John Cage

Etudes Australes

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Performed by Grete Sultan. Like Cage's magnificent piece "Atlas Eclipticalis" (scored for a soloist on up to an orchestra of soloists), the "Etudes Australes" are also composed of notes derived from star maps. These 32 piano etudes, each two pages/eight systems long are divided into four books. There are two kinds of written notes to be played, completely filled (sometimes attached by a single line like a chord but most often isolated points) or empty circles. The pianist's right hand part is indicated on two staves and the left hand is indicated on another two staves. Both hands play notes that are located over the entire range of the keyboard, so that a performance is often quite active, with the many large jumps between extreme registers. But since there are no tempo or dynamic indications given in the score (these are left to the performer's discretion), a performance may be physically virtuosic or less so. And, consequently, any apparently expressive or emotional events that occur are created by the performer or a listener's sensibilities (including habits). Concerning an overall tempo and the difficulties of the piece, Cage invites the performer to feel free to "shift gears" when necessary as may sometimes become necessary "when traveling through space." Diamond-shaped notes or a single note at the beginning of each etude indicate keys which are to be pressed down silently for the entire etude; this is usually accomplished by placing rubber wedges to keep the key or keys depressed). The resulting undampened string is affected by the notes played around it, and will produce corresponding harmonics in reaction to them. "...the correspondence between space and time should be such that the music 'sounds' as it 'looks'." The proportions between the notes create the "time" in this score. The notion of a linear, progressive (historical) time is abandoned. Upon listening to a performance of "Etudes Australes" by a California pianist, Cage remarked that he preferred that performance instead of one that had already been issued on record because the California pianist hadn't given a (Romantic) sense of forward propulsion to the work, but simply played the notes giving each tone its own integrity (this is paraphrasing here but that's the gist of what he said). Of the four defined (but in reality not entirely separate) components of sound (amplitude, phase, frequency and time), the time parameter is perhaps the essence of music, because music fundamentally and uniquely deals with the creation of the sense of time. The "zero" or suspended linear time of this piece is one of several kinds of time.