John Cage – 27′ 10.554″ for a percussionist (1956)

Program note by Sam Solomon:

27′ 10.554″ for a percussionist is the last piece of a collection of works written between 1953 and 1956. Cage never completed this grand project, but in the three years of its construction, he wrote several parts: six short pieces for a string player (1953), an unfinished work for magnetic tape (1953?), an unfinished work for voice (1953?), 34′ 46.776” for a pianist (1954), 31′ 57.9864” for a pianist (1954), 26′ 1.1499” for a string player (1955), and 27′ 10.554” for a percussionist (1956). As a whole, this collection of pieces has been given the suggested title The Ten Thousand Things, most notably by Cage scholar James Pritchett.

Cage’s original plan was to compose a number of works for various instruments and/or electronics which could be performed alone, superimposed on top of the other works, or even superimposed on parts of the same work; for example, the first commercial recording of these works includes simultaneous performances of 45′ for a Speaker, 34′ 46.776” for a pianist, 31′ 57.9864” for a pianist, 27′ 10.554” for a percussionist, and 26′ 1.1499” for a string player. Cage viewed this project as a work “in progress” and intended to continuously add to the collection.

The (somewhat accidental) rhythmic structure of the whole work is 100 phrases of 100 beats each – a total of 10,000 beats. “It just happened that the series of numbers which are at the basis of this work add up to 100 x 100 which is 10,000. That is pleasing, momentarily: The world, the 10,000 things” [from John Cage, “45′ for a Speaker” (1954)]. Cage is referring here to the appearance of the number 10,000 in Asian philosophy and writing where it represents the infinity and diversity of the universe. Lao Tzu, for example, writes in the Tao Te Ching:

Tao produced the One.
The One produced the two.
The two produced the three.
And the three produced the ten thousand things.
[Lao Tzu, The Way of Lao Tzu – trans.Wing-Tsit Chan]

Each work in The Ten Thousand Things is designed within a complex local rhythmic scheme that fits within the larger structure. 27′ 10.554″ for a percussionist shares the same structure with the three prior pieces: 5 sections (with proportions 3, 7, 2, 5, 11) divided into 28 units, which are each divided into 5 phrases. The 28 units are delineated in the score by dotted lines and can be removed from the whole work. These removed sections can be performed separately, superimposed on other sections of the work, or superimposed on an equal number of sections taken from the other works in The Ten Thousand Things.

Percussion instruments are divided into four groups: metal (M), wood (W), skin (S) and all others (A) (e.g. electronic devices, radios, whistles etc.). The choice of instruments and sounds within these specifications is determined by the performer, but is intended to include an “exhausted rather than conventional” variety of playing techniques, beaters, and effects – acoustic and otherwise. The vertical position of the notes indicates volume rather than pitch, the centerline representing a dynamic of mf. Rhythm is notated spatially where a page equals one minute and one inch equals one second. As a result of this scale, where there are extended silences, much of some pages are entirely blank.score excerpt

Cage specifies that it “may be performed as a recording or with the use of a recording,” as many passages include articulations too numerous to be executed by a solo human performer.

The musical material was derived through chance operations. These pieces are some of Cage’s first explorations of chance-derived music, in which the composer’s intuition is removed from the process, allowing the completely free “divine unconscious” to take over. Cage wrote of the use of these techniques, “I freed myself from what I had thought to be freedom, and which actually was only the accretion of habits and tastes” [letter to Pierre Boulez, 1951]. Chance operations in this piece are primarily by way of the I Ching (the Chinese Book of Changes) and by using imperfections in the paper on which the work was written. Beyond determination of instruments, sounds and playing techniques, the performer has no hand in the composition of the work, unlike many of Cage’s later works in which chance operations are executed by the performer prior to and sometimes during the performance. This distinction delineates the works in The Ten Thousand Things from later works in Cage’s career; 27′ 10.554″ for a percussionist is the last work in a period sometimes called “classic” chance composition.

The I Ching is a book that dates back five thousand years. It contains scripts that deal with the divination and wisdom of the Chinese religions and is used to assist people with changes in their lives. Coins are tossed, the results of which (heads or tails) determine a particular hexagram (a combination of six lines, some broken and some unbroken), which corresponds to a passage of text. Each hexagram has a number. It is these numbers, rather than the text, that Cage used to design the music.

Cage obtained and interpreted hexagrams and combinations of hexagrams to determine the following elements:
-which moments within the existing time structure are sound and which are silence
-the duration of each sounding phrase and silence
-the number of events in the sounding phrases
-which of those potentially active events are actually sounding events (as some may actually be non-sounding)
-the type of event (either points, lines or a mixture of points of lines).

How Cage determined the exact location of each point within these restrictions is unclear. It is, perhaps, this point at which Cage decided the indeterminacy was realized well enough and thus an arbitrary placement of each point by the composer is acceptable. In his subsequent period of compositional processes, Cage would have likely stopped and let the performer (or some other real-time chance operation) determine these details.

Some silences in this piece are quite extensive, the longest lasting nearly a minute. These are not musical silences but rather real-world silences. It is likely that Cage would view any unintentional sounds in these silences as an addition to, rather than a distraction from, the musical experience.

-Pritchett, James. Writings on Cage, 1998
-Chaudron, Andre.
-Cage, John. performance instructions, 27′ 10.554″ for a percussionist