John Cage’s “Freeman Etudes,” were named after Betty Freeman (1921-2009), the famed philanthropist, photographer and longtime supporter of contemporary music who commissioned them. They consist of “Four Books,” each containing eight etudes for solo violin, and each of these are just three minutes in length. They were composed by Cage between 1977 and 1990. For a number of reasons, they are perhaps the most demanding works ever written for this instrument.
The music of John Cage (1912-1992) was the subject of James Pritchett’s doctoral dissertation. Fortunately for us, this musicologist and essayist has written very helpful and informative liner notes about these etudes. The two CDs I heard were recorded in 1990 and 1993 and released under the MODE label, which is devoted to contemporary music recordings, including of all of the works by John Cage.
As Dr. Pritchett noted, there were unique challenges presented for the performing violinist, Irvine Arditti (1953-), as well as for the composer. When composing, Cage consulted a star atlas, the I Ching and other unconventional sources to determine pitch, duration, timbre, bowing, as well as whether a note should be plucked (or snapped) with the fingernail, etc. He considered questions with regard to every aspect of violin playing, which were juxtaposed within an extremely short time frame; i.e., a single bar.
The precision of this notation must be seen to be believed. Fortunately, the enclosed accompanying booklets contain brief excerpts of these etudes. After looking at them, it’s easy to appreciate the amount of “work” that went into this project. I doubt that I’ve ever seen a score (particularly for a single instrument) that contained so many details and instructions, combined with a vertiginous array of notes within a short span. In fact, Cage reached a musical “writer’s block” while composing “Etude No. 18” and shelved the entire project until 1989, completing it the following year.
There are sources that indicate that the premiere performances of “Book One” and “Book Two” were from Hungarian violinist, János Négyesy (1938-2013) in 1984.
Initially, Cage composed these etudes for Paul Zukofsky (1943-) who considered them to be “unplayable,” but ultimately recorded them. His 1995 release is also available on CD. Although Zukofsky eventually returned to the pieces, Cage was so inspired by Irvine Arditti’s initial interpretations of “Book One” and “Book Two” that he wrote “Book Three” and “Book Four” just for him, and Arditti premiered the first complete performance of all 32 etudes during 1990 or 1991. Négyesy also performed the complete series as late as 2012, the year before his death.
In a 1983 interview, Cage provided his mindset while composing these pieces by saying:
“…These are intentionally as difficult as I can make them, because I think we’re now surrounded by very serious problems in society and we tend to think that the situation is hopeless, and that it’s just impossible to do something that will turn out properly. So, I think that this music which is almost impossible, gives an instance of the practicality of the impossible.”
There you have it, a celebration of the ability to do hard work! Arditti, who is famous for playing this type of music, rises admirably to the challenges in these recordings. The fact that he worked so closely with the composer lends a special “seal of authenticity” to these two CDs. The exemplary recording engineering is also an essential factor in music of this sort.
As for the etudes, I won’t use the word “enjoy.” Would I have appreciated them as much, had I not been privy to Cage’s compositional methods and ideas? No. While a part of me wants to say, “The emperor isn’t wearing any clothes,” I’ll be a good boy and say that this music is extremely challenging for the listener. After hearing these pieces and remembering that they were placed in the hands of such a virtuoso, I had a great sense of accomplishment. Therefore, in good conscience, I cannot give these recordings anything other than the highest marks.