Cage: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra

A work that is continually in progress, even decades after the composer’s death. In his 1967 essay, “The Death of the Author,” Roland Barthes argues that once an artist makes their work public, they are leaving it open to public interpretation. “The birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the author.” 10 years prior to this work’s publication, John Cage premiered his Concerto for Piano and Orchestra.

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While the piano concerto is a staple of the musical canon (think: Mozart, Beethoven, Rachmaninoff, and Tchaikovsky), Cage’s take on it is 63 pages of notation that can be played in any sequence and to any degree of completion with any combination of musicians. The parts are detailed instructions, and timing is determined by the musician but then controlled by the conductor whose arm movements resemble those of a clock versus the traditional conductor arm choreography.

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Cage, a Zen Buddhist, favored chance in his composition, and the works that result run on the circular kairos time versus linear kronos time. Which is one of the reasons why today, January 1, 2019, seems like as good a time as any to sit with this concerto. We like to talk about this year being different than the last year, but our calendars are arbitrary to the point of being comical. Does time ever stop? Or do we continue in circles, with tempos set and adjusted by chance?

Moreover, while there is a guiding script for life, there are any number of combinations we can live out within that script. Alternatively, we could chuck out the parts altogether and go off-script. It’s all valid. It’s all possible. Moreover, it’s not what we do, but how we show up in the doing of that thing. Within that, we might catch moments of melody, illumination, or breathlessness that give the entire score added meaning.

Today’s Contemplation

What are your resolutions for 2019? Did you even set resolutions for 2019? Either way, can you consider the goals you have for the year ahead — whether explicit or more nebulous? As you ask yourself what you want to achieve this year, can you go one deeper and ask the question, how do you want to achieve it? Beyond that, can you also consider that there is more than one way of writing that score?