In addition to intimacy, the string quartet is a medium capable of remarkable levels of austerity. It’s no surprise, then, that John Cage turned to the quartet as the vehicle for a work in which, “without actually using silence, I should like to praise it” (as Cage wrote to his parents, prior to starting the piece). A few years earlier, in 1947, Cage had composed his first orchestral work, The Seasons, using a technique that he described as a ‘gamut’. This involved the pre-composition of a collection of materials—chords, gestures, solitary sonic moments—that had no relation to each other. These would then become the entire repertoire for the compositional act, Cage choosing from this collection of materials as the mood took him. The gamut technique was an important step towards the aleatoric methods Cage would explore in the next stage of his output, & it’s heard with perhaps the greatest clarity in the work he wrote next, the String Quartet in Four Parts, composed in 1950. Here, Cage created a library of chords, & then a melodic line; to harmonise this melody, Cage called upon whichever chords supported the melody’s current pitch (the same chords always fixed to the same pitches). In addition to use of the gamut, the work also draws on the seasons for inspiration, being in four movements each of which is dedicated to one season. The reference to silence in the above quotation is arguably as much about motion as the actual presence or otherwise of sound itself. Indeed, the titles of the first three movements indicate a gradual tendency towards motionlessness: ‘Quietly Flowing Along’ (summer), ‘Slowly Rocking’ (autumn), ‘Nearly Stationary’ (winter). But another kind of silence evoked in the work is that of self-expression. By drastically restricting the composer’s palette to a small pool of disjunct fragments, the gamut technique to no little extent confounds most conventions of what might otherwise pass for “expression”. This is mirrored in an instruction to the players that they not only avoid vibrato but use minimal weight on the bow, resulting in a cool, detached, rather other-worldly sound, often sounding poised to evaporate. Read more
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