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Alma Mater Studiorum University of Bologna, August 22-26

2006

Nearly Stationary: The Silent Sonority in Cages


String Quartet in Four Parts (1950)

Ruth Mitchell Pwyll ap Sin


School of Music, School of Music,
University of Wales Bangor, UK University of Wales Bangor, UK
muue28@bangor.ac.uk papsion@bangor.ac.uk

Introduction within it. For Bernstein (2002) the late 1940s


represent a transitional stage in Cages development

This paper presents a rereading of the gamut of that nevertheless culminated with crucial changes in

sonorities used by Cage in his String Quartet in Four his musical style (p. 186). He does not assign any

Parts (1950). Gamut has been defined by Cage as a particular importance to silence, however, preferring

fixed and static selection of sounds consisting of instead to draw parallels between Cage's sometimes

either single frequencies, intervals, or aggregates of quasi-serial use of the gamut technique and the

pitches and timbres (Cage, 1961, p. 25). Our aim is central European modernist tradition's preoccupation

to demonstrate how - through a detailed analysis of at the time with total serialism. Increased

the third movement of this work - Cage was already correspondence between Cage and Boulez around

assigning a central function to the position of silence this time adds weight to the theory that Cage was

in his compositions pre-dating 4'33" (1952). indeed being influenced by developments from

Previous interpretations of this work have not on the across the Atlantic (he had spent much of 1949

whole drawn attention to the function of silence travelling Europe, where he met Boulez for the first
time). Cage completed the string quartet when he
In: M. Baroni, A. R. Addessi, R. Caterina, M. Costa (2006) Proceedings and Boulez were beginning to identify stronger links
of the 9th International Conference on Music Perception & Cognition
(ICMPC9), Bologna/Italy, August 22-26 2006.2006 The Society for between their working methods. These similarities
Music Perception & Cognition (SMPC) and European Society for the
Cognitive Sciences of Music (ESCOM). Copyright of the content of an were based on a shared interest in rhythmic - as
individual paper is held by the primary (first-named) author of that
paper. All rights reserved. No paper from this proceedings may be opposed to harmonic or melodic - musical structures
reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or
mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information (Nattiez, 1993, p. 44).
retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the paper's
primary author. No other part of this proceedings may be reproduced or
transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, On the other hand, one could also view Cage at this
including photocopying, recording, or by any information retrieval
system, without permission in writing from SMPC and ESCOM. time following an alternative European tradition

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emerging from Erik Satie. Pritchett (1993) has


claimed that the string quartets overall mood of
austerity and understated beauty (p. 51) was directly
inspired by Saties music. It was probably Saties
influence on the work that made Cage terrified of
showing it to Boulez, and he may have subsequently
relinquished the gamut technique for chart
constructions in order to align his working methods
closer with that of Boulezs aesthetic (Nattiez, 1993,
pp. 92-3). Despite engaging further with avant-garde
European models, Cages interpretation of them was
always highly personal and inventive. His Bernsteins gamut expands on the number of
misreading of European serialism thus allowed sonorities set out by Pritchett, by 10, to 43 (Example
chance to dictate the manner in which sounds were 2). Essential differences between the two inventories
combined and made to create new musical reside in sonorities 22-3 in Pritchett's analysis, to
continuities. If chance was a means by which which Bernstein supplies additional sonorities, and
impersonal compositional processes could be set up elsewhere, where certain sonorities are restated to
and realised, silence became the ideal personification create a larger gamut overall. While it is clear from
of the impersonal for Cage. That he was already both lists that the sonorities themselves are, as Cage
grasping its significance in the string quartet has infers, 'asymmetrical' - there is no central pitch axis
been suggested in Pritchetts (2001) description of from which all other sonorities are reflected on either
the gamut of sonorities as producing a succession of side - Cage may not necessarily be suggesting here
harmonies that neutralize any sense of progression, that the number of sonorities are asymmetrical. In
resulting in a static, aimless, silent harmony. The Example 2
nature of silence and of silent harmonies will form
the basis for the following analysis of the third
movement from the string quartet.

Analysis

Cages observation that the gamut of sonorities is to


begin with asymmetrical has proved to be both
useful and misleading. Pritchett identifies 33 such
elements, ascending from a low C in the cello to a
high G in the first violin (see Example 1).

