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Presentation of the BACH.Bogen
on the occasion of the Concours Rostropovitch in Paris
October 6, 2001
Auditorium Conservatoire Supérieure de Paris

International Cello Society Newsletter-- TUTTI CELLI May/June 2002


Janos Starker and Michael Bach in Conversation
December 11, 2000
Conservatoire de Musique de Genève, Grande Salle

John Cage
ONE8 (1991)
for Cello with Curved Bow

"The title page of John Cage’s composition ONE 8 reads:

violoncello solo
to be played with or without 108 (for orchestra)

for Michael Bach

John Cage
April 1991
New York City

The notation of the piece is very detailed, and yet at the same time enigmatic (“It’s doubtful whether a cellist looking at this piece would even know what to do", John Cage remarked later about it). In keeping with the manner of Cage’s later “number pieces,” the score consists of a series of musical fragments with variable timings. In this case, however, the notation shows one to four notes in each segment, with precise indications of which strings are to be used for which notes, which fingers used to play them, and the exact manner in which harmonics are to be played. Despite the intricacy of the notation of the music, the instructions to the performer are just two simple statements:

53 flexible time brackets with single sounds produced on 1, 2, 3 or 4 strings. Durations, dynamics and bow positions are free.

Besides the musical notation itself, perhaps the most informative part of the score, the key to its understanding, is the phrase “for Michael Bach.” I am reminded here  of the composer Sylvano Bussotti’s 5 piano pieces for David Tudor: that the title was not so much a dedication as an instrumental designation. The same is true of John Cage’s score, since Michael Bach is not just a cellist, but an  inventor of playing techniques. That ONE8 was composed for him tells us much about the way the music is to be played. First, there is the use of Michael Bach’s unique curved bow - the BACH.Bogen®. This bow, first developed by Michael  Bach in 1989, not only has a curved shape, but also has a mechanism for adjusting the tension on the bow hairs. These two features together allows the cellist to play three or even all four strings of the instrument simultaneously, something which is impossible with a traditional straight bow.

That John Cage intended for ONE8 to be played using the curved bow - and that the various sonorities in the piece were each meant to be played with a single attack - is stated in the performance notes (“single  sounds”), but is also clear from his own comments about the work. In an interview with Joan Retallack, Cage tells the story of a “very good” Juilliard student who wished to play the piece. “It doesn’t matter how good  she is,” John Cage said, “if she doesn’t have the right bow to play the music.” John Cage had originally thought of leaving open the option of playing ONE8 with a straight bow and arpeggiating the chords; after hearing  Michael Bach play it, however, he found that he so enjoyed Bach’s playing that he changed his mind and left it as is.

But the curved bow is only one of the technical innovations that Michael Bach brought to John Cage’s attention. The other was his astonishing exploration and extension of the use of harmonics. Michael Bach has written  a comprehensive treatise on the playing of harmonics on the cello, titled Fingerboards & Overtones: Pictures, Basics, and Model for a New Way of Cello Playing. The “Fingerboards” are drawings that Michael Bach made on  cardboard placed under the strings of the cello, using black ink on his own fingers. Michael Bach made a simple set of these for John Cage in 1990, shortly after the composer had decided to write ONE8 for him, in response to Cage’s question  “what can you finger on the cello?” Michael Bach’s intention at that time was to provide John Cage with a graphic guide to the hand stretches of which he was capable. However, shortly after this, Bach began to consider more and more the complexities of the situation - what he could play on any given string depended to a large degree on what other notes he was playing on the other strings -- and Michael Bach subsequently made many more of these drawings; to date he has made over a hundred of them.

The book goes on to methodically work through all the possibilities of playing partial tones on the cello - natural harmonics, artificial harmonics, or combinations of both; harmonics on a single string, on two strings, three  strings, or four strings simultaneously. There are tables of all the intervals possible in various situations, discussions of playing in the rarefied atmospheres of the 32nd partial, the difference tones that occur when two simultaneous harmonics are  slightly detuned, and the effects possible with pizzicato and glissando playing. Bristling with abbreviations, numbers, charts, and diagrams, it is a formidable treatise. It is also exactly the kind of rigorous treatment of the fundamental variables of  music - the systematic exploration of the edges of the possible - that is at the core of John Cage’s compositional methods; it is not hard to see why he was compelled to write for Michael Bach.

Thus, ONE8 is truly a work "for Michael Bach”, both personally and technically. But ONE8 is more than this: it is a work “with Michael Bach”, in that he was an integral part of its actual composition. The fingerboard drawings that Michael Bach provided  did not give John Cage all the information he needed to compose the piece. The possibilities were too vast to be neatly summarized in even a very large number of diagrams and charts. And so, when it came time to compose the piece, Cage found it necessary to have Bach there as well.

The process for composing each event was relatively simple:first, decide how many tones the event would have (one to four), and then, for each tone, select one pitch from the entire range of possibilities on the given string.  Michael Bach’s role was to provide the information on the extent of the “range of possibilities” for each tone of each event. For a three-note chord, for example, John Cage would select the first string and the first tone, based on  Bach’s range on that particular string. Then Cage would choose the next string to use, and Bach would experiment with his cello to see what he could finger on that string while playing the first tone. John Cage would select a pitch from that range,  and then they would move to the last string in the same manner: Michael Bach experimenting to determine what he should be able to reach while holding the other two tones, and Cage selecting from that range.

John Cage and Michael Bach thus proceeded through the fifty-three events in the piece, the two together acting as a kind of living cello oracle: Michael Bach framing the boundaries of the questions, John Cage using chance to provide specific answers within these boundaries. It was a process of  discovery, slowly working to find the individual components of each sound, one tone at a time. Knowing this while listening to Bach’s performance, it makes one realize that ONE8 clearly contradicts the “common knowledge” that  Cage’s compositional processes are largely inaudible to the audience and irrelevant to our experience as listeners. In fact, the piece sounds almost exactly like the way it was composed, and our role as listeners is to discover these sounds exactly as John Cage and Michael Bach did: one at a time, carefully, slowly, and with delight.

The sounds themselves are, of course, varied - simple, complex, ordinary, extraordinary, robust, fragile, etc. Michael Bach recalls a particularly memorable  moment: the sound of three simultaneous harmonics that takes place about 33:45 into this recording. “Each harmonic, played separately, would be very complicated for cellists and almost impossible,” Bach says, “but here all three pitches sound together!” Michael Bach recalls that he and John Cage paused after having achieved that particular sound. I like to think that they sat there in Cage’s loft, surrounded by his many plants and flowers, considered the beauty of what  they had discovered, and just smiled silently for awhile.
James Pritchett

Dieter Schnebel
Mit diesen Händen (1991)
for Cello with Curved Bow and Voice

First Performance Dec.14, 1992 Gürzenich Hall in Cologne.
Commemoration ceremony on the occasion of the 75th birthday of Heinrich Boell.
William Pearson, Voice and Michael Bach, Cello.

"When Michael Bach had some texts from Heinrich Böll's unpublished works sent to me, the text Mit diesen Händen (With These Hands) appealed to me in particular. The experiences of the war reflected in it and its horrors did not only re-awake own memories, but made also directly concerned. A type of Cantata for voice and cello resulted.

The instrumental part developed in a constant dialog with the Cellist Michael Bach and in stimulation of his sound experiments. In particular the four-voice textures sound fascinating. Thus, the virtuoso cello part can be played also as an independent piece - as Etudes for Cello solo

Dieter Schnebel

  Atelier BACH.Bogen | Im Schellenkönig 56 B | 70184 Stuttgart | Germany  

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