Jay Clayton

John Cage: Four Walls

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This beautiful piece for piano solo (Richard Bunger), with a scene for the unaccompanied solo voice of Jay Clayton in the middle, is of approximately one hour's duration. It was written originally as music for a theater piece, a "dance play" psychodrama about a family conceived by the dancer Merce Cunningham, which had only one performance in Steamboat Springs, CO on August 22, 1944. The music is played entirely on the white keys of the piano, which gives the work natural modal qualities, and the music is not complex, as it was designed to be easily played by a pianist unknown to either Cage or Cunningham, and there was no travel money for Cage to attend the rehearsals with the pianist. All of these circumstances resulted in a work of direct, evocative, mesmerizing musical gestures, some set off by silences of varying length, some of insistent rhythm with simple variation. There are 14 Scenes, plus two sections for dance alone, each with a different dynamic -- the text they were to accompany, now lost, can only be imagined by the listener. The text for the solo singer in Scene VII reads "Sweet love, my throat is gurgling, the mystic mouth, leads me so defted, and the black nightingale, turned willowly by love's tossed treatment, berefted." Written at a time when Cage was considering the serious move of ceasing to write music in order to devote time to being psychoanalyzed, the title (as in the expression "staring at four walls" for intense, cabin-fever boredom) must have taken on poignant personal significance for the composer. He resolved to keep on with music, which lead to the radical and highly influential solutions of his post-1950 work.

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