To John Cage

My mind was prepared to receive
the music you conceived with the aid of chance,
yarrow sticks or coins, notes falling
according to the laws of randomness,
yet not entirely random.
You dictated pitch, duration, the position,
to the smallest fraction of an inch,
of weather-stripping, felt, rubber and bolts
(clonk)
between piano strings, lid open, closed,
both pedals down, sustained
to the last faint burrings of reverberation

 

Yet you allowed, as part of chance designed,
the one who must obey these rules
some small freedoms, their right to choose
when to start, what instrument to play,
or not;
the fading overtones of the struck string echoing
the multilayered spaces resting in
four minutes thirty-three.

 

If music is liquid architecture (for
mathematics and music are divinely twinned),
yours are polygonal crystalline lattices
in which I’m free to wander, wondering
at colours, emotions, transitions caged in notes,
hiding in full hearing, and at how
packing a piano with unrandom bits of junk –
weather-stripping, felt, rubber, bolts
(clonk) –
creates such complexities of tonal grandeur
as should voice a cathedral organ, or in sparseness,
the transparent limpidities
of a three-stringed koto.

(After hearing Nigel Butterley talk about and play ‘Music for Marcel Duchamp’ on prepared piano to commemorate John Cage’s centenary in 2012)