John Cage, 20th century composer and innovator, is probably best known for his piece 4’33”, consisting of the sounds of 4 minutes and 33 seconds of “silence.” Audiences were confounded and not altogether pleased. Cage continued to pioneer an entire method of music composition based on “chance operations,” such as tossing coins or pulling slips of paper out of a bag. Not many artists had the courage to follow Cage into this dicey territory; contemporary composer Bill LePage is one who was willing to take the risk.
Bill LePage’s newly re-released work For John Cage is a true homage: it was created entirely by chance operations. Listen to the piece and read Bill’s detailed account of how it this particular game of chance worked below.
For John Cage
by Bill LePage
This work is the last in a series of three works on the theme of endings and was originally written for pipe organ. This version is for strings: violin, viola, cello, and double bass. At first, the music was to have been based on a chart of common jazz chords. The score was made using chance operations.
“Stafford Road,” the first work in the series on endings, was made by using the last notes of famous classical works. It was premiered in Innsbruck by the Ticom Ensemble in November 2002. The second work in the series, “Death Of A Clover,” was made from source material from a collection of American folk music; it was premiered in May 2004 by the Gageego Ensemble in Goteborg, Sweden. In the future, I plan to orchestrate all three works and present them as one piece entitled “Three Orchestral Works.”
For the work, “for John Cage,” I took slips of paper and wrote the letters A through L on each individual slip. I then put them in a bag and shook it up. I drew each slip of paper one after the other from the bag until the bag was empty. I did this 7 times in a row, writing down the sequence of letters.
The first time notes are sustained in order to create formations of two notes.
The second time notes are sustained in order to form three-note chords.
3rd Time: 3-note chords.
4th, 5th, and 6th Times: 4-note chords except at one point during the 4th time, at the end, when 6 notes are sustained so as to form one six-note chord.
7th time: 3 note-chords.
Between each section, 1-7, all of the sustained notes are released, and the process gradually builds up again.
The letters (on the slips of paper) refer to the notes in the chromatic scale beginning with middle C on the piano. The letter A on the slip of paper indicates middle C, the letter B refers to C# and so on through the scale (the letter L is the last note of the scale, i.e. B Natural). If the slip of paper drawn and placed on the table was face up, it was to be played by the right or left hand; if the slip was placed on the table face down, it was to be played by the pedal on the organ.
Then, for each slip of paper, I tossed a coin once. If the coin tossed for the “hand notes” was heads, then the note was to be played by the right hand in the treble clef, with the sequence of notes following in the treble clef also. If the coin tossed was tails, then the note was to be played by the left hand beginning in the bass clef, with the sequence of notes following in the bass clef.
If the coin tossed for the “pedal notes” was heads, the note was played. But, if the coin was tails, then there was a silence in place of the note.
I originally intended to use 9th and 11th chords, but I discarded the “jazz chords” for the method, outline above, which you might call the “invent-your-own-chords” method. The original score had no bar lines. Each note’s duration is 8 seconds in length, and then held, i.e. sustained, to last through the entrance of the following notes, which form the chords. The entrances occur every 8 seconds. For example, a chord of four notes is built up note by note and subsequently lasts 32 seconds. The version of the work for strings abandons the note duration way of counting, and, instead, is divided into bars of 4/4. Quarter note equals 103.