The three string quartets span across approximately the last half of John Cage’s life. The first of these, String Quartet in Four Parts (1949-50), was composed in a time when Cage was beginning to turn away from the image of a composer as one who creates works of art that are vehicles for self expression to a radically different function of the composer as one who arranges frameworks of time in which sounds occur without any personal, emotional, dramatic or narrative intentions.
String Quartet in Four Parts is evocative of the four seasons; these are not presented as personal expressions but rather as impressionistic qualities of sound and movement. It is written out traditionally in full score. As Cage says: “The subject is that of the seasons, but the first two movements are also concerned with place… Summer in France; fall in America. The third and fourth movements are also concerned with musical subjects, winter being expressed as a canon, spring as a quodlibet.” He describes the composition as “a melodic line without accompaniment.” Each instrument is allotted a specific gamut of sounds that Cage then composes with as building blocks to construct the melodic line, as well as to sustain the overall harmonic cohesion. There is also a specific rhythm structure for each movement; the flow of sound unfolds within this measured, proportional organization of time as pre-set by the composer.
In the late seventies he began to notate the music within flexible time brackets, sometimes almost traditional in appearance, sometimes using a time-space notation. Time brackets indicated a period of time in which the music should be realized but allowed for the musician to determine the exact placement and speed of the given music in performance. Cage describes it “as a process that includes structures, can last any length of time, can begin and end at any time within the time bracket. I like flexibility… our relationship (to and between musicians) is apolitical and anarchic.”
Thirty Pieces for String Quartet (1983) is composed this way. Each part is independent of the others, all with thirty time brackets of approximately one minute. As Cage says, “it is a coincidence of solos. There is no relationship of the four parts in a fixed score.” Each solo is either microtonal (a pulse rhythm of tones and harmonics), tonal (slower more sustained lines), or chromatic (complex, active, almost virtuoso activities). Each musician is given musical materials consisting of these three possibilities, each part with its own particular sequence of activity within a time bracket. What occurs is a kind of mobile kaleidoscope of textures and activities suspended in the time-space of thirty minutes. As Cage says, perhaps with his usual smile: “Its flexibility of structure makes it a music that is, so to speak, earthquake-proof.”
Four (1989) is part of a series begun in 1987 and continued until Cage’s death in 1992, referred to as the “Number Pieces” because the naming of the pieces is determined by the number of performers. Flexible time brackets are indicated as before, but the sonic material in these later years of his life is much simplified, sometimes only one tone or perhaps two or three and, in this piece, always played softly. By contrast to Thirty Pieces for String Quartet, all of the parts are available to anyone; there is no individual virtuosity but rather an ensemble of shifting tonal densities. Commenting on the “Number Pieces” Cage reflects: “A performance of music can be a metaphor for society… no conductor… no score.” It is as if Cage, near the end of his life, has simplified and clarified his music as an enactment of “a soundly organized society.”