John Cage and the 'Concert for piano and orchestra'

  • Thomas, Philip (PI)
  • Iddon, Martin (CoI)

Project: Research

Project Details


The 'Concert for piano and orchestra' by John Cage is widely regarded as a seminal work, not just within Cage's own output but in the context of twentieth century music and techniques. Examples from the extravagant notations, particularly of the piano part, but also the instrumental parts (the clarinet part adorns the cover of Pritchett's important 1993 survey The Music of John Cage) decorate most studies of 20th century and experimental music (the front covers of the second editions of both Michael Nyman's Experimental Music and Paul Griffiths' Modern Music and After: Directions since 1945 are two such examples). Ever since Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg organised an exhibition to run alongside the first performance of the work (which they organised), exhibitions of graphic scores, American experimental work, and other themes associated with Cage regularly include pages from the piano part, the Solo for piano. As well as the innovations in notations, formally - as a set of parts without score, to be performed in any combination and relationship, including with other works - it throws open the notion of open form and the open work to a far greater degree than any earlier work by any twentieth century composer.
Yet the many complexities, ambiguities and challenges of the work and its notations are rarely discussed in detail. Performances are still relatively uncommon for a work which is regularly cited as being a landmark. On this and other anecdotal evidence it would appear that the 'Concert' is recognised as being of great importance to the history of twentieth century music but how it might be understood and performed remains a puzzle. It is the purpose of this project to demystify the work in all aspects: to significantly advance how the work is viewed and understood and to provide insights and a range of possibilities to future performers.

There are three areas of investigation central to the study:

1. Historical context
The compositional context of Cage's works through the 1950s, as well as the works leading from the 'Concert' into the 1960s will inform discussion of the work, whilst much of the original research will be conducted through interviews and examination of archival material to present close readings of the production, performance and reception histories.

2. Analytical discussion
Despite the notoriety of the 'Concert for piano and orchestra', for its both historical and musical significance, there is surprisingly little detailed discussion about the music itself, how it functions, and its implications for performance. Discussion tends to focus upon surface features of the notation and then primarily relating to the piano part. This proposed study takes an unique and comprehensive approach to the work as a whole, closely examining and cataloguing all the different notations in the instrumental parts, the infamous conductor's part, as well as the piano part.

3. Performance issues
An important part of the study is to look to future performances, providing information and suggestions for fresh interpretations of the work as a whole and in its various groupings. In order to achieve this it is vital to integrate performers and performances into the project. A wide range of recordings and other documentation relating to performances from the past will be accessed and examined closely. The findings resulting from the investigation into performance issues will be discussed at length in the book. Furthermore, an interactive web resource will offer practical guides to interpretation, of individual notations and to matters of structure, density and continuity. It will allow users to shape new realisations of notations and to 'play' with possibilities. Additionally, professional recordings of each part will be specially made and available through the web-site which will allow for listeners to interact with and variously combine the different parts in modular fashion.
Effective start/end date1/10/1529/10/18


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