When I was a child I wanted to become an astronaut. A dream. Occasionally I think of that dream. I love science-fiction movies. I often look at the stars on a sky-clear night. My daughter and I share a secret passion for astronomy. And I sometimes imagine myself alone in a space station, zero gravity, zero sound. Looking at Mother Earth, meditating.
This music is an invitation to meditation. An invitation to feel the environment. Between 1974 and 1975 John Cage wrote a work called “Etudes Australes”, a set of piano pieces. They were dedicated to his friend, the pianist Grete Sultan, about whom I have written on my other blog. “Cage obtained his material from star charts of the southern hemisphere that he traced and manipulated to obtain the parameters of the piano writing, though rhythms and durations are not specified”, writes Andrew Clements in a piece for “The Guardian”. “Each hand is treated utterly independently, and sets of silently depressed notes in the bass resonate through each study, providing a halo to the figuration above, which thickens from pointillist textures in the earlier pieces to dense chordal aggregates as the sequence goes on.”
The pieces were intended to be excruciatingly challenging – if not physically impossible – to play, for symbolic as well as technical reasons. Cage stated at the time, “these are intentionally as difficult as I can make them, because I think we’re now surrounded by very serious problems in the society, and we tend to think that the situation is hopeless and that it’s just impossible to do something that will make everything turn out properly. So I think that this music, which is almost impossible, gives an instance of the practicality of the impossible.”
Cage was born in Los Angeles in 1912 and died in New York in 1992. He was one of the leading figures of the postwar avant-garde. In 1946 Cage met an Indian musician, Gita Sarabhai, who introduced him to Indian philosophy and music. He had an immediate and strong affinity for Asian aesthetics. Of critical importance was his study of the writings of art historian Ananda K. Coomaraswamy; these in turn introduced him to the sermons of the German medieval mystic Meister Eckhart, it says in a biographic piece of Oxford Music Online. And if you have listened to some of Tore Takemitsu’s works like “Corona and Crossing” or “Uninterrupted Rests”, you will see the spiritual connection. Minimalism, pauses, drawn-out single notes…
Arnold Schönberg said about Cage: “He isn’t a composer, he is an inventor of genius.” Grete Sultan was up to the challenge Cage set forth, and I invite you to listen to her recording. And to meditate.
© Charles Thibo