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John Cage’s Avant-Garde Piano Theatre of the Early 1950s

2 June 2022

Alexandra Huang-Kokina, The University of Edinburgh

The musical avant-garde is more than a style of difficult and complex music in the twentieth century. Its potency in reconstructing our modes of perception in the modern world has been increasingly underscored[1]. At the mid-point of the twentieth century, the musical avant-garde finds its foremost expression in John Cage’s experimental pianism. From the dramaturgical overtones of Music of Changes (1951) to the “theatre piece” Water Music (1952), Cage’s experimentation with the modern grand piano indicates a profound interlinking with Modernist theatre. This article argues that Cage’s mid-century pianism epitomises an avant-garde “piano theatre” par excellence through his ingenious use of rhythm and contingency. Rather than explicitly using the piano in defined theatre events, Cage’s two piano works embody the corporeality of Modernist theatre practices within the perimeter of live pianistic performance.

Before Cage’s pianism reframed our assumptions of the musical avant-garde, his precedent pianist-composers explored new modes of musical expression. These modern composers, such as Messiaen, Stravinsky, Boulez, and Prokofiev, stressed the importance of rhythm. Their reliance on “innovative techniques of rhythmic organisation” suggests a paradigm shift away from the use of classical musical narrative to sustain continuity within their works[2]. With its tenacious grip on time, rhythm rather disorients hierarchically structured patterns of harmonies, melodies, and voices, supplanting the linear narrative of the classical form with rhythmic disarray. I assert that the phenomenon of rhythm is acutely germane to the Modernist soundscape, whose permeability to industrial noise and sensorial overload shatters continual acoustic experience. Whereas reinstating the acousmatic space of the unadulterated sound world in the infiltrated modern soundscape is unattainable, rhythmic qualities of music call for visceral and cerebral engagement with the liveness of every present moment[3].

I posit that rhythm functions as the performative operative that enables Cage’s mid-century piano works to be accessed as theatre. In his letter to the avant-garde pianist virtuoso David Tudor, Cage explains that “the guiding principle” for performing his Music of Changes “should be to act.”[4] Similarly, the pre-eminent female proponent of Cage’s piano music, Margaret Len Tan, designates her approach to Water Music as “pianistic choreography”, which involves her “acting” via the “total use of the body.”[5] At this point, Tan broaches Cage’s earnest plea for performers of his work to practice and perform with a “stop-watch” to deploy their body “very rhythmically, and very precisely” to promptly fulfil the notated tasks.[6] Interestingly, a stop-watch presents the lived experience of temporal progression to the time-conscious performer, transforming the metronomic beats of mechanical rhythm into everyday tempo on stage.

Rhythmic principles illuminate how Cage’s pianistic practice can be appraised in parallel with the precursory development of Modernist theatre. The French dramatist, Antonin Artaud, founds his Modernist theatre theories on his principle of cruelty. In his “First Letter on Cruelty”, he justifies the terminological eccentricity of the Theatre of Cruelty by specifying that “cruelty means strictness, diligence, unrelenting decisiveness, irreversible and absolute determination”.[7] Artaud construes what he deciphers from the “effective signs” of the Oriental Balinese Theatre as the paragon of Cruelty:

That mechanical eye-rolling, those pouting lips, the use of twitching muscles producing studiously calculated effects which prevent any resorting to spontaneous improvisation… all that corresponds to direct psychological needs as well as a kind of mental construction made up of gestures, mime, the evocative power of rhythm, the musical quality of physical movement, the comparable, wonderfully fused harmony of a note…..We get a marvellous feeling of richness, fantasy and bounteous lavishness emanating from this show regulated with maddening conscious attention to detail. [8]

Among the bodily theatre language of the Balinese, Artaud highlights rhythm as indispensable to the construction of the densely physical mise-en-scène. The projection of bodily gestures, postures, movements, voices and sounds demonstrate the actors’ “stupendous precision” to arouse sensations on stage that merge “sight with sound, intellect with sensibility.”[9] At the heart of the exact theatrical embodiment is the intrinsically rhythmic connectivity that links all movements to sounds, externalising the “musical quality” of bodily motion as the “natural conclusion of gestures.”[10] Therefore, rhythm for Artaud is embedded in more shades of meaning than the mechanical metrics of sound; it rather indicates a nexus of the sounding body and the sensuous stage world.

Despite its limited applicability in Occidental theatre, Artaud’s principle finds its resonant ground in Cage’s avant-garde pianistic world. However, their interrelationship is not straightforward: to interpret Cage’s pianism as imbibing Artaud’s principle of Cruelty is to strain the novelty of his piano theatre.[11] Evocative of Artaud, Cage at once deploys rhythm to manifest the objectivity of quasi-mathematic precision and the subjectivity of a performative bodily construct. Unlike Artaud, Cage’s early-1950s piano compositions build on two interlocking modes of the creative process: rhythm and contingency. Contingency refers to Cage’s reliance on chance in the compositional process and the manifestation of arbitrary sounds on stage. Indeed, the tension between the calculating effects of rhythm and the indeterminacy of chance procedure maintains the attraction of Music of Changes and Water Music.

