My favorite John Cage piece is In A Landscape, his piano solo from 1948. Just listen to this:
There are plenty of arguments for why it’s an important piece (stunningly static for its time, pre-figures Cage’s obsession with listening, etc. ad infinitum), but they all dissolve into the sustain pedal as soon as you start listening to it or playing it. In A Landscape is just gorgeous in a way few pieces are. I’ve probably known it for about ten years since first hearing it in music history class as an undergrad; thank god for UCSD. I’ve analyzed it more than once. So imagine my surprise when the thought “you should arrange In A Landscape for chamber orchestra” popped into my head out of nowhere while driving home one afternoon.
I wasn’t surprised by the idea itself, but by the fact that it hadn’t happened earlier. The piece has some great melodies that sometimes get overlooked with the focus so often placed on the resonance. I thought it would be cool to highlight those via orchestration, making sure to use contrasting sounds so that it’s easy to hear what’s what. I could also use contrasting instruments to clarify the piece’s phrase structure. And it would still be super beautiful, because Cage picked super beautiful notes. With all this in mind I printed a couple copies of the score and started writing instrument and family names on the different lines, and got to a complete plan within an hour.
That was on a Friday back in March. It happened to be the same Friday that I was leaving for Big Bear Lake for my friend Julie’s birthday weekend at a cabin up there. We drove up in the evening with plans to hike on Saturday, and I brought my laptop in case there was any downtime with which to work on the piece. The view from the cabin was awesome:
But I was entirely missing it. I was non-conversational Friday night because I was thinking about the arrangement so much, so Saturday morning told everyone to go hiking without me. I spread out the landscape’s map on the table and started arranging. This being 2017, I took a photo before turning off my phone for what became a marathon work session:
I somehow got through the entire piece in about six hours. I’d managed to miss the calls asking what I wanted for lunch, but I had a totally ready to roll first draft. Ready to roll, that is, in an almost Tom Johnson-esque hyper transparent orchestration of all of the melodies. I showed it to a couple of friends who dug the idea but thought that, with the resonance being so important to the piece, I had better orchestrate out all the resonances that the piano’s pedal would give you. The more I thought about that the more I agreed, and, well, that’s how am arrangement with four string parts became a piece with nine string parts.
The much more detailed scoring took a couple of months, and it could still use a workshop with live musicians. I was talking with my professor Joel Feigin about it and he said that for him, a lot of the pieces that he is happiest with come together in just a couple days and then take months of detail work to flesh out. That seems to be the case here. When I finished it I realized I’d probably need some kind of permission if this were ever to be performed, so wrote to the The John Cage Trust, semi-expecting a huge hassle. I was wrong! They were very friendly and helpful. I’m sending the finished arrangement around to orchestras now, so hopefully one of these days it’ll get a premiere. Until then, I am perfectly happy to keep listening to the original. Wonder if anyone has ever arranged it for guitar…