John Cage – Freeman Etude XVI (Book I) (1977-80) for solo violin
Sara Cubarsi, violin
Janet Sinica, video
Hendrik Manook, sound design
A lot of the practicing for this is about the encounter with the physical elements that make something that is theoretically possible improbable, and seeing how far one can push for the probability of the event in real time. The chance of a perfectly precise execution of all the sounds is mostly low. Cage used star maps and chance operations to develop the material, almost always within what is theoretically possible on the violin. When it is not, he leaves some space for the performer to make adjustments. He kept asking violinist Paul Zukofsky, for whom he wrote the etudes, questions such as “if this particular note is played on this particular string, what are all the possible pitches that can be played on this other string?” and then using chance operations to determine the next pitch, regardless of how difficult it could be. The performer is allowed to leave out sound events, or play a note on a different string than indicated, or slightly deform rhythmic durations, only as a very last resource to better approximate the notated sounds. Cage explains:
“These [Etudes] are intentionally as difficult as I can make them, because I think we’re now surrounded by very serious problems in the society, and we tend to think that the situation is hopeless and that it’s just impossible to do something that will make everything turn out properly. So I think that this music, which is almost impossible, gives an instance of the practicality of the impossible.”
I don’t have books 3 and 4, but Etude n.16 is one of the most dense looking in the first two books, so I thought it was a good choice for these not-so-busy Corona times. Cage advises to play the Etudes as fast as possible, suggesting 3 seconds per bar. I managed to fit the material just under 4 minutes. I did make exceptions, in the style of Irvine Arditti’s approach to the Etudes (he plays the fastest recording I have heard). In this Etude, he achieves an average speed of just over 2 seconds per bar, speeding up in sparer sections. Although I tried to adhere as much as I could to Cage’s proportional and prescriptive notation, I also do a slight speeding up here and there, resulting in an average of just over 2 seconds and a half per bar.
The overtly notated Freeman Etudes could seem to be at the opposite end of Cage’s indeterminate music. However, the improbable nature of the physical realization of the written score leaves many of the resulting sounds relatively up to chance, in a way, freeing them up of musical interpretation in the traditional sense. If one Etude is already challenging to prepare, I can’t begin to imagine what it must be like to perform the 32 of them in the same concert…
I love these Etudes, and if anyone is interested in reading more about them I would recommend to continue into Mieko Kanno’s article “Cage’s Freeman Etudes: Sounding Out” in MetaCage: essays on and around Freeman etudes, Fontana mix, Aria.
Sara Cubarsi, August 2020