Recorded live at the WIEN MODERN festival in Vienna in 2012—the centennial year of John Cage’s birth, as it happens—In Four Parts is Patrick Pulsinger and Christian Fennesz’s reimagining of Cage’s 1950 String Quartet in Four Parts.
Cage’s quartet is a generally understated work notable for its restrained dynamics, detached islands of coloristic, non-functional harmonies, and brief, fragmentary melodic motifs. The recurrence of its sets of fixed harmonies gives it a cyclical rather than a static feeling, which reflects Cage’s aesthetic interests at the time he wrote it.
The quartet was the product of a period in the late 1940s when Cage, influenced by the writings and lectures of philosopher Ananda Coomaraswamy and his friendship with Gita Sarabhai, created works inspired by the codification and expression of emotion in Indian classical music. He was particularly influenced by the notion that art should reflect nature and its cyclical manner of operation—his first orchestral work was The Seasons of 1947, a ballet score for Lincoln Kirstein—and this notion is not only embodied in the quartet’s four-part structure, but forms its emotional core as well.
Given this background, it was Pulsinger and Fennesz’s inspiration to re-envision rather than recreate Cage’s work. They first reduced the quartet to a duo, with Pulsinger’s analogue modular synthesizer standing in for the viola and cello, and Fennesz’s electronically treated electric guitar replacing the two violins. Their In Four Parts retains the overall structure and trajectory of Cage’s quartet, which lays out a cycle of movement that runs from more to less activity and ends with a burst of unexpectedly energetic themes.
Fennesz’s guitar provides most of the harmonic/melodic material, while Pulsinger’s synthesizer frames it within a context of colors running from unpitched chirps to resonant, bell-like tones, to—in an oblique acknowledgement of the cello’s role as the quartet’s lowest voice—an occasional sub bass more felt than heard. Echoes of Cage’s harmonies occasionally arise, and like Cage’s harmonies these are configured as free standing events populating a texture of progressively thinner density. Until the fourth and final section, which like Cage’s features thicker, more quickly moving sound.
Cage’s String Quartet in Four Parts is a beautiful, sublime work. Pulsinger and Fennesz’s In Four Parts is certainly worthy of it.