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With ‘Etudes Australes,’ John Cage imagined a boundless world

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On Sunday, the Summer Institute for Contemporary Performance Practice (SICPP) opens a week of avant-garde revelry with a concert including SICPP artistic director Stephen Drury performing Book I of John Cage’s astronomically difficult “Etudes Australes.” The “Etudes” — finished in 1975 — look to the skies. As with his earlier, orchestral “Atlas Eclipticalis,” Cage started with a book of star charts; he translated the diagrams into a grid of musical events, and then manipulated and modified it with expressly designed chance operations. The work’s challenge results from Cage’s idea of treating the two hands as completely independent: each covering the entire keyboard, neither reinforcing the other.

The idea of celestial harmonies, the “music of the spheres,” is an old one; Cage’s radical update is a reminder of the idea’s political dimensions. One famous ancient version came in the so-called “Somnium Scipionis,” Scipio’s dream, the set-piece that concludes Cicero’s “De res publica”; Cicero imagines the Roman general Scipio Aemilianus having a nocturnal vision of the breadth and order (and euphony) of the universe, while downplaying individual glory in favor of patriotic sacrifice and duty to the state.


The idea entranced medieval philosophers, and even Renaissance intellectuals, while questioning whether the music of the spheres actually sounded, still limned theoretical orbits and ratios alongside ideals of social order and hierarchy. “[E]very reason persuades us to believe at least that the world is composed with harmony,” Gioseffo Zarlino, one of the most influential theorists, wrote, “because the heavens, in their intelligence, turn with harmony.”

Cage’s music of the spheres, characteristically, is more revolutionary and anarchistic. A number of works from the mid-1970s found Cage facing “what I hadn’t faced previously in my work: the question of harmony.” For Cage, the question wasn’t just musical. The “Etudes” gradually expand their vocabularies to include three-, four-, and five-note chords, resulting in music that was “not based on harmony,” Cage explained, but “permitted harmonies to enter into such a nonharmonic music” — the equivalent of enabling “institutions or organizations, groups of people, to join together in a world which was not nationally divided.”


Even the work’s technical difficulty was, for Cage, an expression of hope. “[W]e tend to think that the situation is hopeless and that it’s just impossible to do something that will make everything turn out properly,” Cage said. “So I think that this music, which is almost impossible, gives an instance of the practicality of the impossible.”


The Summer Institute for Contemporary Performance Practice (SICPP) presents Stephen Drury (playing John Cage), David Russell (playing Bendt Alois Zimmermann) and Gabriela Diaz (playing György Kurtag), Sunday at 8 p.m. at Jordan Hall (free;

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at