Cage Piano Concert/Atlas Eclipticalis

Author: 
Peter Dickinson

Cage Piano Concert/Atlas Eclipticalis

  • Concert for Piano and Orchestra
  • Atlas Eclipticalis

Cage's Concert for Piano and Orchestra is sometimes mistakenly called a concerto. Nothing could be further from the situation envisaged by the composer, where the pianist is just one of the performers all of whom have their own individual parts to deliver in their own time regardless of what is done by any of the other players. At the first performance in New York's Town Hall in 1958 the 'conductor' was Merce Cunningham, whose role was merely to indicate the elapse of time. The soloist, David Tudor, in between playing more conventionally, crawled underneath the piano! Not normal concerto behaviour, but Cage can be a comedian. Over the years I've noticed the typical mood of this piece—and of Atlas eclipticalis, which is comparably unstructured (or deconstructed)—where it sounds as if everybody is waiting for everybody else. But even this is deceptive—a group of graduate students given this recording as an 'unseen' tended to assume the work was strictly serially controlled. Virtual chaos was confused with fanatical order—a situation Cage always loved to exploit by giving his players very precise instructions about what to do but wanting absolutely no control over the results.
From this point of view, Atlas eclipticalis caused trouble when it was played by the New York Philharmonic in 1964 and the players realized that what they played was being filtered and might never be heard at all—they started wrecking the microphones and behaved, as Cage put it, ''like gangsters''. The material for Atlas is based on star charts and in that sense, just as when you look up into a starry sky, there is apparently no intention about the formations.
There are now three current recordings of Atlas—Eberhard Blum plays it on three flutes (all himself) on Hat Hut Now Series (see page 81); The Barton Workshop offers a chamber-orchestra version on Etcetera (see above); and now Petr Kotik's performance of both works is claimed as a first recording ''with full instrumental scoring'', which presumably means the employment of the maximum number of players, namely 86. These are nevertheless sparingly used, even pointillist in the Webern tradition but with surprises such as the tam-tam near the end. There is real benefit in having more colour available. Kotik has known both works for 30 years: his experience shows and this is authentic Cage, well recorded too.
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