A couple of years ago in Bucharest, I heard an extraordinary premiere of an orchestral work that included prepared piano, and voice. The work was performed by the symphony orchestra of the Bucharest University of music, a stellar conservatory with outstanding performers.
The work was entitled Dear John by New York composer Tom Beyer, and it was a poignant letter of love and farewell to the composer John Cage whose musical experiments stretched our perceptions of music for at least four decades. His pieces for prepared piano were among the classics of 20th century repertoire and opened our ears to extract the extraordinary from those practices in music that had become more or less routine. John Cage challenged our assmptions about music and provided a strong alternative voice to the twelve tone serialists that dominated academia.
I remember the first time I heard John Cage was at a concert in the late 1950s in Texas where he performed with David Tudor, pianist and composer, playing music involving indeterminancy and aleatory. The audience was made up of somewhat conservative students and faculty who had piled into the auditorium to see this cuiosity who had already become something of a legend.
As the music began to unfold, the audience was clearly not sympathetic, a number left in noisy disgust, and the trumpet instructor ran back to the music studios and returned with his trumpet to play Irving Berlin's Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better, in the midst of Cage's masterwork. The theory/composition instructor was more open, and after the concert she went on stage to look at the scores, remarking that "either this is very profound, or we've all been had."
Such was the impact of Cage, who was more deeply appreciated and revered in Europe than in his own country. However, his later association with Merce Cunningham brought a new aura of respectability and credibility to Cage, and eventually he had become an institution around the world.
The piece premiered in Bucharest, Dear John, incorporated two important features used by Cage in the past: prepared piano, and vocalise sung into the piano soundboard and strings which would create resonance on selected notes according to specific depressed keys on the keyboard or while holding down the sustain pedal. The composer of the piece, Tom Beyer, prepared the piano and performed at the keyboard, while Christine Ghezzo, the ethnic singer, perfomed improvised vocals into the piano.
Dear John was a haunting work that had the air of an elegy, having for me a similar expressive effect as Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings. The prepared piano, couched in the string sonorities, had an almost archaic quality, sounds breaking apart and falling into the past in shattered fragments. The voice followed a melancholy path, a beautiful utterance, lyrical, sustained, and faintly echoed in the strings and soundboard of the piano. There was a deep yearning and sense of remembrance that gave special meaning to the moment. It seemed to say to John Cage "John, we loved you deeply. We thank you for opening us up to new sensibilities and possibilities. But now that time is past. It's time to say 'goodbye to all that.'" The double meaning of Dear John became apparent as the work sounded in time, coming to a joyful, regretful and reluctant, quiet closing.