Over the last three months much of my time usually devoted to practising the piano has been devoted instead to making a realisation of John Cage’s Solo for Piano. The published score is 63 pages (17 inches wide) across which a total of 84 distinct and often highly elaborate notation types are displayed, many of which are repeated a number of times over the course of these pages with differing pitch or other content.

Excerpt from Solo for Piano, by John Cage.
Excerpt from Solo for Piano, by John Cage.

Whilst it is conceivable that a pianist might use the published score to read from in performance for some of these notations, the majority of them require some kind of working out, mapping them in some way that makes sense as piano music.

I have chosen to create a fully notated secondary score for an extended performance (at least, considerably longer than the version performed at the premiere in May 1958) I am giving on July 1st with Apartment House, as one part of the Concert for Piano and Orchestra with the full ensemble of 14 players.

I am glad I started making this realisation as early as I did. Not only is it taking me several hours often just to realise a single notation (making use of a baffling combination of chance determinations), but it is looking to be in places a highly complex configuration of sounds using the full range of the piano’s register with extended techniques and noises mixed in. Yesterday I came close to reaching the end of my realisation and I am looking forward to placing this fresh score on my piano stand and getting down to the business of choreography, determining the physical qualities of these sounds that have thus far been the product of measurements, calculations, and selections from a range of possibilities.

For those who understand Cage as the greatest of all twentieth century anarchists (at least, within the field of music), embodying the breakdown of score and authority, favouring process over product, my methods might seem perverse. But that is to misunderstand the varied nature of Cage’s music and the different, perhaps at times contradictory, functions of his notational practices.

I have played the Solo for Piano a number of times over the past decade, most usually in combination with other instrumentalists, singers, and twice with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company (alongside the hilarious dance Antic Meet). For almost every one of these occasions I have created a new realisation, sometimes applying quite different methods to generate some kind of score. Each performance, then, is different from the last due to the differences in my secondary score, the people and instruments I am playing alongside, as well as the usual differences of occasion, performance space, piano, audience, personal circumstances at the time of performance (health, interests, preoccupations, workload, reaction to weather, etc.).

So whilst I am about to embark on a journey of discovery with my freshly made score, over time embodying the complexities and quirks within it, I am also reveling in the anticipation of performing it alongside 13 brilliant players, making a wide range of noises with their instruments and other sound-producers, alive to the revelations and surprises of every second. Previous experience has taught me that this is the closest I know, in music, to joy.

Philip performs the Concert for Piano and Orchestra, alongside the world premiere of Resistance by Christian Wolff, a new work for piano with 10 or more instruments, with Apartment House at the Clothworkers Hall, Leeds, on July 1st 2017. https://conference.cageconcert.org/concert/

The concert is part of a weekend conference entitled ‘Performing Indeterminacy’. For full details see https://conference.cageconcert.org/