Cage: Dream

Program Note

John Cage (1912-2012)
Dream (1948) (arr. 1974 by Karen Phillips)

Many of the fundamental ideas of John Cage’s later compositional practices emerged in his earlier years. He entered Pomona College as a theology major in 1928, and describes in his autobiographical statement why he left soon after:

“I was shocked at college to see one hundred of my classmates in the library all reading copies of the same book. Instead of doing as they did, I went into the stacks and read the first book written by an author whose name began with Z. I received the highest grade in the class. That convinced me that the institution was not being run correctly. I left.”

Decades later, Cage would become a pioneer of indeterminacy in composition and in performance, where elements of the music are left up to chance or to the whim of the players. In 1951, Cage acquired the first English translation of the I Ching [Book of Changes], the Chinese symbol system designed for divination. Much of his subsequent work used operations based on pages from the I Ching to which Cage would randomly flip, including Imaginary Landscape No. 4 (1951) for 12 radio receivers, Music of Changes (1951) for piano, and, later, Cheap Imitation. He also composed using star charts in his Etudes Australes (1975) for piano and Atlas Eclipticalis (1962) for orchestra. Cage’s most ambitious work involving chance procedures was Europeras I & 2 (1987), which uses the I Ching to generate every aspect of the production—libretto, score, costumes, sets, lighting, “plot”—based on a database of over 100 classic European operas. According to Cage, his use of the technique allowed a piece to be performed in chaotically different ways, and also fulfilled his intention to “let things be themselves.”

Dream was originally used as music for the eponymous choreographed piece by Merce Cunningham, following the rhythmic structure of the dance and using a fixed gamut of tones.