Response to Gayle

This morning, a note on the kitchen table from my wife: "Gayle says: Do you have any reminis. of John Cage for MW 58 (due in Dec.)". Turning 40, I realize that my work is almost entirely concerned with transitions, cross-fades, and the notion of continuity; and how difficult this is for people who try to understand it (and me). In my early twenties, I was fascinated by Cage's work from about 1947-1950; directly preceding the Music of Changes pieces like the Nocturne for violin and piano, the String Quartet, and the 16 Dances. Bob Ashley said to Walter Zimmerman, in his interview in Desert Plants, something like "if you do 10 interviews with 10 different people, what you will have ultimately is 10 interviews with yourself". At the Music Gallery, in Toronto, in the late 70s, Cage performed a version of Cheap Imitation using Billings'music (I was thrilled to see him interested in Billings). There was a question and answer period afterward, and I shyly asked Cage about harmonic ideas in the Nocturne. He could barely remember the piece, and had almost nothing to say. Since then, I have been an advocate of that work, and often use it in my teaching.

In the summer of 1992 I was working on a string quartet, called Roads to Chimacum, the fourth in a set of computer composed instrumental works which mutate melodies into one another. In three previous pieces, I had used the concept of source and target melody. In the first, Bedhaya Sadra/Bedhaya Guthrie (for voices, gamelan, kemanak, and melody instruments) a Woody Guthrie melody was changed into one by my friend I Wayan Sadra, and vice versa. In 51 Melodies (for two electric guitars and rock band) the source and target are two fabricated funk tune-quotes (I wrote them, but I don't really consider them mine). In Two Childrens' Songs, the source was "Pop Goes the Weasel" (given to me by the performer who commissioned the work) and the target was "Teddy Bears'' Picnic" (my choice). For the string quartet I made a four part arrangement of Patricia Spaeth's beautiful fiddle tune, "Road to Chimacum", shown to me by David Mahler and which I had often played for my daughter. The piece was 17 variations on that arrangement using the mutation processes.

Cage died soon after I started the piece. I began reading his Themes and Variations. In the introduction, he lists "one hundred and ten ideas" from a cursory examination of his books. The fifteenth is "No beginning, middle or end (process, not object)." For a variety of reasons, this affected me deeply, and caused me to perceive what I now consider to be a problem in much of my music (I won't say exactly what it is). In Roads..., the idea of movement to and from a melody was dropped, and the piece became simply about moving.


Larry Polansky

Lebanon, NH

December 15, 1993