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Merce Cunningham conducts the Concert for Piano and Orchestra (Liner notes, The 25-Year Retrospective Concert of the Music of John Cage (Wergo, WER 6247-2, 1994 [1958])
John Cage’s Concert for Piano and Orchestra represents not just a nearly complete catalogue of Cage’s notational innovations but one of the seminal works of the second half of the twentieth century. The elaborate graphic notations of the piano part are well known and decorate the covers of books about twentieth-century music. The way in which the ensemble functions, using a set of parts without score, to be performed in any combination and relationship, including with other pieces, make it one of the most open pieces of its, or any, era in terms of what it allows to take place when it is performed.

Apartment House performs John Cage’s Concert for Piano and Orchestra, Clothworkers Centenary Concert Hall, University of Leeds, 1 July 2017.

And yet, the Concert is less heard than known about. It is both difficult to understand and to perform: on the one hand, it seems to be open to almost anything; on the other, it comes with a set of complex, sometimes confusing, and sometimes contradictory instructions. Cage’s notations are beautiful, elegant, and inventive, but this means that deciding on what they actually mean is often a challenge. This website explores the challenges of the notation and its performance, how the Concert is put together and how it functions. The ambiguities and complexities of the parts will be discussed and, often, solutions will be suggested, but the openness of the notations and instructions invites alternative readings and multiple possibilities. These solutions are more prompts for what a performer could do than prescriptions for what a performer should do.

Apartment House performs John Cage’s Concert for Piano and Orchestra, Clothworkers Centenary Concert Hall, University of Leeds, 1 July 2017.

The website features numerous film interviews with and performances by members of the ensemble Apartment House. They performed and recorded the Concert for Piano and Orchestra with Philip Thomas in July 2017 and have been performing the piece for many years prior to this. We are grateful to them for sharing their insights into the individual parts, techniques, and notations. Of course, it should also be made clear that their interpretations represent personal responses to the challenges of playing their parts, both as solos and as part of an ensemble. Even within one ensemble, the musicians have interpreted their parts and performance instructions quite differently from one another. We hope that their contributions, which are perceptive and imaginative on their own terms, might also spur other musicians imaginatively to disagree, leading to new approaches, further discoveries, and fresh conversations.