First Construction (in metal)

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John Cage

General Info

Year: 1939
Duration: c. 10:00
Difficulty: (see Ratings for explanation)
Publisher: Peters
Cost: Score - $22.00   |   Parts Only - $45.50



Player I: Bells, Thundersheet
Player II: Prepared Piano (with Assistant)
Player III: Sleigh Bells, Almglocken (12), Thundersheet
Player IV: Brake Drums (4), Cowbells (8), Temple Gongs (3), Thundersheet
Player V: Suspended Cymbals (4), China Cymbals (4), Anvils (4), Thundersheet
Player VI: Muted Gongs (4), Water Gong, Tam-Tam, Suspended Gong, Thundersheet

Program Notes

First Construction (In Metal) by John Cage is one of the earliest pieces written for percussion ensemble. This 6-player work was the origin of Cage's "rhythmic structures" compositional technique, and uses a wide variety of metallic sounds to create an interesting soundscape.

This piece will require a prepared piano, changing the tone of the instrument by fitting it with cardboard and screws in the strings, as well as an assistant to lay a rod across the strings at different times. Cage also asks for many instruments that might be difficult to procure, like Balinese gongs and almglocken.

While this piece will certainly be 'out there' for most audiences, First Construction is historically important to percussion and music in general. The sounds Cage envisioned have been adapted for use in all kinds of music today.[1]

First Construction (in Metal) was composed in 1939; its first title was Construction in Metal.[1] Scored for six percussionists and an assistant. Instruments include, among other things, Japanese and Balinese gongs, Chinese and Turkish cymbals, automobile brake drums, anvils and a water gong (a gong lowered into water while vibrating, or struck while it is in the water, etc.[2]) A piano is also used, with the assistant applying a metal rod to the strings.

In First Construction, Cage introduced the technique of composing using fixed "rhythmic structures".[3] The idea was extremely important for his development as a composer, and during the next 17 years most of his work was done using the same technique or variations of it.[4] In this particular case the basic structure is 4, 3, 2, 3, 4, and a single unit contains 16 bars. So the composition begins with four units of 16 bars each, then the next section has three units, the third has two, and so on. Each unit is also divided the same way: four bars, then three, then two, etc.[5] The first part of the piece (four units of 16 bars each) was termed "exposition" by Cage, and the ending (which is a separate nine-bar section) "coda". The music itself is built around sixteen motives employed in strictly determined sequences.[5] Both the use of ethnic percussion and the rhythmic proportions technique were inspired in part by Henry Cowell's lectures that Cage attended in New York City in 1933.[6]

A recording of the piece by the London Sinfonietta is included in their 2006 CD Warp Works & Twentieth Century Masters.[2]




Commercial Discography

Online Recordings

Recent Performances

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Works for Percussion by this Composer

27' 10.554" for a Percussionist - Multiple Percussion
Amores - Percussion Trio; Piano
Branches - Percussion Duo
But what about the noise of crumpling paper.....? - Percussion Sextet
Child of Tree - Multiple Percussion
Composed Improvisation for Snare Drum - Snare Drum
Composed Improvisation: for one-sided drum with or without jangles - Multiple Percussion
Composed Improvisation: for Snare Drum Alone - Snare Drum
Credo in US - Percussion Quartet
Dance Music: for Elfrid Ide - Percussion Sextet; Dancer
Double Music - Percussion Quartet - Cage/Harrison
First Construction (in metal) - Percussion Quintet; Piano
Forever and Sunsmell - Percussion Duo; Voice
Four4 - Percussion Quartet
Imaginary Landscape No.2 - Percussion Quintet
Imaginary Landscape No.3 - Percussion Sextet
Imaginary Landscape No.4 or March No. 2 - 12 Radios - 24 Players
Inlets - Percussion Trio; Conch Shells
Living Room Music - Percussion Quartet
One4 - Multiple Percussion
Quartet - Percussion Quartet
R= Ryoanji - Multiple Percussion
Second Construction - Percussion Trio; Piano
She is Asleep: Quartet - Percussion Quartet; Voice; Piano
Six - Percussion Sextet
The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs Multiple Percussion (Piano); Voice
Third Construction - Percussion Quartet
Three2 - Percussion Trio
Trio - Percussion Trio

Additional Resources

Dissertation: The Early Percussion Music Of John Cage 1935 - 1943[3]