John Cage’s Concert for Piano and Orchestra (1957–58) is one of the seminal examples of musical indeterminacy and one of the major pieces of the second half of the twentieth century, even if it has been less performed than seen: reproductions of the intricate and beautiful calligraphy of the solo piano part adorn the covers of textbooks on twentieth-century music known to generations of music students. The piece has no score, only parts, for each of its up to fourteen instrumentalists and single conductor. Any number of these may be utilised in any given performance, and many other Cage pieces might also be presented simultaneously, such as Fontana Mix (1958), Aria (1958), or WBAI (1960).
The pianist’s part, the Solo for Piano, is a compendium of notations—84 in total, across 63 pages—some familiar from Cage’s earlier music, most devised afresh for this purpose. Indeed, the notations of the score are either entirely new, repetitions of pre-existing notations—including ones used for the first time in the Solo for Piano itself—or variations of pre-existing notations. The very first page of the Solo for Piano presents repetitions of notations from Cage’s earlier Music for Piano (1952–56) and Winter Music (1957), variations of which recur throughout the piece, alongside ever more innovative and outlandish (transformations of) notations, to which the pianist must, too, have an increasingly imaginative and innovative response, performing any number (or none) of the notations or pages of the score in any order. Many of the new notations Cage invented here are themselves repeated (and, for that matter, varied) across the music he produced in the following ten years.
The parts for the other instrumentalists, each one conceived as a solo part for a given instrument, are, if less extreme in their demands, nonetheless highly sophisticated and technically demanding. Like the pianist, an instrumentalist may determine to perform any (or none) of their part, made up of isolated points and events in time, expanding whatever amount is chosen to fill the length of the programme: three sizes of notehead determine either the volume or the duration of a particular pitch, while the noises and extended techniques Cage asks for come from close work with some of 1950’s New York’s leading jazz musicians.
One of them, the trombonist Frank Rehak asked Cage whether he was quite serious that the performers might play none of the given material: “Does that mean I can get paid for just showing up for three gigs and not even open up my horn case?” “Why, yes, if that’s what you want to do”, Cage replied. “John, you’re my man. I’ll play for you any time”, Rehak said.
Finally, the conductor, imitating the motion of a clock, wreaks havoc amongst these careful preparations, the arms indicating that the players must realise their parts sometimes slower, sometimes quicker than their plans (although in many historical performances of the piece, the pianist has, almost aristocratically, been at liberty to ignore the conductor’s demands). No matter how disciplined the performers may have been in advance, the contingencies of the live performance, of the moment itself, are transformative.