for string quartet
I cannot even imagine how many composers have written, are writing, or are about to write their own memorial tributes to John Cage. I had no intention of adding to this flood of notes but changed my mind after listening repeatedly to Singing Through, Joan La Barbara’s extraordinarily beautiful recording of some of Cage’s vocal pieces. It reminded me of just how much this enigmatic man, whom I never met, has meant to me and my music.
I have always been very attracted to Cage’s songs, especially those maddeningly simple, yet utterly sophisticated, pieces from the 40s and 50s. night by silent sailing night is particularly inspired by “The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs” (1942) for voice and “closed piano,” in which the piano lid is closed and the pianist makes percussive sounds by tapping on various parts of the piano. The piece is in a simple 5-part form – ABA’B’A”. The A sections are all based on the simple 3-pitch melody of “The Wonderful Widow,” while the B sections echo the tapping percussive effects of the closed piano.
Since Cage was so often interested in ratios and proportions in his compositions, I have based much of this composition on the ratio 7:4. This controls many, but not all, of the temporal aspects of the piece, as well as some of the pitch relationships.
The title, night by silent sailing night, is the first line of the fragment from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake which serves as the text to “The Wonderful Widow.”