Etudes Boreales for Piano

Tuesday 8 September 2009

The piano etudes are really more like percussion pieces, the player using beaters and making noises on the piano construction. … Kirstein found the piece unplayable; it was only Michael Pugliese, a virtuoso percussionist, who found the way to play these “impossible” pieces.

— James Pritchett, The Music of John Cage (1996), p.199.

Last Tuesday night I left home and walked twenty minutes down the road to a cafe to hear the pianist Mark Knoop perform John Cage’s Etudes Boreales (1978) for piano. I was reminded of that story of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s percussionists or whoever taking thirty rehearsals to muddle their way through Varèse’s Ionisation (1933), whereas now it’s a staple of student percussion ensembles.

It is indeed, like all of Cage’s Etudes, a fiendishly difficult set of pieces. Having never heard this particular set of four pieces I can’t compare how well Knoop performed it compared to other musicians. It sounded fine to me, and he didn’t appear to be struggling with getting the right beater to the right part of the piano in the right time, nor was he playing particularly slowly.

Interestingly, the music in these piano parts is significantly more sparse than in the other etudes. Cage was apparently mindful of the practicalities of performing these pieces, even if they did seem impossible at first. The idea behind all the etudes was not to defeat the musician, but allow them to accomplish something never attempted before. To paraphrase Morton Feldman: now that the Etudes are so simple, there’s so much to do.