Music 36

Special Topics: Composers

John Cage, Ruth Crawford Seeger


Larry Polansky

Spring, 2005

Dept. of Music


Course Description and Syllabus


General Course Description

The music and work of Ruth Crawford Seeger and John Cage. Each an essential, singular, and fascinating force in 20th century music. Half the course will be on Crawford Seeger, half on Cage. We'll study their music, writings, and writings about them.


The class will be in seminar form, with students doing weekly presentations on specific works. In addition, we'll end up by doing a concert of the two composers' works.



There will be assigned readings, listenings, two tests (one on each composer), two presentations each by students (about a half-hour long, one on each composer), and a concert.


Preliminary Course Schedule

The first half of the course will be on Crawford Seeger, the second on Cage. Fridays, in general, will consist of two presentations by students on music from the composer/period we're studying. Everything in the schedule is subject to change as the class progresses, and I'll keep the schedule updated week by week in class and on the web.


Ruth Crawford Seeger

Week 1

Early works and life. Chicago and before. Influence of Rudhyar and Sandburg. Work on The American Songbag

Pieces: Piano Preludes, Sonata for Violin and Piano, Nocturne for violin and piano, Kaleidoscopic Variations, folk song settings in American Songbag ("Lonesome Road"), The Adventures of Tom Thumb

Readings: Tick, Preface, Parts I-II ; Strauss, Chapter 1, 2 (first half)


Week 2

Europe, Charles Seeger, early period in NY.

Pieces: Diaphonic Suites, Three Chants for Women's Chorus

Readings: Tick, Part III-IV; Strauss, Chapter 2 (second half)


Week 3

The flowering of dissonant counterpoint: the central period of "art music" composition.

Pieces: String Quartet, Two Ricercari, Piano Study in Mixed Accents, Three Sandburg Songs

Readings: Tick, Parts V. Strauss analyses (as needed)


Week 4

Folk music and beyond. Children, folk music, political activism, education. Composition in miniature (piano arrangements).

Pieces: Our Singing Country, 22 American Folk Songs ("Sweet Betsy from Pike"), 3 books of children's songs

Readings: Tick, Part VI, epilogues, etc.; Seeger, The Music of American Folk Song


John Cage

[NB: Silence to be read at your own pace over the course of the four weeks)

Week 5

General introduction to his work; music of the early period (1930s-1940s); studies with Schoenberg and Cowell; early percussion music; exploration of serial procedures; Music from the 1940s (dance music, towards electronic music, prepared piano); the "square root" method and move towards chance procedures;

Pieces: Inventions, Flute Duet, Imaginary Landscape No.1, First Construction(in Metal) Third Construction, Forever and Sunsmell, Wonderful Widow…, Amores, Four Walls, Double Music Imaginary Landscape No.3, Nocturne, Suite for Toy Piano String Quartet, 16 Dances, Sonatas and Interludes

Readings: Pritchett, Chapter 1, 2


Week 6

The 1950s: The Music of Changes and beyond; chance procedures, improvisation, happenings, electronic music

Pieces: Aria, 4'33''. Williams Mix, Theatre Piece, Where Are We Going, What Are We Doing.

Readings: Pritchett, Chapter 3,4


Week 7

Music of the 1960s-1975. Works involving multi-media, large scale theatre works, improvisation and electronic music

Pieces: Variations IV, Cheap Imitation (piano), HPSCHD Etudes Australes One, Atlas Eclipticalis, Lecture on the Weather, Europera, Renga, Cartridge Music.

Readings: Pritchett, Chapter 5, Silence.


Week 8

The final period, from the Freeman Etudes to the number pieces.

Pieces: Ryoanji, Freeman Etudes, Eight Whiskus, Apartment House 1776, various number pieces

Readings: Pritchett, Chapter 6.


Week 9

Overflow, Concert preparation, student presentations on their pieces



[All texts on reserve in Paddock, along with a number of scores, recordings, and other texts.]


John Cage

Cage, John, Silence, other selected essays and texts

Pritchett, James. The Music of John Cage. Cambridge University Press, 1993.


Ruth Crawford Seeger

Lomax and Lomax, Our Singing Country (1941), Dover Edition Reprint.

Tick, Judith, Ruth Crawford Seeger: A Composer's Search for American Music, Oxford University Press, 1997

Strauss, Joseph, The Music of Ruth Crawford Seedger, Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Seeger, Ruth Crawford, The Music of American Folk Song (and other writings on American Folk Music), Rochester University Press, Musicological Monographs, 2001.