pieces are built around "traditional American melodies." At the same time, her accompaniments incorporate a number of features from her dissonant counterpoint art music period. RCS attempts "to present this music in an idiom savoring as much as possible of the contemporary, preferring a bareness rather than a richness of style...[and] a freer use of the fifth, fourth, seventh, and second intervals so abundantly used in most contemporary music."


RCS's book also reflects her life-long interest in music education and children.  The pieces are written explicitly for elementary piano, "to acquaint the piano student with at least a small part of the traditional (i.e. 'folk') music of his own country, and to give this to him in a form which can be used at the same time for piano practice."


[Note: In arranging these piano pieces for guitar and bass, we have decided to perform from the original manuscripts, and have more or less stayed faithful to everything but the orchestration].



Four Walls (vocal solo)

John Cage (1944)


Considered one of Cage’s most important and well-known pieces, Four Walls is a product of the collaboration between Cage and choreographer Merce Cunningham. Their relationship was initiated when the two artists met at the Cornish School in Seattle during the late 1930s, but it wasn’t until they were reunited in New York City in the early 1940s that an artistic union was born. Following their first concert, Cage expressed the desire that they would work together “pursuing, individually and together, similar esthetic ideas & artistic lives.”


The vocal solo is brief, unaccompanied, and characterized by dynamic and rhythmic contrasts. It occurs in Scene VII, Act 1 of the “dance-drama. The vocal solo, which was originally performed by Julie Harris, is completely diatonic, with text written by Merce Cunningham. The dance is programmatic and enacts the story of a dysfunctional family.


The ingenious quality of the piece cannot be fully appreciated until one considers the fact that Cunningham and Cage worked separately on their respective parts, following one simple guideline: the music must accompany a choreographed dance lasting precisely 1 hour. As Merce Cunningham recalls, “I had written a dance-play lasting an hour that was to be presented in the Perry-Mansfield Summer Theater. Cage wrote a piano score for it. I asked if he could make the score fairly simple….Cage was not present at the summer school.”


After composing their respective parts separately the artists reunited and rehearsed. The result was the debut of Four Walls on August 22, 1944 in a theater in Steamboat Springs, CO. For reasons hard to fathom, the piece remained unheard for nearly 30 years.



The Adventures of Tom Thumb

Ruth Crawford (1925)

...Tom Thumb is one of the easily accessible pieces by Ruth Crawford, written very early in her life. It tells the story of the tiny tailor’s son Tom Thumb, who declares: “go out in the world I must and will”! Leaving his parents, he passes through several dangerous adventures involving an angry housewife, robbers, sentinels, a fairy and others. Based on the fairy tale narrated by the Brothers Grimm, Ruth Crawford wrote a piece inspired by some similar pieces by her conservatory teacher Louise Robyn, who wrote “A Peter Pan Picture Suite” among other similar pieces. Intended to be used for teaching purposes, ...Tom Thumb was the beginning of a whole group of piano pieces written for children, which differ significantly from the rest of her piano works, such as the first set of her nine preludes for piano she began working on the same year as on ...Tom Thumb. Among the pedagogical pieces, ...Tom Thumb is by far the most ambitious and complicated: some parts can hardly be played by children taking piano lessons. Rather than that, it is suitable to be played for children, comparable to the famous “Peter and the Wolf” by Prokofiev.


The piece is composed as a suite of six pieces: four of them narrate the adventures during Tom’s journey, and are framed by two pieces illustrating his departure from and return to his parents. In addition to the piano part, there is also part for narrator who recounts the story during the performance. To musically illustrate these little stories, Ruth Crawford uses several different techniques. The first three pieces follow the plot very clearly (one can even hear coins fall and sentinels march), interrupted by the narrator. The next pieces remind us of romantic “character pieces." No. 4 is a true song without words, which is sung by a fairy as a lullaby for Tom. No. 5 is a fast gallop, as Tom rides home on the back of a mouse.


The original manuscript has no text for the final section. The text we are using in this performance was written by Ruth Crawford Seeger's daughter, Peggy Seeger.


American Folk Songs for Children, Animal Folk Songs for Children, American Folk Songs for Christmas

Ruth Crawford Seeger (1948, 1950, 1953)


"Mr. Rabbit"

"Snake Baked a Hoecake"

"By'm Bye"

"It Rained a Mist"

"Don't You Hear the Lambs a'Cryin?"


These songs are selected from Ruth Crawford Seeger's three monumental books of folk song arrangements for children from the 1940s. To me, these books (along with the piano settings from 22 (19?) American Folk Songs) are masterpieces of nuance, a form of genius which whispers rather than shouts, a compositional craft so confident and insightful that it need not make a claim for itself. Like the Bartok pedagogical pieces, these are pianistically simple, but musically complex, full of the kinds of ideas that permeate RCS' larger works from the early 1930s. As in works like the String Quartet, the Piano Study in Mixed Accents, and the Diaphonic Suites, RCS makes use of canonic forms, dissonant counterpoint, subtle voicings with a singularity of vision and almost alarming compositional clarity. But these arrangements are also the result of nearly 20 years of deep immersion with and consideration of American folk music, as well as the development of a radically effective philosophy about how to use that music with kids. So, for example, in the tune from …Christmas Songs…, "Don't You Hear the Lambs A'Cryin'?", RCS is able to take a hard-edge blues/gospel tune ("Blood St[r]ained Banders," probably from the recording by Jimmy Strothers which she transcribed for Our Singing Country) and revoice it as a beautiful, shape-note influenced hymn (note the voicings on the first three chords). In "Snake Baked a Hoe-Cake" (from …Animal Songs…,) or in "By'm Bye" or "It Rained a Mist" (from …Folk Songs…) a wonderfully short "canon ("Bring back my hoecake…") or a simple rhythmic displacement (in the latter songs) exemplifies her deepest notions of dissonant counterpoint, while at the same time providing a lovely, moving, and deceptively simple musical experience.