Record of the day: John Cage, "Cheap imitation"

Record of the day: John Cage, “Cheap imitation”

John Cage
Cheap Imitation (Cd Cramps CRSCD 117)

As I write, it’s raining full force, and this immediately brought to mind a record where it is possible to listen (in addition to the musical performance) to the storm that occurred during the recording. Naturally, being a John Cage album, bad weather has become an integral part of the music itself and the American composer has left it intact in the work. For this master of twentieth-century music, in fact, everything could become music; the sounds of everyday life and the noises that surround us had no less value for him than the notes that he patiently laid out with the nib on the pentagram.

The liberating power of Cage’s music upon its appearance in Europe, in the second half of the 1950s, brought a healthy wind of anarchy within the structures created by the post-war avant-garde, introducing random elements into an atmosphere so closed in on itself that risk self-suffocation.

“Cheap Imitation” is a rewriting of “Socrates” for voice and piano by Erik Satie, a composer who Cage considered a point of reference throughout his life. After designing a transcription for two pianos of “Socrates” for the choreographer Merce Cunningham, Cage was denied permission by Satie’s publisher to transcribe the work and use it.
In this case the editorial obtuseness was exploited by Cage in a creative way; he decided to rewrite the entire “Socrates” by changing the pitches, choosing them randomly by throwing coins from the I Ching, the Chinese “Book of Changes”.

The final result was an authentic author’s cast that completely revisited the original structure of the work, projecting it into an even more naked and ascetic dimension; with his usual irony Cage titled the piece “Cheap Imitation”.

By reducing the original to a single line and drastically cutting the dynamics, Cage obtained a result with magnetic charm, which completely captivates the listener thanks to the purity obtained through this extreme stripping of the instrumental fabric.

The recording was made in a single day at Mills College in California using a very light, almost whispered piano touch, to which in the distance the thunder unleashed outside the recording room acts as a natural (and casual) counterpoint; the result is pure magic.

Carlo Boccadoro, composer and conductor, was born in Macerata in 1963. He lives and works in Milan. He collaborates with soloists and orchestras in different parts of the world. He is the author of numerous books on musical topics.

This text is taken from “Lunario della musica: A record for every day of the year” published by Einaudi, courtesy of the author and the publisher.