String Quartet in Four Parts (1949-50)

John Cage

string quartet


  • 1. Quietly Flowing Along
  • 2. Slowly Rocking
  • 3. Nearly Stationary
  • 4. Quodlibet


Program Notes

These three string quartets span across approximately the last half of John Cage’s life. The first of these, String Quartet in Four Parts (1949-1950), was composed in a time when Cage was beginning to turn away from the image of a composer as one who creates works of art that are vehicles for self expression to a radically different function of the composer as one who arranges frameworks of time in which sounds occur without any personal, emotional, dramatic or narrative intentions.

At the end of the 1950s Cage began composing music that was experimental, with chance operation using the I-Ching (Chinese Book of Changes), graphics and other innovative notations, and other practices to specify structures of sound/silence, time/space, that were indeterminate of the composer’s intentions and that have allowed each person in the audience to hear sound and to have their own experience.

Later in the 1970s, and as heard in Thirty Pieces for String Quartet (1983) and Four (1989), Cage returned to a more traditional notation again, still using chance operation and incorporating computer programming technology to determine the specific details of the music.

Throughout all of his time Cage structured his compositions on time itself, this being, for Cage, the fundamental parameter if music; time as rhythm, or duration, or time-space. Time is thus the “ingredient” in which durations of sound and silence occur. All three of these quartets are composed on this premise, but each one realizes the task in its own way, with its own structure of sound-time-space.

String Quartet in Four Parts is evocative of the four seasons; these are not presented as personal expressions but rather as impressionistic qualities of sound and movement. It is written out traditionally in full score. As Cage says: “The subject is that of the seasons, but the first two movements are also concerned with place… Summer in France; fall in America. The third and fourth movements are also concerned with musical subjects, winter being expressed as a canon (compositional rules), spring as a quodlibet (musical quotations). He describes the composition as “a melodic line without accompaniment.” Each instrument is allotted a specific gamut (vocabulary) of sounds “single tones, intervals, triads and aggregates requiring one or more instruments for their production”) that Cage then composes with as building blocks to construct the melodic line, as well as to sustain the overall harmonic cohesion. There is also a specific rhythm structure for each movement; the flow of sound unfolds within this measured, proportional organization of time as pre-set by the composer.

Later, this will change, as Cage writes in 1988: “In recent years (since 1960) we have moved from an interest in structure to an interest in process, away from the divisions of a whole into parts and close to something without beginning, middle, and end, something like weather.” In the late seventies he began to notate the music within flexible time brackets, sometimes almost traditional in appearance, sometimes using a time-space notation. Time brackets indicated a period of time in which the music should be realized but allowed for the musician to determine the exact placement and speed of the given music in performance. Cage explains it: “It is like a process that includes structures, that can last any length of time, that can begin and end at any time within the time bracket. I like flexibility… our relationship (to and between musicians) is apolitical and anarchic.”

Thirty Pieces for String Quartet (1983) is composed this way. Each part is independent of the others, all with thirty time brackets (thirty “pieces”) each of approximately 45 seconds. As Cage says, “it is a coincidence of solos. There is no relationship of the four parts in a fixed score”. Each solo is either microtonal (a pulse rhythm of tones and harmonics, tonal (slower more sustained lines), or chromatic (complex, active, almost virtuoso activities). Each musician is given musical materials consisting of these three possibilities, each part with its own particular sequence of activity within a time bracket. What occurs is a kind of mobile kaleidoscope of textures and activities suspended in the time-space of thirty minutes. As Cage says, perhaps with his usual smile: “Its flexibility of structure makes it a music that is, so to speak, earthquake-proof.”

Four (1989) is part of a series begun in 1987 and continued until Cage’s death in 1992, referred to as the “number” pieces because the naming of the pieces is determined by the number of performers. Flexible time brackets are indicated as before, but the sonic material in these later years of his life is much simplified, sometimes only one tone or perhaps two or three and, in this piece, always played softly. By contrast to Thirty Pierces, here all of the parts are available to anyone and at certain moments musicians can exchange parts; there is no individual virtuosity but rather an ensemble of shifting tonal densities. Commenting on the “number” pieces Cage reflects: “A performance of music can be a metaphor for society… no conductor… no score.” It is as if Cage, near the end of his life, has simplified and clarified his music as an enactment of “a soundly organized society.”

Malcolm Goldstein, December 2007