Example 1

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arbitrarily choosing 43 sonorities Bernstein appears


to tacitly accept this notion. Pritchetts division into
33, while still asymmetrical from the perspective of a
central number, nevertheless suggests connections
with the works micro-macro structural and
organizational principles based on number 11 - (11 x
3 = 33).

If Bernsteins gamut appears to expand on, and


refine, Pritchetts earlier inventory, it does not
conform to Cages pre-determined rhythmic scheme.
In his note on the quartet, Cage (1993) is quite
specific about this aspect, stating that it consists of
eight units in the sequence 2, 1, 2, 3, 6, 5, , 1
(p. 51). This pattern sets out in micro-structural
detail the individual proportions and sections of each
movement, while also generating the overall (macro-
structural) rhythmic and temporal organisation of the
entire four-movement plan, such that each group of
two numbers generate the proportional patterns of
each movement:

2 1 2 3

Movement: I II

6 5 1

III IV

Cages rhythmic proportions add up to number 22 -


the most significant number of the work in as much
as the works structure is designed around it.
Pritchetts division comes closest in representing this
scheme, with 33 clearly related proportionally to 22
(as 3:2). Yet Bernsteins gamut is evidently more
fine-grained despite the odd number of sonorities. 43
is almost twice that of 22, so the question that
occurred to us was that, if Bernsteins 43 sonorities
are correct (and there seems to be little reason to

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doubt them), could there be a sonority missing that


- when added to his inventory - would create a far Example 3
more plausible 44 (44 being half of 22, and four
times 11, of course)? If such a missing sonority did
indeed exist, what could it be? Had Pritchett and
Bernstein left something out? Our conclusion from
the analysis of the third movement of the quartet was
that there is a missing sonority (if indeed it can be
described as such) and that this is silence itself. If
added to Bernsteins 43-sonority inventory, and
indeed placed at the beginning of the gamut (the
reasons for this will be outlined in the following
analysis) Cages compositional objectives suddenly
become much clearer. Bernsteins revised gamut, as
used in the following analysis, is illustrated in
Example 3.

How does the silent sonority function in this


movement? Entitled 'Nearly Stationary', the third
movement is by far the longest and most rigorously
structured of all the quartets movements. Cage
described it as 'strictly canonic', utilising principles
of retrograde and inversion, despite the fact that
there exists 'only one voice(Nattiez, 1993, p. 55,
p. 92). In analysing the quartets sonorities Cages
score was rewritten, retaining only the musics
rhythmic values, while assigning to each note a
sonority taken from our redesigned version of
Bernsteins gamut. Double bar-lines related to the
ends of each rhythmic section, and the dotted lines
signified the aforementioned rhythmic ratios of
2:1. 2:3. 6:5. :1. What becomes immediately
noticeable from looking at a full graphic
representation of the entire movement is the
ubiquitous presence of sonority 22, acting as a kind
of fixed point around which all other sonorities
move. Had the silent sonority been placed at the end
of the gamut series, then 22 would not be placed at
the centre of the list. Silence is thus placed at the
beginning of our inventory because all other
sonorities fall into place as a result. The following

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graphic example sets all 44 sonorities out along the


vertical axis while the gamut sequence moves along
the horizontal line:

Nearly Stationary,
Gamut Pattern
Section 1 Section 2 Section 3 Section 4 Section 5 Section 6 Section 7 Section 8 Section 9 Section 10 Section 11

45

40

35

30

25 a b
Section: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11
20

15

10
Looking at each section individually, internal
5 symmetries also become immediately apparent.
Section 1, for example, is 22 bars long and is divided
0
into two parts, with sonority 22 assuming a central
and recurring role within this scheme:
This broad graphic representation of the third Nearly Stationary,
Section 1

movement demonstrates very clearly symmetries and 45

40
asymmetries that revolve around sonority 22 (the
35

dark horizontal line is designed to draw attention to 30

25
22s position on the graph). Various shadings
Gamut

20

represent related or symmetrical sections, while the 15

10
vertical arrow slightly beyond the halfway point
5

signifies the movements 6:5 rhythmic designs. 0


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25
Position of Gamut

Interestingly, Cage establishes clear symmetrical


correspondences despite the rhythmic schemes A series of inversional patterns are established

asymmetry. The opening three sections of the around 22, which is heard throughout the section

movement are related to the final three sections, every four statements. 22 is flanked in the first

while the middle five sections create a series of symmetrical half by sonority 29 and then by sonority

contiguous relationships, as outlined in the following 8 in the second. Similar associations are also

diagram: established between sonorities 33 and 17. Section 1s


corresponding half, section 11, retrogrades the
sequence of sonorities, as follows:

