The Number Pieces of John Cage (5)


Today, I’ll discuss “One5”, another Number Piece from John Cage, as I’m studying it now. As I said before, each Number Piece is unique, and \text{One}^5 has some very interesting features.

\text{One}^5 is scored for solo piano and lasts 20 minutes and 40 seconds. It was written in 1990 and is dedicated to Ellsworth Snyder, a pianist and abstract painter who was a lifelong friend of John Cage. The score consists in separate time-brackets for each hand, 21 for the left and 24 for the right, and this is the first peculiarity of the score. If you’ve read this previous post, you will remember that \text{One}^4 has a similar structure, wherein there are six time-brackets for the left hand and eight for the right one. It would thus seem as if there were two performers instead of just one.

The time-brackets can contain a single note, a single dyad or a single triad, but there is only one event in each time-bracket. The second peculiarity of this score is that dyads or triads sometimes span the whole range of the piano, making it difficult, if not impossible, to play the written sounds with only one hand. In such cases, it seems natural that one hand would help the other. It is interesting to note that this point is clearly written in the instructions of \text{One}^4 (“Either hand may help the other“), but not in the score of \text{One}^5. Thus, not only do we have two performers, but they also play music collaboratively !

The third peculiarity lies in the execution of the piece. Contrary to \text{One}^4, the time-brackets are well separated in time, and it would not be unusual to have time differences of one minute between consecutive sounds. Now, if you check on an ordinary piano, you will find out that the ordinary decay time of a note (without touching the pedals yet) is approximatively 10 to 20 seconds. Of course, as with any piano, if you release the key before, the sound will end immediately. In case no pedal is activated, the duration of such a note is thus precisely defined by the action of pressing and releasing a key, so choosing the starting and ending times in a time-bracket system makes sense. Returning to the question of note decay, and considering that Cage conceived the Number Pieces and the time-brackets as a new harmonic structure where sounds could happen at the same time, it seems quite impossible that this would happen between consecutive time-brackets in this score.

However, Cage adds further instructions. Either you decide to use the sustaining pedal, and in that case you have to hold it down for the entire duration of the piece. Or you should make as many overlappings between time-brackets as possible by using the sostenuto pedal.

Now, using the sustaining pedal makes a lot of sense, for if you try it on your favorite piano, you’ll find that the decay time of an undamped note is now on the order of thirty seconds, and allows for such overlappings.

The sostenuto pedal is of a different nature. It is usually the center pedal in the usual sets of pedal on a piano


If you play some notes then press down this pedal, the notes will sustain though the following played notes will not. Thus, we can have overlappings between undamped and damped notes. Since the latter ones have a finite and defined duration, we can still have silences between time-brackets.

The use of the sustaining pedal makes for a very interesting case. Indeed, when using the sustaining pedal, pressing a key on the piano will produce an undamped sound, but releasing it has no effect on the sound. What is then the sense of using the time-bracket structure, where both the starting time and ending time should be chosen by the performer, if some of it is lost during the interpretation ?

In fact, I think that in addition to the sonic aspect of the piece, the visual aspect has to be considered as well. Though releasing an undamped key has no effect on the sound, everyone in the audience can immediately see that the performer has stopped playing on the piano. The time-bracket limits are thus defined visually, through the visible actions of the performer, in addition to being partially defined aurally.

There is in fact another piece by John Cage which had a similar interpretation, and that’s 4’33”. Much has been written about the piece, so I won’t go into details about it, except to say that the score contains nothing except for some time indications which structures 4’33” in three consecutive parts. As far as I know, the instructions do not specify any particular action from the performer. However David Tudor, who performed the premiere of this piece in 1952, chose to close the lid of the piano at the very beginning of the piece, only to reopen it at the end of the “first movement”, doing so for each movement. This added visual information is, I think, very similar to the actions which can happen during a performance of \text{One}^5. It entails this Number Piece to be considered as a visual performance as well as a musical one, in line with many other compositions/happenings of Cage.

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