Michel Lorand



by John Cage (1989)




Four x Four brings together two films: the first one based on Giacinto Scelsi’s Quatro pezzi su una nota sola (1959) written for a mixed instrumental ensemble of 25 instruments, and the second one based on John Cage’s string quartet Four (1983). Both pieces are part of a circular conception of music. “To find is to turn, to go round”, says Maurice Blanchot in the Entretien infini: “To find, to seek, to turn: yes, these are words indicating movements, but always circular. To find is to seek the relationship to the centre, which is properly the untraceable. The centre makes it possible to find and turn, but the centre cannot be found.”

The two pieces filmed are therefore inscribed in a circle.
In Giacinto Scelsi’s Quatro pezzi su una nota sola, the 25 musicians are arranged in a circle round the camera. According to the 4 pieces of the piece, the film is built on 4 rotating movements from a fixed point, the centre of the circle. In John Cage’s Quartet Four, the camera literally rotates round the four musicians of the quartet who face each other in the centre of the circle.
These two films dialogue and question the notions of centre and of circular movement.

Four (1989) belongs to the ‘Number Pieces’ series, begun in 1987 and unfinished at his death, and whose title reveals the number of musicians required for its performance, four. The time brackets are still indicated, but the sound material is considerably simplified. The musicians have access to all the parts, no individual virtuosity, but a set of changing tonal densities.
In Four, the score to be played by each instrument consists of short passages with sustained notes. Most of these passages contain a single note, some of them two to five notes. These single musical elements are then inserted into a “variable time interval”, Cage’s time-honoured term for intervals of time in which a given part of the music can begin and end (for example, the first passage of each part is specified to begin within the first 22.5 seconds and to end somewhere between 15 and 37.5 seconds after the musician begins playing). These intervals are about 30 seconds long, so as to give the musicians a lot of flexibility in arranging the music they have to play. This system allows a great deal of rhythmic freedom and makes the relationships between the four parts of the piece very malleable. Four offers a constantly changing mosaic of tones as notes appear and disappear. The four parts together form ever-changing harmonies. It is possible to follow the evolution of these diverse lines as they are picked up, combined, abandoned and found again, like threads in a complex tapestry.

The four musicians play very softly, very slowly and without vibrato. Moreover, the four parts of the quartet are composed from the same relatively limited range of keys, so that any of the four musicians can play any of the four parts. Cage’s instructions for the performance of the piece are designed to demonstrate that the parts are indeed interchangeable, and that the interval structure offers great flexibility. First, the four musicians divide the parts among themselves according to their own wishes. They then play the piece, after which they exchange parts and play the piece again from the beginning. The result is that you hear the same music twice, but with slightly different timbres, with a slight shift of notes within the intervals. The absence of any differentiation in tone, dynamics and timbre, helps to create the flat, unmodulated musical surface that we hear. If the interwoven parts of Four sound like a tapestry, it is in fact a fabric with muted hues in greys and browns.

“There are three five-minute sections, A-C, each with flexible time slots and one that is fixed; these are scored from 0’00” to 5’00”. There are four parts (1-4), each of which can be played by any of the players. If the performance is to last ten minutes, all players play section B (parts 1-4). The two violinists then exchange parts with the other two players, either 1 with 3 and 2 with 4, or 1 with 4 and 2 with 3. After resetting their timers, they play section B again. If the performance is to last twenty minutes, all players play sections A and C without a break in between. Players 1 and 2 then swap parts with players 3 and 4 in either direction and play A and C again.” John Cage (reported in Malcolm Goldstein’s comments)

The musicians of the quartet face each other and their performance is filmed by a camera that circles around them in a long sequence. The musicians perform the four variations of this piece Four in one long sequence: 5 minutes, then 10 minutes, then 20 minutes and finally 30 minutes.