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John Cage’s Living Room Music

Sofà of a living room

I swear this is going to be the last article I am writing on any of John Cage’s creations for percussion ensembles for a very long time. I promise.

In the meantime, here is my execution, together with a brief analysis, of Living Room Music, a piece for objects “of everyday use” written by John Cage in 1940. The recording that I include in today’s post is from over three years ago.

Would I change anything in this recording? Sure, such as, for example, my wonderful Veneto-English accent in Story, but it is after all, “my version” and it therefore has sentimental value to me.

Enjoy reading and listening!

 

INSTRUMENTS

As for many other pieces by John Cage, the choice of instruments is one of the most unusual aspects of this composition and the instructions on page 2 are, let’s say, rather “interesting”.

John Cage - Living Room Music

Instruments for Living Room Music (pag.2 from the score)

John Cage actually allows certain freedom in the choice of instruments, as he suggests different objects for each performer as long as such objects produce a different pitch from high to low, from the first to the fourth “voice”.

The choice of beaters is also unconventional. John Cage himself, after explaining that the first three performers should use their fingers and the fourth his/her wrists, reminds us, “Do not use conventional beaters.” OK John, no problem.

Finally, as far as the third movement “Melody”, which is completely optional, you can use any instrument you deem suitable, whether wind, string, or keyboard.

The beauty of these instructions is exactly this: they leave quite a bit of freedom to the performers in the choice of the instruments they wish to use. And this shows in the unique performance that each ensemble creates.

 

MY INTERPRETATION

So, which instruments did I use for the recording of Living Room Music?

  • For the first performer, I used two cappuccino cups played with two teaspoons. By the end of the recording, I had broken two teaspoons and chipped a cup. Sacrificed in the name of music.
  • For the second performer, I used a handcrafted teponaxtle built by my father (for Third Construction), which was played on different sides with two rubber beaters for wood blocks.

    Teponaxtle

    Handcrafted teponaxtle built by Parolini senior

  • For the third performer, I banged on a hard copy of Don Quixote of La Mancha. The weight of culture.
  • For the fourth performer, I used a couch cushion from my sofa, which was also banged with no mercy.
  • For “Melody”, I transcribed the part in Finale, transformed it into a midi, imported it to Ableton, and had it played by a synthesizer with a pitch that I would define as “arrogant”. Cage might have approved, or maybe not. Regardless, isn’t he one of the pioneers of electronic music?

In any case, here is the result:

 

LIVING ROOM MUSIC IS A STORY

The analysis of Living Room Music is quite interesting. The best part, in my opinion, is the fact that the entire suite can be regarded as a “circular” story:

  • you start with “To Begin”, an introduction piece for percussion instruments only.
  • The story begins, surprise surprise, with “Story”, a movement that tells you about a round, circular world, where you can go “around and around”…
  • The story also has a protagonist, “Melody”, the third movement, whose presence is not essential; the story would work anyway.
  • In the end, you return (around and around) to a movement for percussion instruments only, “End”. The end of the story. Or maybe just a new beginning.

 

SQUARE ROOT FORMULA

By now you know. Do you play any piece by Cage written between the 1930s and the first half of the 1940s? Then, if you want to understand its structure, you first need to verify if Cage used the square root formula. If you don’t know what that is, read my old post.

Anyway, in Living Room Music the square root formula is NOT applied, BUT… all 4 movements have a specific structural logic. The first one, in fact, includes 36 measures divided into 6 sections, each with 6 measures. The second one includes 7 sections, each with 7 measures plus an extra measure at the end. The third one has 64 measures, 8×8 exactly, whereas the fourth one, like the second one, has 7 sections, each with 7 measures, plus two final measures.

How are these sections organized? It depends. Sometimes there are actual letters, sometimes a double bar, other times, such as in Third Construction, there are rhythmic cadences. Still other times, sections are tied together without any sense of continuity and any specific division. As always, careful planning and pure chance are indistinguishable in Cage’s music.

 

RHYTHM AND MORE

Living Room Music is a unique rhythmic suite because, if nothing else, the second movement is a composition created for four, rhythmic voices. Do you know what my great teacher Mac says about “Story”? He says it sounds like the ancestor of Rap. Well, how can you disagree?

Anyway, who knows or has played “Geographical Fugue” by Ernst Toch, written a decade before Living Room Music? It’s obvious that “Story” originates from it. Moreover, Geographical Fugue was translated in English thanks to Cage and Henry Cowell’s efforts.

In any case Story is indeed the most famous and most played. Its most interesting aspect is definitely being able to successfully highlight all the nuances, accents, cheironomic neumes Cage includes in the score. I don’t know if I succeeded in my version. I could have definitely been more attentive with many of these aspects.

As far as rhythmic cadences, syncopation, and so on, I already covered them in the analysis of Third Construction. I will only say that, just like First and Second Construction, Living Room Music  is also a useful tool to prepare for what Cage has done with Third Construction.

 

CONCLUSION

My brief analysis ends here. A lot more could be said about this piece, but I would like to leave room for your comments. I would especially like to listen to your versions of Living Room Music. The parts are not hard and can easily be recorded in overdubbing, exactly as I did three years ago when I was way less competent in recording technology than I am today.

Just like other composition by John Cage, Living Room Music is a piece that must be played with an open mind and soul, while having fun and playing on stage. This is exactly what I try to do when I perform it with the Oxygen Percussion Quartet, with the ensemble I conduct at school, or… alone with a microphone.

Have fun playing!

 

Question: would you like to add your own thoughts to my simple analysis of Living Room Music? Or would you like to try recording your own version of this composition? Leave a link or a comment below!

 

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