John Cage: Four Walls

Liner notes for a recording by Aki Takahashi

John Cage composed "Four Walls" in the summer of 1944 for a dance play by Merce Cunningham. While Cage had composed dance scores for Cunningham and other choreographers before, this work was to be the first one of full evening length. Earlier productions of this scale had been collaborations, for example the stage music to a danced version of Jean Cocteau's "Marriage at the Eiffel Tower" with additional music by Henry Cowell and George Frederick McKay of 1939.

"Four Walls" came at an early stage in both Cage's and Cunningham's careers, the year of their first joint concert of solo dances and music, given at the Humphrey-Weidman Studio Theater in New York City on April 5, 1944. By then they had already developed their typical way of collaborating: dancer and composer agreed upon a time structure, which allowed them "to work separately, Cage not having to be with the dance except at structural points, and I [Cunningham] was free to make the phrases and movements within the phrases, vary their speeds and accents without reference to a musical beat, again only using the structural points as identification between us."[1]

Cunningham's dance play "Four Walls", written in 1943, deals with a dysfunctional family situation: a weak mother, a silent father, their rebellious son (danced by Cunningham), their daughter, and the daughter's incapable fiancÚ. This personae are accompanied by a speaking chorus of "Six Nearpeople", presumably friends and relatives, and a dancing chorus of "Six Mad-Ones". Considering the often dry and steady music, the story is surprisingly melodramatic: The girl refuses to make precise plans to marry her fiancÚ. Her brother suggests to him he should court her more forcefully, but when the fiancÚ tries to do so, she kills him (off stage). Both the brother and the girl appear to retreat into madness, and in the end the members of the family are left alone, presumably locked in a prison of guilt and horror.

Both plot and dance of "Four Walls" suggest Martha Graham's formative influence on the young Cunningham's artistic development. The dramatic narrative, with its occasionally rhyming free verse and highly emotional dance, guided by the expressive tradition, are all characteristic of then vivid, established aesthetic Cunningham which was soon to abandon.

The work was premiered at Perry-Mansfield Theatre in Steamboat Springs, Colorado on August 22, 1944 and has never been performed again in its entirety. Cunningham used excerpts of his own role in later solo programs, calling them "Soliloquy". Analogous to the withdraw of tzhe work from the stage, the music was not published until 1982, most likely in connection with Cage's seventieth birthday. This seems incomprehensible today, considering the repetitive and minimalistic approach of the composition, which could be said to have anticipated the 1970s minimal music of Steve Reich and Philip Glass (compare scene VI).

However, this insistence on brief rhythmical or melodic phrases, repeated or slightly altered according to a previously defined structure, derives from a different aesthetic approach. What later became the representation of the eternal emotions of the Hindu in the "Sonatas and Interludes" for prepared piano of 1946-48, are here purely structural rhythmic models, influenced by Henry Cowell's conception of musical form.

As Paul van Emmerik has shown, the first act of "Four Walls" consists of 35 periods of 44 measures each, the half note equaling 88 beats per minute and two half notes per measure. The second act consists of 24 periods of 60 measures each, 120 beats per minute and again two half notes a measure. Van Emmerik writes, "both the tempo and the number of measures per period were chosen by Cage in such a way that in either act of the choreography, a period would always last 60 seconds, the work as a whole lasting 59 minutes. The choice of tempo for the second act avowedly conforms to the intended duration in real time; not only does each period last one minute but every measure also lasts one second."[2]

Within this time structure, the music consists of repetitions of simple chords (thirds and fourths) or pendulum-like swings, either slow and sparse, or fairly fast and aggressive. The work is composed for the white keys only, creating a diatonic harmonic structure of changing tonal centers. Cage tried to keep the score rather simple, not being certain of the capabilities of the pianist, Drusa Wilker, who was to perform the premier.

The music's emotional aspect might have or might not have been intended to accompany the dramatic narration of the dance. Presented without its visual complement, the music should not be perceived as pure and abstract, just for and of itself. The aesthetic challenge lies in the contradiction between structure and emotional plot.

Volker Straebel (2003)

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"John Cage - Four Walls", liner notes for the recording by Aki Takahashi, Camerata CMCD-28027, Japan 2003
© Volker Straebel kein Abdruck ohne schriftliche Genehmigung des Autors / no reprint without author's written permission


[1] Merce Cunningham: A collaborative process between music and dance, in: A John Cage Reader, New York 1982, pp. 107-120, here p.108

[2] Paul van Emmerik: An Imaginary Grid. Rhythmic Structure in Cage's Music Up to circa 1950, in: John Cage. Music, Philosophy, and Intention, 1933-1950, ed. David W. Patterson, New York 2002, pp. 217-238, here p. 224