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Nearly Stationary, Nearly Stationary,


Section 11 Section 10

45 45

40 40

35 35

30 30

25 25
Gamut

Gamut
20 20

15 15

10 10

5 5

0 0
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29
Position of Gamut Position of Gamut

Likewise the third section is symmetrical and starts


Section 2 displays further symmetry in that its and ends with the silent sonority, as shown below:
second half (15-30) is an exact mirror of the first part Nearly Stationary,
Section 3

(1-15), as shown by the arrow indicating its 45

40
midpoint:
35

Nearly Stationary, 30
Section 2
25
Gamut

45

20
40

15
35

10
30

5
25
Gamut

0
20 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29
Position of Gamut
15

10
Its outer parts are also reflected around a central
5

0
middle section, with similar spacing of sonorities.
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29
Position of Gamut
Sonority 22 is again important, appearing twice in
Again sonority 22 plays an important role. The both outer sections and separated by sonority 15.
section starts and ends with it and forms sequences Section 3 is almost exactly the same as 9, but it
with sonorities 30, 42 and 20. This pattern recurs in omits the silent sonorities at either end:
reverse order at the end of the section. Section 2s Nearly Stationary,
Section 9

corresponding section, 10, is identical to it in every 45

40

way other than the sonority with which it begins and 35

ends. In this section the opening sonority is 1 - the 30

25
Gamut

silent sonority - suggesting that 22s absence can 20

15
only be replaced by silences presence, as shown in
10

the following graph: 5

0
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27
Position of Gamut

Sections 4 and 5 are nested together within the


movements structural pattern. 4 has a central point
(sonority 2) but a symmetrical shape is not formed
around the entire section. The section does display
internal symmetry, however, and the two vertical
lines at 6 and 22 indicate the outer areas of the

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pattern. Sonority 22 starts and ends this symmetrical Nearly Stationary,


Section 6

section: 45

40
Nearly Statoinary,
Section 4 35

45 30

40
25

Gamut
35 20

30 15

25 10
Gamut

20 5

15 0
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40
10 Position of Gamut

0
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29
Position of Gamut
One might have expected - given the sections
A similar pattern is established in Section 5, below, central position - that the central sonority would be
which forms an almost perfect mirror of its sister 22, with its connections to 11 and its pervasive
section: presence throughout the movement. The central
Nearly Stationary,
Section 5
sonority is 1, however, re-enforcing the notion that
45 Cage held silence at this time in high regard, placing
40
it at the centre of an otherwise highly methodical
35

30 composition.
25
Gamut

20

15
Section 7, which functions in a similar manner to
10
Section 4, displays correspondences between certain
5

0
section segments, but no large-scale symmetry. The
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28
Position of Gamut
shaded areas in the following line graph serve to
The sixth section forms the central point of the third illustrate these correspondences:
movement, the central point of this section, and Nearly Stationary,
Section 7

therefore of the movement as a whole. It is given to 45

40

sonority 1, the silent sonority, as illustrated in the


35

graph below. This section is split into four equal 30

25
parts; each one prefaced by sonority 1, silence. In the
Gamut

20

two central segments, 1 appears at the beginning, 15

middle and end with 22 appearing every other 10

sonority. Indeed 22 is prevalent throughout Section 0


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35

6. Position of Gamut

Four patterns are repeated in this section. The first


(between gamut 7-8) consists of the two main
sonorities of the piece, 22 and 1, heard four times,
and followed on two occasions by a retrograde
pattern, 1 to 22. Two other patterns are repeated
almost as soon as they are first heard, the pattern
starting at 9 (repeated at 13) and 17 (repeated at 27).

