A major source of inspiration for associate artist Bill T. Jones is the composer John Cage, one of the great innovators in classical music of the twentieth century. Cage’s most well-known work is 4’33”, which has the performing musician doing exactly nothing for four minutes and thirty-three seconds. Coincidences and minimalism play an important part in his work, and his handling of musical instruments was highly original. For example, he put pieces of paper and erasers between the piano strings to alter the sound. Cage wrote his early, tranquil work Amores (1943) for prepared piano and percussion especially for his friend, the well-known choreographer Merce Cunningham. Though it was actually written for three percussionists and one pianist, here it is performed by just two musicians from Ensemble Klang. Since percussionist Joey Marijs and pianist Saskia Lankhoorn each had to record their own parts individually anyway because of the corona measures, Marijs could just as well record all three percussion sections, which results in an unusual visual tripling. Watch and listen to Amores to understand why Bill T. Jones loves Cage so much.
Solo: Prepared Piano
Trio: Nine Tom Toms, Pod Rattle
Trio: Seven Woodblocks
Solo: Prepared Piano
Amores, a rare old piece
This pandemic has taught us a new etiquette, like allowing someone to finish their sentence before saying something during a conference call or zoom meeting. This is also how it works in Amores (1943), according to Pete Harden, the artistic director of Ensemble Klang.
This relatively unknown piece of chamber music by John Cage consists of four parts. In the first and last, it is the prepared piano’s turn, and in the two parts in between it is the percussion section’s. An old piece of work like Amores is a rarity for Ensemble Klang, which has been around since 2003 and almost exclusively performs new compositions from living composers. The ensemble decided to perform this work because the first and fourth part were originally written for a choreography by Merce Cunningham.
The title Amores appeals to the imagination, but the music is far from romantic. Rather, it consists of separate elements, small islands of sound that you travel through. The light touch gives it a sensual quality, the peculiar sound of the prepared piano a dreaminess. In his early compositions, Cage supplanted melody and harmony by timbre and rhythm; percussion took centre stage, and the piano’s tonal universe was broken wide open. Though it may seem like improvisation, the notation is precise and the instructions are exact. But still there is room for interpretation.
The performance is in the hands of pianist Saskia Lankhoorn and percussionist Joey Marijs. Lankhoorn painstakingly puts the screws, bolts, nuts and erasers between the strings of her concert grand piano herself. She is free to choose the extent and size of the objects, so long as the metallic resonance is not too loud. Like cage, Lankhoorn plays the keys with a light touch. Her highly acclaimed solo concerts often submerge listeners in a new world of sound.
Like Lankhoorn, percussionist Marijs went to the hardware store to look for materials. Marijs’ instructions are just as cryptic as they are logical: the woodblock cannot be a woodblock but should rather be a wooden beam or block, as it should not resonate too much. Marijs says Cage was looking for percussive sounds that even a prepared piano is incapable of producing. Marijs has ample experience with the repertoire of John Cage. He is the sole percussionist in Ensemble Klang and plays a trio of toms, a guiro and wooden blocks.
John Cage (1912-1992), the American avant-garde composer, is considered one of the twentieth century's most important innovators of experimental music. In 1930s New York, he studied world
music with Henry Cowell and composition with Adolph Weiss. Cage then spent two years studying in California with Schönberg, who later said he was the only one of his American students that interested him. Cage became fascinated by modern dance and accompanied dance classes in Los Angeles and Seattle, where he met his future life partner Merce Cunningham. In his compositions, rhythm and timbre became increasingly important, and in 1940 he invented the 'prepared piano': he inserted various objects between the strings of a grand piano resulting in a wide variety of timbres and, in Cage’s words, created “a percussion orchestra under the control of a single player.” One of his major works for this instrument, Sonatas and interludes for prepared piano (1946-1948) is a milestone in 20th century piano music. In 1951, he was presented with a copy of the I Ching, or the Book of Changes, a Classical Chinese tome on divination. For Cage, the I Ching became the means to compose music using chance operations and indeterminacy in his compositions. One of the earliest results of this new method was Music of Changes for solo piano in 1951. The following year he wrote the infamous 4'33", a work in which the performer is instructed to remain silent during the prescribed time; the sounds of the environment are all that can be heard. He also wrote a number of the earliest electro-acoustic compositions in this period. Cage's fame started to grow from the 1960s onwards. In the 1980s, Cage, whose chance-composed music had almost always had a theatrical quality, started focusing on opera, ultimately completing a series of five Europeras. Cage died on 12 August 1992. In 2012 the Holland Festival, which has performed many of Cage's works over the years, organised a celebration marking the centenary of his birth.
Founded in 2003 and based in The Hague, Ensemble Klang is focused on both the new generation of composers – such as Peter Adriaansz, Kate Moore, Andrew Hamilton, Matthew Wright and Roi Nachson – and more established names such as Heiner Goebbels, Martijn Padding and Louis Andriessen. Ensemble Klang is one of the most exciting ensembles in Dutch contemporary music today, with what is by now an impressive repertoire of works written especially for them. The combination of saxophones, trombone, keyboards, percussion and guitar enables them to make a distinctive yet versatile sound ranging from fragile and intimate to the driving force behind a big band.
The ensemble performs without a conductor; a typical Ensemble Klang programme combines complex music that demands virtuoso precision, with a breathtaking level of musical risk. All of the ensemble’s members enjoy working together and do so regularly: virtually every season sees the ensemble working on musical theater, site-specific and dance projects. ‘Klang members’ feel equally at home in the concert hall, in the open air at a festival or in a pop venue.
- John Cage
- performed by
- Ensemble Klang
- Saskia Lankhoorn
- Joey Marijs