John Cage and the Concert for Piano and Orchestra
- Start date: 11 October 2015
- End date: 11 October 2018
- Funder: Arts and Humanities Research Council
- Primary investigator: Professor Philip Thomas, University of Huddersfield
Partners and collaborators
University of Huddersfield
Professor Philip Thomas, University of Huddersfield
Professor Martin Iddon
Dr Emily Payne (Postdoctoral Research Assistant)
The Concert for Piano and Orchestra
The Concert for Piano and Orchestra (1957–58) 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.
Ever since Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg organised an exhibition to run alongside the first performance of the work (which they also organised, along with Emile De Antonio), 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 is ‘open’ to a far greater degree than any earlier work by any twentieth-century composer.
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 in many respects a puzzle.
It is the purpose of this project to demystify the work in all aspects: to advance how the work is viewed and understood and to provide insights and a range of possibilities to future performers.
This AHRC-funded, three-year project explores the historical context of the work, undertakes close analytical examination of the notations, and takes in approaches to performance, both historical and contemporary.
The research provides a wealth of new information on the Concert, making it significantly more straightforward for performers to get to the heart of what Cage’s composition does, and demonstrating the multiplicity of possible versions of the Concert (over a million of possible combinations exist!).
The project sheds new light on Cage’s creative process, not only demonstrating previously marginalised connections between him and his teacher, Schoenberg, but also detailing how important his relationship with jazz (and jazz musicians) was.
The team worked closely with musicians from the ensemble Apartment House, resulting in a new performance of the piece and associated CD release, which has had international impact and has received attention from numerous high-profile music critics and journalists, including a four-star review in the Guardian. The American Record Guide hailed it as ‘in all ways a revelation and an achievement of the highest order.’
The collaboration with Apartment House also led to the production of over 20 short films that document the various instrumental parts, the conductor part, and the piano part.
The films are embedded in an interactive website alongside apps that allow users––performers, listeners, students and others––to play with the notations and sounds to create infinitely varied versions of the Concert.
The interactive website is unique as a tool for musicological and performative understanding of Cage’s music, and within twentieth-century music scholarship, and has the potential to significantly increase the accessibility of new and original developments within music notation.
Publications and outputs