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Section 8 is a mirror image of section 7, the point of Rhythm and Gamut, Nearly Stationary

symmetry indicated by the arrow in the centre of the 45 18

graph: 40 16

35 14

30 12
Nearly Stationary,
Sections 7 and 8 together
25 10

Gamut

Beats
45 Sonority
Rhythm
40 20 8

35
15 6

30

10 4
25
Gamut

20 5 2

15
0 0

10

0
1 3 5 7 9 11 13 15 17 19 21 23 25 27 29 31 33 35 37 39 41 43 45 47 49 51 53 55 57 59 61 63 65 67 69
Position of Gamut
This analysis demonstrates that, in terms of
structure, order of gamut sequences, and rhythm,
It is again worth noting that the two sections begin
this movement has been carefully and methodically
and end with the silent sonority and also have as
planned out. It is hard to see, however, why certain
their central point sonority 22. Sections 7 and 8 are
sonorities have been used more than others, other
not entirely symmetrical, however, as can be seen
than for purely personal and subjective reasons. As
from the highlighted sub-sections above. The
illustrated in the following pie chart indicating the
sections internal symmetries have been shaded in
sonorities used, number 22 accounts for almost a
order to indicate that the outer segments use an order
quarter of the sonorities:
that is not entirely connected to any of the other
sections. This reflects the kind of balanced Gamut Proportions in movement 3, Nearly Stationary

asymmetry that Cage had intended in this movement.


36, 2%
34, 1% 2, 1%
42, 4%
Another aspect that we have also studied in this 5, 2%
1, 6%
3, 4%
movement is rhythmic patterning. While there is 32, 2% 33, 6%

8, 5%
insufficient scope here to discuss patterning in detail, 31, 4% 10, 3%
the following graph, which plots rhythm against 30, 4% 12, 2% 13, 1%
14, 1%
gamut, at least illustrates on a broad scale that gamut
29, 5% 15, 5%
symmetries are also reflected in the rhythmic
28, 2% 16, 2%
domain, suggesting that Cage is also operating a kind 26, 2%
17, 5%
25, 1%
of rhythmic gamut in this movement too: 24, 1% 22, 21%
20, 6% 18, 2%

Cage appears to show no particular preference for


any other sonority other than silence, whose
importance is defined as much through its location at
section beginnings, middles and ends as through
sheer quantity of use.

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the silent piece took another four years to fully


Conclusion gestate, evidence surrounding the use of silence in
Cages quartet suggests that he was already further

Why should silence be included as one of the along this road than has hitherto been realized.

sonorities of the gamut in this quartet, then? Cages


description of the first three movements - Quietly REFERENCES

Flowing Along, Slowly Rocking, then Nearly


Stationary - suggests a process where rhythmic and Bernstein, D. W. (2002) Cage and high modernism.

harmonic movement is gradually replaced by stasis, In D. Nicholls (Ed.) The Cambridge

and in the end almost descends into silence (the final Companion to John Cage (pp. 186-213).

movement, a Quodlibet, falls outside this scheme). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Silence therefore features more prominently as the Cage, J. (1961), Silence. London: Calder and

first three movements unfold, at least in absolute Boyars.

terms, although the percentage number of silences in (1993), John Cage: Writer (selected and

the second and third movements appears to be the introduced by R. Kostelanetz). New York:

same, as seen in the following table: Limelight Editions.


Nattiez, J.-J. (1993), The Boulez-Cage

Table 1. The use of silence in the String Quartet Correspondence. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.
Pritchett, J. (1993), The Music of John Cage.
Movement No. of % number in
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
silences relation to gamut
(2001), John Cage, Grove Music Online ed.
1. 'Quietly 3 0.4%
L. Macy (Accessed 19 May 2006)
Flowing Along'
<http://www.grovemusic.com>
2. 'Slowly 14 6%
Rocking'
3. 'Nearly 20 6%
Stationary'
4. Quodlibet 6 2.7%

Furthermore, as a result of his research into Eastern


and especially Zen culture and spirituality during the
late 1940s Cage moved closer towards an aesthetic
of silence. Pritchett (2001) states that Cages goal
became not just to evoke stillness, but to practice it,
allowing his work to be as empty and flat as the
raked sand of Ryoanji. And immediately prior to
composing the quartet Cage had ruminated on the
concept of composing a piece of uninterrupted
silence 3 or 4 minutes long [called] Silent
Prayer (Cage, 1993, p. 43). Although the notion of

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