Published Mar 07, 2018Is there any more enigmatic back story than the one behind John Cage's Electronic Music for Piano? The work — not so much composed as scribbled onto a piece of hotel stationary — is still out of this world more than half-a-century after its introduction.
That famous piece of paper remains wildly open to interpretation. Cage instructed his collaborator, David Tudor, to take parts four to 84 from his 85-part series Music for Piano and add "microphones, amplifiers, loudspeakers… without measurement of time [and] no observation of notation." Tudor was further prodded to incorporate silence and, well, his imagination.
A new recording of this remarkable work is available from Cage enthusiast and pianist Tania Chen. Her Electronic Music for Piano features ex-Sonic Youth vocalist/guitarist Thurston Moore, David Toop of the Flying Lizards and Jon Leidecker (aka Wobbly), a Negativeland coworker. It was up to composer, musician and scholar Gino Robair to bring a bit of order to the project.
The result is punishingly severe. (That's a compliment.) The team's interpretation is both intensely modern and respectful of the work's history. They've drawn a straight line between Cage's early contributions to the avant-garde and the best excesses of more recent projects like Sonic Youth and Negativeland.
As Cage instructed, there are a number of silent sections throughout the 69-minute piece (the longest run three minutes). Some come as a relief, others are disruptive and bothersome. Still others are simply interesting. To this day, Cage's use of silence remains the most radical musical idea ever introduced. As this recording proves, it continues to surprise us, beguile us and piss us off. (Omnivore)