John Cage’s In a Landscape and more than a score…

By Jacy Burroughs

John Cage’s In a Landscape from more than the score… series

When I learned about John Cage for the first time as an undergraduate music major, I was only instructed in his most avant-garde concepts: the infamous 4’33”, his prepared piano pieces, and his chance compositions, some of which he composed using the I Ching (an ancient Chinese divination text, also known as the Book of Changes.) I recently heard a recording of Adam Tendler performing Cage’s piano solo In a Landscape. If I had not read on the score that the music was by Cage, I would not have believed it. It was so beautiful, and honestly, that’s not an adjective I would associate with Cage’s music.

I was sure there are others who share similar misconceptions about Cage’s music with me, so when I had the opportunity to meet Adam Tendler, I jumped at the chance.  Adam Tendler works closely with the John Cage Trust and has performed Cage’s music internationally. He has also recorded video masterclasses and performances of Cage’s music for Tido Music, a groundbreaking web resource and iPad app. The videos were produced by Edition Peters, John Cage’s sole publisher, and are housed in the app’s Piano Masterworks collection.

And now Peters has just released a new sheet music print series, more than the score…, which can be used alongside the video masterclasses and digital editions in Tido Music. The series includes In a Landscape, presented by Tendler. As a leading interpreter of Cage’s works, I knew Adam would have encountered the whole spectrum of opinions of Cage. Here is an excerpt of my interview with him.

JB: What are some common misconceptions you hear when discussing the music of Cage?

AT: If people only know about 4’33”, they’ll think of Cage at worst as a charlatan, a total poser. That’s the worst case scenario. For others, a kind of a back hand compliment that people will often say is that Cage was more a philosopher than a composer. It’s meant as a compliment but it dismisses the fact that he was actually very well-trained and very much focused on sound and sound as experience. This misconception puts him in this other category, ‘composer-light’, and I don’t think that’s fair and doesn’t give credit to the music. As he introduced chance into his works, the thing that really still divides people and sparks debate is this idea that if he’s inviting chance into the process of choosing, what’s his role then, and how can he call himself a composer if there’s a sense of erasure of his preferences. It speaks to the philosophical divide of what a composer’s role is supposed to be when making music. Should it be a window into their inner life or does it not have to be? I actually think you can have it both ways. I actually think that in Cage’s chance pieces we’re getting a very clear window into his inner life because those pieces are devised and constructed in a way that you absolutely know what was interesting to him at that time, whether it’s the i Ching, whether it’s star charts, whether it’s creating a wintery landscape. All of these things, the way he gets to them by chance, is the musical language he’s not just choosing but often times inventing. To me, there is a very clear intention and very clear and pretty powerful voice of what’s going on musically, even in a chance piece. What’s really exciting is when people open themselves to experiencing these chance pieces and have their minds changed.”

JB: Why is the music of Cage relevant today?

AT: A really kind of plain answer is there is still so much for people to experience of his music. So many of his pieces are fresh with each performance. There’s no set way for doing a lot of his pieces, they’re designed to be different each time. It’s almost like playing a game. We all know how to play Monopoly but it doesn’t mean every time you play Monopoly the same person wins with the same Boardwalk. It’s the same game but it changes every time people do it, and that’s why we do it.  That’s why people play the game. It’s exciting and fun if you know how to do it. What’s not cool is if someone is making up their own rules. People do that with Cage and other composers, too, and that doesn’t do the music much service. What creates timelessness [in music] is that each performance is refreshing and exciting anew. What I think is always fun is that same freshness can apply to performances of works of other composers and really has to do with the act of sharing it, whether you’re teaching it or performing it live or recording it. One thing one can’t control is how it’s going to be received, but that can be a good thing that some people may take something in one direction and others may take it very differently.

Cage’s music is really about surrendering to a moment, even at its most pretty. Even in a piece like In a Landscape, there is a certain sort of surrender it requires. This piece doesn’t behave like we think classical music should; there’s no climax for instance. Cage’s music doesn’t often do the thing we think it’s supposed to do and I just think that that is something that can be good for listeners now. We can’t predict where the music is going to go but that’s all the more reason to share it.

If you’re like me and are not familiar with Cage’s In a Landscape, I encourage you to experience it with the score and masterclass, presented by Adam Tendler and available through Edition Peters’ more than the scoreseries.

About more than the score…

The more than the score series from Edition Peters currently consists of 12 titles featuring the piano music of classical composers, from Bach, Mozart, Schubert, Chopin and Debussy right up to John Cage. Each title includes a score and a written masterclass on the piece from a panel of internationally-renowned pianists.

more than the score draws on material released on Tido Music, a revolutionary web resource and iPad app. Discover interactive scores synchronized with audio recordings, video performances and masterclasses, and much more. Visit tido-music.com/editionpeters for a 30-day free trial!

The 12 titles in the more than the score series are:

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