Stephen DruryPianist Stephen Drury has performed much of the music of John Cage, and has recorded Cage's 1951 Concerto for Prepared Piano and Chamber Orchestra with the Callithumpian Consort and conductor Charles Peltz for Mode. Drury, who has masterminded many of NEC's Cage performances in this centennial year, and Peltz, who leads other Cage concerts at NEC this year as well, join forces for this October 9 performance of the Concerto with the NEC Wind Ensemble, for which Drury has provided these notes.

John Cage 2012Cage: Concerto for Prepared Piano and Chamber Orchestra

The Concerto for Prepared Piano and Chamber Orchestra is created from a rigorously limited universe of sounds. This comes as a consequence of Cage's predominant method of working in the late '40s, a method which is an extension of the prepared piano itself. On this instrument, a normal grand piano altered by the insertion of screws, bolts, strips of rubber, and other materials between the strings, the pressing of a key yields not a single tone but a complex sonority combining several different pitches and timbres along with unpitched buzzes or thumps. A conventional harmonic approach is out of the question, as each different piano key sounds its own fixed, non-modulating harmonic object.

The writing for orchestra reflects this hallmark of the solo instrument. Thus, for example, the opening chord, with the violin sitting on top of the clarinet and horn to sound a D-minor chord, always returns in exactly this configuration, never exchanging voices, never modulating to (say) an A-major inversion. The sonorities follow each other as "a melodic line without accompaniment," in Cage's phrase.

At the core of the orchestra is a large array of percussion under the control of four players. Conventional instruments such as cymbals and tympani are found alongside an amplified slinky, a "water gong" (another Cage invention), and a radio. The orchestra is, in effect, a continuation of the prepared piano by other means.

Cage composed the Concerto for Prepared Piano with the help of a two-dimensional chart of these sonorities, 14 by 16. The Concerto is about the conflict between structure and freedom, between improvisation and order. In For the Birds Cage described the piece as "a drama between the piano, which remains romantic, expressive, and the orchestra, which itself follows the principles of oriental philosophy. And the third movement signifies the coming together of things which were opposed to one another in the first movement."

In his virtuoso analysis of the piece, James Pritchett describes how in the first movement, while the piano's gestures are clearly improvisatory in nature and more conventionally "musical" in shape, the orchestra, following rules and diagrams on Cage's compositional charts, "is elusive and cryptic; it does not speak, it simply exists."

In the second movement Cage brings the piano under the control of a second, parallel but distinct chart, creating an increasing sense of confluence between the soloist and the ensemble.

The final movement is one of the great revelations of Cage's oeuvre. Throughout the concerto, two governing systems have been at work: the charts containing the sonorities (which control the pitches and orchestration), and a rhythmic structure (which controls the density and phrasing). Although no more discernable by the listener than the pitch charts, there has been throughout the piece a steady rhythmic proportion of 3, 2, 4; 4, 2, 3; 5 (expressed in numbers of measures) cycling over and over. The first movement made up of nine of these 23-measure-long cycles (3 cycles plus 2 cycles plus 4 cycles); likewise the second movement (4+2+3).

In the extraordinary third movement these two governing systems both reach their apotheosis. The prepared piano is brought under the control of the same chart which guides the orchestra, releasing it from the hunger for self-expression. The unified ensemble is then free to reveal the rhythmic structure which has been underlying the entire work: the five-bar phrase which comes at the end of each rhythmic cycle is expressed by total silence.

In both Zen philosophy and contemporary theoretical physics, one peels away layers of appearance to discover that at the heart of "reality" lies emptiness. In the Concerto for Prepared Piano and Chamber Orchestra, Cage, in stripping away the sounds of the piece and reducing it to silence, shows us the heart of the music. Form is shown to indeed be emptiness.