Notations: John Cage Publishes a Book of Graphic Musical Scores, Featuring Visualizations of Works by Leonard Bernstein, Igor Stravinsky, The Beatles & More (1969)

If you know just one piece by avant-garde com­pos­er and all-around ora­cle of inde­ter­mi­na­cy John Cage, you know 1952’s 4′33″, which con­sists, for that length of time, of no delib­er­ate­ly played sounds at all. You’d think that if any piece could be played with­out a score, Cage’s sig­na­ture com­po­si­tion could, but he did make sure to write one, and we fea­tured it here on Open Cul­ture a few years ago. Look at that score, of sorts, and you’ll sense that Cage had an inter­est not just in uncon­ven­tion­al music, but in equal­ly uncon­ven­tion­al ways of notat­ing that music. Hence the Nota­tions project, Cage’s 1969 book col­lect­ing pieces of scores by 269 dif­fer­ent com­posers and accom­pa­ny­ing them with short texts.

Assem­bling the book from mate­ri­als archived at the Foun­da­tion for Con­tem­po­rary Arts, Cage did include a page of one of his own scores, though not that of 4′33″ but of Music of Changes, a piano piece he’d com­posed the year before it for his friend David Tudor.

Tudor, a pianist as well as a com­pos­er of exper­i­men­tal music in his own right, also gets a page in Nota­tions from his 1958 work Solo for Piano (Cage) for Inde­ter­mi­na­cy. Lest this sound like a too-neat struc­ture of reci­procity, rest assured that in the com­po­si­tion of the book’s text, as Cage explains in the book’s intro­duc­tion, inde­ter­mi­na­cy ruled, with “a process employ­ing I‑Ching chance oper­a­tions” dic­tat­ing the num­ber of words to be writ­ten, about which scores, and in what size and type­face as well.

Nota­tions, which also includes scores from the Bea­t­les, Leonard Bern­stein, Paul Bowles, Charles Ives (from whose archive Cage picked a blank piece of song paper), Gyor­gy Ligeti, Yoko Ono, Nam June Paik, Steve Reich, Igor Stravin­sky, Toru Takemit­su, and many oth­ers, inspired a more recent fol­low-up project called Nota­tions 21, which you can learn about in the video just below. A col­lab­o­ra­tion between musi­col­o­gist and com­pos­er There­sa Sauer and design­er Mike Per­ry, that 2009 book col­lects more than a hun­dred pieces of cre­ative nota­tion from some of the com­posers fea­tured in Cage’s orig­i­nal, but also many who weren’t com­pos­ing or indeed even alive in his day.

Nota­tions 21 stands as a tes­ta­ment to Cage’s endur­ing influ­ence as not just a com­pos­er but as the pro­mot­er of a world­view all about har­ness­ing the forces of chance to enrich our lives, and to put us in a clear­er frame of mind to see what comes next. “Musi­cal nota­tion is one of the most amaz­ing pic­ture-lan­guage inven­tions of the human ani­mal,” Ross Lee Finney writes in the text of the orig­i­nal Nota­tions. “It didn’t come into being of a moment but is the result of cen­turies of exper­i­men­ta­tion. It has nev­er been quite sat­is­fac­to­ry for the composer’s pur­pos­es and there­fore the exper­i­ment con­tin­ues.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Curi­ous Score for John Cage’s “Silent” Zen Com­po­si­tion 4’33”

Watch Gyor­gy Ligeti’s Elec­tron­ic Mas­ter­piece Artiku­la­tion Get Brought to Life by Rain­er Wehinger’s Bril­liant Visu­al Score

Watch Clas­si­cal Music Come to Life in Art­ful­ly Ani­mat­ed Scores: Stravin­sky, Debussy, Bach, Beethoven, Mozart & More

The Genius of J.S. Bach’s “Crab Canon” Visu­al­ized on a Möbius Strip

Dis­cov­er the 1126 Books in John Cage’s Per­son­al Library: Fou­cault, Joyce, Wittgen­stein, Vir­ginia Woolf, Buck­min­ster Fuller & More

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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