Third Construction

John Cage

4 percussionists

10 minutes


John Cage’s Third Construction, composed in 1941, follows a scheme similar to that the composer used in the First Construction (1939) and Second Construction (1940). Noting the effect of tonality upon traditional aspects of form (e.g. the central role of harmonic progression in a sonata-allegro or rondo movement), Cage sought to create an infrastructure that could similarly be applied to nonpitched percussion instruments. The result was what has been termed “micro/macrocosmic structure” — that is, a structure in which the whole is reflected in the individual parts.

The First and Second Constructions were both built upon sixteen cycles of sixteen bars each. In the Third Construction, Cage employes a somewhat more elaborate scheme of twenty-four cycles of twenty-four bars each. Within this controlled structure Cage freely exercises other variables. While the length of sections is determined by the macro/micro principal, the rhythmic patterns within the structure create an intricate, multilayered web; Cage’s singular timbral sense provides another source of variation and interest.

The four performers called for in the Third Construction play a large and varied battery of exotic instruments, including a teponaxtle (Aztec log drum), quijadas (jawbone rattle), lion’s roar (a washtub with a small hole through which a rope is noisily pulled), and an assortment of cymbals, shakers, claves, tom-toms, and tin cans. By combining the endless possibilities of percussion colors and rhythms within a controlled, telescopic structure, Cage creates a work that is continually surprising yet holistically unified. ~ Jeremy Grimshaw, Rovi

annotated by Tyler Flynt