Morton Feldman and John Cage on the cover of the album being discussed (courtesy of Naxos of America)
A little over a week ago, Mode Records released the 54th volume in its Complete John Cage Edition series. The album is also the eleventh devoted to Cage’s compositions for piano. Amazon.com mistakenly interpreted the number on the album’s cover to be Roman, thus listing it as “Works for Piano 2;” but the actual second volume in this sub-collection was a performance of the Sonatas and Interludes suite of compositions for prepared piano, which was released in 1996.
Cage liked to tell a story of his visit to a psychoanalyst. After the preliminary session, the psychiatrist told Cage not to worry and that he would be composing again very soon. Cage replied, “Doctor, you don’t understand; I’m composing too much already!” Every time Mode comes out with a new Cage release, I recall that anecdote and have long given up on that label’s prodigious productivity. When it comes to having a “complete” collection of Cage’s music for piano (including prepared piano), I have long been content with the eighteen CDs that Steffen Schleiermacher recorded for MDG.
Nevertheless, there is one offering on this new Mode CD that deserves attention. Ironically, it has nothing to do with solo piano. Rather, it involves a chamber music arrangement that Morton Feldman made of Cage’s “Cheap Imitation.” For those unfamiliar with the story of how Cage came to compose this piece, James Pritchett provides the backstory in the liner notes:
Cage was to create a two-piano transcription of Erik Satie’s Socrate for a Merce Cunningham choreography, but he was unable to get permission from the publisher. Even worse, he could not even get performance rights to use the published piano-vocal score of Socrate. Cage’s creative solution was to make a piano piece that maintained the exact metrical and phrase structure of Socrate, but with different notes to avoid copyright issues. He called this piece Cheap Imitation. Cunningham responded by calling his dance Second Hand.
I happened to be covering the January 1970 season of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, keeping a day-by-day diary for Ballet Review. (That article was subsequently anthologized by Richard Kostelanetz in his 1992 book Merce Cunningham: Dancing in Space and Time.)
I was there for the world premiere performance of “Second Hand.” That was a time when Cage was wrestling with serious arthritis. Pritchett’s account fails to mention that Cage deliberately prepared his “substitute” in such a way that he would be able to perform it himself.
In the half-century that followed, “Cheap Imitation” may well have become Cage’s most recognizable composition. For one thing it is music that actually has themes, which makes it a rather rare entry in the Cage catalog. In addition it is music that can be played by anyone with modest keyboard skills (and I have to say that I have taken a lot of personal satisfaction out of being able to play the piece with pretty much no difficulties). In that context I would say that, from the listener’s point of view, there is little to differentiate Takahashi’s performance from the one that Schleiermacher recorded.
However, the new Mode release also includes an “alternative” approach to playing “Cheap Imitation.” The Feldman chamber music version was arranged as a present that he gave to Takahashi. This was when Feldman was on the faculty at the State University of New York at Buffalo, and he had invited Takahashi to serve there as artist-in-residence. Feldman presented his alternative instrumentation as a gift to Takahashi when she departed at the conclusion of her tenure.
In other words “Cheap Imitation” has provided a context for a rather rich collection of personal stories. Indeed, there may well be more stories about this piece than there are about Cage’s 4’33” composition. That aspect of the composition may not have figured very much in the notes accompanying the new recording. For that matter, in an age in which history does not seem to signify very much for very many any more, the idea of a piece of music with a rich personal history may not leave much of an impression. Nevertheless, this is an album likely to trigger memories for at least a few of us; and, as one of those “involved parties,” I appreciate having added it to my collection.