The Freeman Etudes (1977-90) are one of the summits of John Cage’s oeuvre and of the solo violin repertoire. They are the final set in a series of virtuoso etudes beginning with the Etudes Australes for piano (1974-75) and continuing with the Etudes Boreales for cello and/or piano (1978). In all of these works, Cage used astronomical charts in the compositional process, fixing the locations of events on the page by tracing star positions; in the Etudes Boreales and the Freeman Etudes, he subsequently determined the specific qualities of these events (pitch, dynamics, duration, timbre, articulation) through painstaking chance operations.
This extreme level of detail demands of the performer unflagging concentration and superhuman dexterity. Whereas in the otherwise comparable Etudes Boreales for cello Cage would vary and limit the instrumental ranges from which he would select his pitches, in the Freeman Etudes the total range of the instrument is always available: if individual events are all possible to play in themselves, their succession is precarious in the extreme, taking no account of ease or practicality of performance. That the Freeman Etudes are the most difficult works ever written for violin was not accidental, but had for Cage a specific social significance: as he remarked in an interview, they “are intentionally as difficult as I can make them, because I think we’re now surrounded by very serious problems in the society, and we tend to think that the situation is hopeless and that it’s just impossible to do something that will make everything turn out properly. So I think that this music, which is almost impossible, gives an instance of the practicality of the impossible.” The work’s title reflects this utopian optimism: although it is principally a tribute to Cage’s friend the music patron Betty Freeman, it also alludes to men whom Cage admired as being “in a real sense free,” among them Henry David Thoreau and Buckminster Fuller.
The etudes are grouped in four books, each comprising eight etudes. The first seventeen etudes were composed in close consultation with violinist Paul Zukofsky between 1977 and 1980; but then Cage discontinued the project. A main reason for this interruption was Zukofsky’s discomfort at being asked to play music that didn’t merely reach, but actively passed the threshold of impossibility: in Etude XVIII some of the constellations of notes became so dense that they defied even approximate execution. Even notationally they posed a problem, forcing Cage to write them as footnotes since they so far exceeded the available notational space. Faced with this dilemma, Cage uncharacteristically lost confidence in the extremity of his demands, publishing only the first two books and letting the remainder of his drafts languish.
However, the challenges of the first sixteen etudes began to fascinate several intrepid violinists. Although Zukofsky only recorded the first eight etudes, first János Négyesy and then Irvine Arditti took up I-XVI; and after hearing a performance of these by Arditti, Cage was inspired to take them up again and finish the cycle. What had so excited Cage was Arditti’s “extraordinary brilliance,” which was manifested not least by the unparalleled speed of his performances. Cage had assumed that the pieces could not be played at a faster tempo than roughly three seconds per measure; but Arditti kept pushing this apparent maximum, eventually reaching an astonishing tempo of two seconds per measure. As musicologist James Pritchett writes, Arditti’s example gave Cage the solution to his quandary: in the late etudes, “where there are an impossible number of notes, the performer would be instructed to play ‘as many as possible.'"
Cage returned to his drafts; but, after nearly a decade away from them, he could no longer remember his intricate compositional methods. For help he turned to Pritchett, who had been investigating the genesis of Cage’s early chance music and who fortunately proved equally astute with respect to the Freeman Etudes. He deciphered and reconstructed Cage’s techniques from his sketches and notes, enabling Cage to complete the work in 1990.
If the Freeman Etudes challenge the violinist, they also challenge the listener: one is asked attend to a music of continual, unpredictable change, forgoing any traditional points of reference. But if one meets this challenge, the rewards may be great. If I may speak personally, hearing a performance of the first sixteen etudes many years ago was one of the crucial events in my life. While listening I wasn’t initially sure if I was bored or interested; one moment I would come into uncanny attunement with the work, able against all probability to predict the next event, and would then drift into dazed inattention. I gradually lost track of time, unsure if five or fifteen etudes had passed; as I lost my bearings, now the virtuosity of the performer would come into focus, and then, just as suddenly, the beauty and pathos of each event, finite, unique, unrepeatable. After the performance I found myself stunned and shaking; and, when I stepped outside, the phenomenal world struck me as unprecedentedly open, as my sensibility had been cleaned and sharpened by my encounter with Cage’s music. The Freeman Etudes still seem to me to be a sublime work: their austere, disorienting splendor grants us an opportunity to discover new ways, new intensities of hearing, feeling, and thinking.