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“OPEN WORK” ONE STEP FURTHER: FROM JOHN CAGE TO JOHN ZORN OKSANA NESTERENKO Sounds are to come into their own, rather than being exploited to express sentiments of ideas of order. —John Cage (1973) Music is about people, not about sounds. —John Zorn (2013) HIS ESSAY REFLECTS ON PERFORMER FREEDOM re-imagined as a new concept by Umberto Eco over a half-century ago and still very relevant to a 21st century composer. In his 1959 essay “The Poetics of the Open Work” Eco proposed that the Einsteinian open universe is reflected in contemporary trends in art and indeterminate musical composition and sets in motion “a different status for the artistic product in contemporary society” (Eco 2005, 174).1 The 1950s and 1960s indeed experienced an unprecedented growth of musical works intended to be completed by performers or audiences, by both European and American composers. Some of the most notable are indeterminate works by John Cage, in which he expected that performers would reach unpredictable outcomes by creating their own detailed scores based on his graphic notation and diligently following them during a performance. T 200 Perspectives of New Music In the late 1970s, a younger New York composer, John Zorn, developed his “game theory” pieces, asserting that he made a step further from Cage in terms of the idea of “open work” (Zorn 2005, 198). Springing from the concepts of performer liberation and unpredictability of outcomes, Zorn, however, allowed musicians to make most of the decisions spontaneously. Game pieces became Zorn’s most performed works in the late 1970s and 1980s and arguably influenced both his own career path and the creative development of many improvisers on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.2 The most famous of them, Cobra, is widely performed around the world by musicians of diverse styles and traditions. The genre of game pieces and its alleged relationship to indeterminacy invites us to reconsider the questions raised by Eco: if performers are given a chance to complete a musical work, what kind of freedom is provided to them, and how much authority is a composer ready to give up? In this essay I discuss what makes Zorn’s musical philosophy critically different from that of Cage, despite the implied lineage between indeterminacy and game pieces. While increasing unpredictability of musical outcomes, Zorn moved away from Cage’s objective natural world, towards a subjective social world. I discuss the impact of this ontological move on the set of composers’ aesthetics, and observe that, despite the differences, both Zorn and Cage conceive and guard the eventual performance of their “open works” in a similar way. The concepts of indeterminacy and game pieces were both inspired by specific performers, and even more so, these works were intended to ignite performers’ interest. Furthermore, both composers impose certain restrictions on re-creation of their works in order to preserve their envisioned character. While observing these restrictions, in the spirit of experimental music, I reflect on the following questions: what does it mean for Zorn to take the idea of “open” works further? Does he allow more freedom to his performers? What kind of freedom? Is “complete” performer freedom possible at all if the original concept and the character of the piece should be preserved?3 GAME PIECES: FREEDOM TO BE YOURSELF John Zorn’s game pieces, composed from 1974 to early 1990s, are “open works,” based on rules that guide the performers to create certain sound combinations while improvising.4 Zorn’s first experiments with structured improvisation began in Webster College in St Louis in the early 1970s, when he composed Klarina for three performers, each playing three instruments. The piece’s structure involved alternation “Open Work” One Step Further: From John Cage to John Zorn 201 between every possible combination of them, an approach that became important for composing the pieces Archery (1979) and Pool (1979) and finally led Zorn to consider eliminating temporal restrictions on form. In his later works of this genre he expanded the performers’ freedom to such an extent that they could make own decisions with respect to duration of both the entire piece and its specific sections (see Example 1). One may consider game pieces...


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pp. 199-217
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