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Jordan Wason Professor Mullen Analysis of Quest by John Cage

October 1, 2012 Music Analysis

John Cage was an american avant-garde composer. He is defined by approaching music in a less traditional way, often using altered instruments, mathematical formulae, and found noise. (Swed, Mark) He did not plan from the outset to delve into composition, or even music. He dropped out of college to explore Europe as a writer. However, he found after some piano lessons that he was interested, as were others, in making art in ways that broke from the rigid forms of the past. (PBS) With this realization it did not matter that his mentor and teacher Schoenberg thought he had little sense for harmony, he did not need it in a traditional way. (PBS) The piece Quest by John Cage was composed in the 1930's. It is from his early works, and is atonal. Without a key signature, the form is based largely on intervalic and rhythmic repetition and variation. In particular, the intervals that this piece makes the most use of are the major seventh and its enharmonic equivalents for dissonance, as well as the perfect fifth for resolution. This follows acoustic theory since the fifth is one of the harmonics of any fundamental frequency. Based on these and a few other intervals the motives and chords are structured. The first motive is recognizable for its contour and its triplet rhythm. In some of the various transpositions throughout the piece the contour remains relatively the same though the intervals change, such as in the first bar of line four. In other examples, such as in the second bar of line one, the contour reverses partly due to intervalic inversion. The common factor is the rhythm. The same goes for the second motive, which is more spread out and chord based. It varies through not only transposition, but the addition of intervals on top that create dissonance. The structure of the sections and the phrases within them also focus on this very

mathematical and systematic use of intervals and rhythm. The first phrase introduces the main motive, and resolves on a chord consisting of fifths. In the next phrase the second motive is introduced, underneath which a transposition of the major seventh from the first motive is echoed. It resolves on a perfect fifth, but the idea continues with another variation of motive two. This pattern continues, becoming more dramatic through intervals and dynamics. It finally slows towards a resolution with the combination of motive one and two within bar one of the fourth line. Again, the resolution takes place on a chord composed of fifths. The second section, which is distinct from the first section mostly by range and the rearrangement of intervals, still contains many of the same rhythms. This continuation of rhythm keeps the piece united much as a key signature would do for a tonal piece. There are slight variations, such as making the fifth line contain eighth notes that are synchronized to build up to the low register chords as compared to the synchronized ones in the third line. The first phrase of part B contained within itself because of its resolution on the fifths. The second phrase is separated by a new set of fifths, and ultimately the piece resolves on fifths, though the last set bring it back to an unresolved feeling. This piece is Cageian in respect to the atonal nature and the attention to intervallic and rhythmic repetition. It is, however, one of his early works and does not represent him at the pinnacle of his experimentation which involved much more focus on the act of listening and the presence of silence in the music for the introduction of found sounds from the surroundings. (Swed, Mark) He will find these inspirations later as he makes friends interested in avant-garde and develops as a composer.

Works Cited PBS. "John Cage About the Composer." PBS. PBS, 1 Aug. 2001. Web. 27 Sept. 2012. <

cage/about-the- composer/471/>. Swed, Mark. "John Cage's Genius an L.A. Story." Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 31 Aug. 2012. Web. 27 Sept. 2012. <,0,3501401.htmlstory>.