John Cage

String Quartet in Four Parts

    Description by John Keillor

    John Cage wrote String Quartet in Four Parts (1950) with the idea of writing a work that reflected the opposite approach he was taking in writing music for prepared piano. His prepared piano works involved placing objects on or between the strings of the piano in order to alter the instrument's sound. Sonatas and Interludes, from 1942, is his most famous example. With this string quartet, the idea was to reverse this process of manipulating the string. Performers of the quartet are instructed to inflect the sound of the instrument as little as possible: no vibrato and little weight on the bow. The members of the violin family sound more like viols with these restrictions. The general soundscape has an ancient quality. This sound is compounded by a generally consonant set of intervals at a regular tempo, and a looseness of melodic construction. There are no recognizable cadences, and the resulting timeless atmosphere is evocative and mysterious. It has a complex rhythmic structure based on a formula of 2 1/2 - 1 1/2, 2 - 3, 6 - 5, 1/2 - 1 1/2. These numbers add up to 22, which, multiplied by 22 equals 484 bars, the total duration of the string quartet. Probably by coincidence, a performance of this work is about twenty-two minutes long. The formula is then applied to the quartet's four movements and different array of phrases, chords, and so on. It is a complicated method. This process of composing makes the music consistently varied and coherent on a local level and on the larger scale as well. Cage referred to this microcosmic and macrocosmic phraseology, and it sometimes resembles certain medieval practices of musical organization. It is striking how this method makes the music's period difficult to pin down. Owners of recordings can challenge even the most astute listeners with this work in a game of "drop the needle." Guessers are as likely to guess at the origin of the piece as from the fourteenth century as they are the twentieth century. This does not mean that the music is backward looking or derivative. Cage's integrity and originality are unassailable. The compositional methods used in String Quartet in Four Parts (1950) are not lifted from a historical study of older methods of writing music. They are a reaction to his own artistic directions, and upon closer comparisons to instrumental music from the early Renaissance, Cage's work is completely different. If it were presented to composers or listeners of that day, they would not regard it as comparable to music of their times.

    The four movements of the quartet are divided into the seasons. "Summer in France" is the first movement's subject. The second movement concerns autumn in New York. They are the composer's own impressions; the music does not develop the time/place association. The third movement is a canon in winter, and the forth movement is a spring quodlibet. Canons and quodlibets are sort of opposites, insofar as canons are staggered entries of the same theme while quodlibets juxtapose themes of different works for a humorous effect. String Quartet in Four Parts (1950) covers a lot of ground in this manner, combining titles that are fanciful with titles that are descriptive. These two separate titles are again opposites, indicative of New World/Old World and theme identical vs. opposing theme. Cage finds deceptively simple ways to fire the imagination with this work, and it is an engaging pleasure to hear. It is not a musical stunt that underlines a concept, although if it does, the quartet itself is nonetheless truly beautiful.

    Parts/Movements

    1. (subject: summer in France)
    2. (subject: fall in America)
    3. (subject: winter expressed as a canon)
    4. (subject: spring expressed as a quodlibet)

    Appears On

    Year Title Label Catalog #
    2017 Other Minds Records OM 10242
    2012 ECM 4724222
    2012 Wigmore Hall Live WHLIVE 0053
    2011 EtCetera Records KTC 1429
    2007 ECM 4724222
    2007 Deutsche Grammophon 4777355
    1996 MDG MDG 61307012
    1995 Vox Box 5143
    1993 Mode Records 27
    1988 Deutsche Grammophon 423245
    Mode Records MODE 27