In the idiosyncratic “space-time” notation of Music of Changes—its mise-en-page— temporal value is precisely converted into spatial measurement; for example, a quarter note equates to roughly one inch of space on the printed sheets.[12] Such meticulous notational gesture contradicts Cage’s witting subjection of the piece’s internal structure to the contingency of flipping coins, presenting the multiple pre-composed pianistic events in anarchy. Significantly, Cage’s peculiar entwinement of space-time notation and chance determination warrants the performer’s utmost scrutiny in their real-time execution—any pianist would struggle to enact the anarchical medley of bizarre musical patterns in a strict time frame from memory and thus is compelled to scrutinise the notated work during the performance process. The performer’s enactment of the multi-variant dynamics and rhythmic variations, in turn, leads to theatrical effects: their pre-coded modes of pianistic attack hurl instrumental sound as if thrusting concrete objects in all shapes, colours, textures and weight, which challenges spectatorship via the volatile sensuous onslaught to sustain the artwork’s kinetic momentum.

In the graphic notation of Water Music, Cage scripts a broad repertoire of contingencies in a series of coded sound: non-pianistic acts like pouring water, blowing bird whistles, slamming the piano lid, shuffling a deck of cards on the tempered piano wires, and turning the radio dial are grafted onto the serious concert stage in the supposedly “solo piano” performance. Noticeably, rhythmic value overrules the occurrences of forty-one discrete sonic-theatrical events, as the multi-tasking pianist is propelled into their mechanically timed action. Meanwhile, the pianist’s deliberately orchestrated bodily display represents the drama and contingency of sound within modernity, constructing a Modernist soundscape in the piano theatre. Aspects of sonic modernity, such as the jarring tone of the prepared piano and the comic sonority of the whistle, permits the audience’s perceptual insight into the fortuitous signification of theatrical sound, whilst the changing radio frequencies smuggle in tinctures of everyday sounds.[13] By inducing such theatrical effects, the eccentric non-pianistic events puncture the normative modality of musical time and liquefy mathematical rhythm into an aqueous, dynamic rhythm. Ultimately, yet unexpectedly, the dying radio signal restores the scene to theatrical indeterminacy, as the piano theatre gradually fizzles out without arriving at a meaningful cadence.

The piano theatres in Music of Changes and Water Music do not deploy the piano to accompany theatre, but rather enact the fusion of theatre aesthetics with avant-garde pianism. It can be concluded that Cage’s avant-garde piano theatre displays a distinct Modernist phenomenon in the promiscuous encounter between rhythm, the cardinal virtue of modern music, and the cruel physical sensations of modern theatre.


[1] Susan McClary, “Terminal Prestige: The Case of Avant-Garde Music Composition,” Cultural Critique No. 12, Discursive Strategies and the Economy of Prestige (1989), pp. 64-66.

[2] Eric Smigel, “Recital Hall of Cruelty: Antonin Artaud, David Tudor, and the 1950s Avant-Garde,” Perspectives of New Music 45.2 (2007): p. 172.

[3] The notion of the “acousmatic” aspires to the experience of an abstract sound without the accompaniment of other sensual involvement, primarily visual impressions. See Adrian Curtin, Avant-garde Theatre Sound: Staging Sonic Modernity (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), p. 11 and p. 179.

[4] The David Tudor Papers, Getty Research Institute, Research Library, Box 52, Folder 3. See the citation in Smigel (2007), p. 181.

[5] Interview with Margaret Len Tan by William Fetterman in 1989. See Fetterman, “Water Music, Water Walk, and Sounds of Venice: Early Variations on Chance Composed Theatre Pieces in Determinate Notation”, in John Cage’s Theatre Pieces: Notations and Performance (New York and Abingdon: Routledge, 2010), p. 27.

[6] Ibid., p. 28.

[7]  Antonin Artaud, “Letters on Cruelty,” in Theatre and Its Double, Translated by Victor Corti (Richmond: Alma Classics, 2013), p. 72.

[8] Antonin Artaud, “On the Balinese Theatre”, in Theatre and Its Double, p. 39.

[9] Ibid, pp. 39-40, 42.

[10] Ibid, p. 42.

[11] In a letter to Pierre Boulez, John Cage admits reading “a great deal of Artaud” in parallel to composing his Music of Changes. However, he has never acknowledged that his piano work should be rendered as theatre because of his internalisation of Artaud’s dramaturgical principles. Artaud’s idiom thus remains an analogy that his contemporaneous pianists allude to in musical terms. For Cage’s letter, see The Boulez-Cage Correspondence, translated by Robert Samuels (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), p. 45.

[12] Fetterman 2010, p. 29. See footnote 5° for reference details.

[13]  According to Grove Music Online, the “prepared piano” can be defined as “[a] piano in which the pitches, timbres, and dynamic responses of individual notes have been altered by means of bolts, screws, mutes, rubber erasers, and/or other objects inserted at particular points between or placed on the strings.” See Edwin M. Ripin, “Prepared Piano”, in Grove Music Online (Oxford University Press, 2013). Accessed on 13th May 2022.

Image Credit: 1960 by Henmar Press Inc.


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