John Cage composed these short dances in 1951, to accompany choreography by Merce Cunningham. In fact, according to Cunningham, much of the movement and rhythmic impetus came first, to which Cage coordinated musical phrases drawn from a chart of 64 different sonorities.
News and Press
Sixteen Dances comes at a transitional time in Cage’s career. Completed in the beginning of 1951, it intimates the importance of chance in his works from then onwards, but still retains a fascination for serial procedures and precompositional planning: a remnant of his 1940s studies of Webern. The overall plan of the piece involves a constantly morphing 8×8 array, albeit one which Cage deployed freely and in a wide variety of permutations.
This work is from the 1950’s and relates to Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes in that it concerns the emotions of Indian aesthetics. It’s also his last work before he committed himself seriously to the composition of music using chance operations. But like the contemporaneous concerto for prepared piano, it was made by beginning with a chart with rows and columns containing cells of fixed sounds, which he assembled into continuity by making moves about the chart.
Sixteen Dances by John Cage, a work from 1951, in a new release by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project. We'll hear dances seven thru sixteen.
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Recommended New CDs
- Edward Elgar, Cello Concerto (arr. Tertis/Carpenter), Schnittke, Viola Concerto; David Carpenter, Christoph Eschenbach conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra (Ondine)
- John Cage, Sixteen Dances; Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP/sound)
- Bernstein, Mass; Marin Alsop conducting the Baltimore Symphony (Naxos)
John Cage’s 1951 Sixteen Dances was constructed by using a table of 64 different sounds arranged into eight rows of eight columns. Only one of the sounds could appear at any point in the piece. The chart’s contents gradually change as the piece progresses, as the sounds are grouped into musical phrases. Sometimes the music is as spiky and pointillistic as Webern, yet other times repeated melodic fragments bubble up to the surface, only to dissipate just as your inner ear assumes that rhythmic groove might transpire.
While we are now fairly used to the idea of the chance operations in his music, it all had to start somewhere for John Cage, and Sixteen Dances is seen as a turning point in his career. This was the last work Cage composed before he committed himself entirely to the use of chance operations. It also represents an intermediate step on the way towards Cage’s deployment of techniques that work with predefined collections of sounds.
“My purpose is to eliminate purpose.”
BMOP/sound, the nation's foremost label launched by an orchestra and devoted exclusively to new music recordings, today announced the August '09 release of John Cage: Sixteen Dances, the first and only available SACD surround sound edition. Widely recognized as perhaps the most influential American composer of the 20th Century, John Cage took a remarkably bold first step in composition by using chance operations in his piece, Sixteen Dances (1951).