Imaginary Landscapes

The development of telecommunications technology and electronic circuits had a major impact on the creation of new musical instruments from the very beginnings of the field. But it was only in 1951 that a composer first got the idea that the radio itself could be used as a musical instrument.  Since then the use of radio as a source for live, unpredictable sound, music, and voice has become commonplace across the genres of contemporary classical, and the various styles of electronic, rock and pop music. The next several installments of the music of radio series will explore some of the key composers and pieces of music that used radios as the primary instrument. Using the radio as an instrument has become part of what composer Alvin Curran has called “the new common practice” or grab-bag of themes, principles, and methods being used to create the sonic backdrop of the landscape that everyone now inhabits in this age of electronic multimedia.

“It’s not a physical landscape. It’s a term reserved for the new technologies. It’s a landscape in the future. It’s as though you used technology to take you off the ground and go like Alice through the looking glass.” John Cage wrote this about his series of Imaginary Landscape compositions that first began in 1939 with No. 1, written for two variable-speed turntables, frequency recordings, muted piano, and cymbal. It was potentially the first piece of electroacoustic music ever composed. The turntables played test tones. Some were constant, others had a sliding pitch. From the very beginning the piece was envisioned for radio, to be performed for either live or recorded broadcast. Since Cage had been a boy, he had been fascinated by the medium. Born in 1912 broadcasting was still in its infancy when it first reached his ears. Radio was so new anything could be done with it. The lackluster formats most common on the broadcasting portions of the spectrum now could well use an injection of the wonder the medium held in those first few decades.

Imaginary Landscape No. 1 was written while Cage held a teaching position at the Cornish School in Seattle. The school had been founded by Nellie Cornish, who had received some education in radio technology from Edward R. Murrow when visiting him at the CBS station in New York. In 1936 she created at Cornish the first school for radio technology in the United States. The studio at the school was equipped with the latest broadcasting and recording gear. It was there that Cage first began to experiment with the use of electrical sounds for musical purposes. At that time he was deep into writing percussion music and he began incorporating the sounds of radio and oscillator frequencies into these pieces. Reporting on Imaginary Landscape No. 1 the Seattle Star wrote that it was a “staccato roar of radio static and ghastly, ghostly whistles with intermittent shrieks”. While this might have terrified listeners of the time, anymore people take such music as a matter of course, paying it no mind, especially when it is used in such things as the soundtrack or incidental music in film and television.

In 1941 Cage had found himself spending a large part of the year in Chicago. It was here that his interest in radio music continued to grow. Around this time he had published an article “For More New Sounds” in the journal Modern Music. In this essay he wrote about the similarities to be found between the materials used to create sound effects in radio studios and the instruments in the percussion wing of an orchestra. One of his interests was to bring radio sound-effects to the concert hall. He wrote, “organizations of sound effects, with their expressive rather than representational qualities in mind, can be made. Such compositions could be represented by themselves as ‘experimental radio music'”. That same year he got to work with the poet Kenneth Patchen in creating a radio play for CBS. The first draft of the musical score was scrapped by the sound engineers however. Some of the sounds he wanted to create, such as the escape of compressed air were too expensive to produce for the program, he was told. After some revisions he eventually gave CBS something they considered acceptable. The resulting piece by Cage and Patchen, The City Wears a Slouch Hat, was broadcast on May 31st, 1942. The surreal text by the poet was mixed with sounds of telephones, crying babies, rain, foghorns and Cage’s metallic percussion instruments. In 1942 he also wrote No. 2 and 3 in the Imaginary Landscape series. No. 2 was written for tin cans, conch shell, ratchet, bass drum, buzzers, water gong, metal wastebasket, lion’s roar and amplified coil of wire. No. 3 required musicians to play tin cans again, muted gongs, audio frequency oscillators, variable speed turntables with frequency recordings and recordings of generator whines, amplified coil of wire, amplified marimbula (a Caribbean instrument similar to the African thumb piano), and electric buzzer.

Imaginary Landscape No. 4 was first performed in 1951 and is scored for 12 radios played by 24 musicians, two on each radio, one to control the tuning, the other to control the volume. It is a great example of indeterminate music. The only guarantee about the piece is that no performance of it will never be heard the same way. This is guaranteed because John incorporates chance operations to determine how much the dials of each radio are to be turned by each performer. The novelty of each performance is also guaranteed by the nature of radio itself. Depending on the place and time of a performance, the things coming out of the radio speakers are going to be different. During its premier concert at Columbia University’s McMillin Theater those in the audience heard the word “Korea” over and over again, as well as snippets of a Mozart violin concerto, news about baseball, static, and silence. The performance took place around midnight and many of the stations in New York had already gone off the air for the night.  Of course the silence never bothered Cage, who considered  in an integral part of the experience. He had said that “silence, to my mind is as much a part of music as sound.”

Listening to a recording of this piece from 2008 reveals the prevalence of country music and commercials. Voices come in and say things like “60 percent off” and read the weather and the latest buzz words in the news cycle. Many people listening today might be as confused about the “musical” quality of such a piece as they were back in 1951. But what John Cage has done  is to ask people to tune in and experience the unpredictable sounds and signals coming in from the radios and from the world, as a form of music.

The Imaginary Landscape compositions came to a close with No. 5  a work for magnetic tape recorder and any 42 phonograph records. This piece in the series was written in the same year as he began work on Williams Mix, for eight simultaneously played independent quarter-inch magnetic tapes, that became the first piece of octophonic music. As John Cage continued to compose until his death in 1992, he continued to work musically with new technology, including early computer music compositions in the 1960’s.  A number of other composers and musicians have taken a vast amount of inspiration from Cage’s work with radio and continued to build on it. These will be explored in further transmissions.

Begin again: a biography of John Cage by Kenneth Silverman, Alfred Knopf, New York, 2010.
Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists, by Kay Larson, Penguin Press, New York, 2012

This article was originally published in the January 2018 issue of the Q-Fiver.

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