In orchestral music, the conductor plays the role of government (the critic and writer on twentieth-century music Peter Yates once described composer/conductor Pierre Boulez's role in his own works as that of a "traffic cop"). Cage was politically uncomfortable with exploiting this role in his composition. Thus, in Etcetera, the musicians begin without conductor (in a state of nature?) and move at their own option to one of three stations. Each station is provided with two, three, or four chairs respectively, facing one of three conductors. When a station is fully occupied, the conductor begins beating.
The two pianists, unable to move with their instruments, are given their own notated instrumental music, which they may play at any time. They become, in effect, stations that consist of one player only.
Players in each ensemble are provided with music which outlines but does not specify pitch and rhythm. Dynamics are notated conventionally. Rhythm is notated in space, distance horizontally being read as time, and divided into conventionally metered measures (2/4, 3/4, 4/4). Within each measure slash marks show the location of each beat. Each player's part consists of a small number of pitches which are not fixed absolutely but notated only relative to each other and chosen by the player. There are four phrases for each ensemble (the conductors have "score" pages without notes, showing only the metrical structure). Each phrase is successively longer, each adds more material onto the previous phrase. Each phrase is to be repeated any number of times. In rehearsal, Cage asked that the notations for the pianists (who play alone) be read as full chords, inviting virtuosity in performance.
Etcetera is written for an ensemble of any size. Music is provided for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, horn, tuba, strings, six percussionists and two pianists. The performing ensemble may deviate from this setup, as Cage's instructions indicate: "Substitutions, additions and subtractions may be made."
The sounds of nature pervade Etcetera. Created in the countryside, when Cage was still living in the rural community of Stony Point, the materials of the composition include a tape recording made outside the composer's home. Ninety minutes - long enough to be played throughout the piece (which may last any length) - the tape fills the performance with outdoor sounds (birds, wind, distant traffic) and transforms the musicians' gestures. The repeating loops of the duo, trio, and quartet become animal cries and birdcalls. The quiet thumping on the cardboard boxes becomes the rustling of leaves and the gentle patter of raindrops.
Tapped out on a "non-resonant cardboard box", the non-repeating rhythms of the solos played independently throughout the piece are interrupted by single held tones quietly sustained on one's instrument.
Cage's notation provides for the cardboard boxes to be tapped on various points on their surfaces. There is but a limited variety in the quality of sounds. Like the sound of raindrops, like the repeated (conducted) phrases, there is constant, subtle variation - always the same, always different. As well as referring back to Cage's studies with Schoenberg, particularly Schoenberg's observation that music is variation, and variation is but repetition with some elements changed, this constant repetition/variation looks forward to the obsessive repetitions of the late works.
Etcetera 2/4 Orchestras (1986)
In much of Cage's orchestral music (dating back to the Concert for Piano and Orchestra), the conductor functions as a kind of moving clock-hand, showing time lapsed but not indicating precise beats. In Etcetera 2/4 Orchestras, the four conductors beat somewhat more conventionally, giving single downbeat cues for the orchestral chords. Cage had noticed that musicians often prefer to be conducted - to be governed - rather than be given the freedom and responsibility which his own music customarily offered. Thus the players are given a choice: beginning under one of the conductors, the musicians may move at their own option to one of eight stations, where they play solo material, unconducted.
Soloists are provided with music similar to that given the ensembles of Etcetera. Each solo consists of two, three, four or five tones chosen by the performer. The orchestral chords are notated conventionally, with additional markings indicating notes to be played ever so slightly before or after the beat, and calling for microtonal glissandi up or down, toward, away from, or though some pitches - the same technique Cage used in the orchestration of Ryoanji. Although based on a non-repeating metrical scheme, the pulses of the orchestral music are extremely slow (to the point of requiring chronometric rather than rhythmic notation - that is, minutes and seconds rather than quarter notes are used to indicate timing) and are impossible to hear in any rhythmic context.
Etcetera 2/4 Orchestras is for large orchestra, divided into four smaller ensembles, each with its own conductor. The instrumentation is fixed for each ensemble: English Horn, Clarinet, Bass Clarinet, French Horn, Trumpet, Tuba, 2 Percussion, 8 Violins (Orchestra I); 2 Flutes, Contrabassoon, French Horn, Trumpet, 2 Trombones, 4 Violins, 3 Cellos, 2 Basses (Orchestra II); Oboe, Bassoon, Trombone, 1 Percussion, Harp, 12 Violins, 4 Violas, 2 Basses (Orchestra III); Flute, Oboe, Clarinet, 2 French Horns, Trumpet, Percussion, Piano, 4 Violas, 3 Cellos (Orchestra IV).
James Pritchett, in his invaluable study of Cage's music (The Music of John Cage, Cambridge University Press) examines, under the general heading of program music, three reoccurring elements in the composer's later works: nature imagery, political themes, and thematic use of musical materials. In Etcetera 2/4 Orchestras, city imagery takes the place of nature imagery, beginning with the thirty-minute tape recording (made in Cage's apartment on Sixth Avenue and punctuated with the ringing of the composer’s telephone) which plays throughout the fixed length of the piece. In addition, the sound of the orchestral chords bring to mind the squealing of car brakes, car horns in traffic, the scraping of metal against metal.
Freely pitched solos.
In the score, Cage suggests "after succeeding in rehearsal in playing a solo having two tones, try one with three, etc." In addition, the solos include an auxiliary short sound, notated with an x. This sound may or may not change pitch within a single solo.
The orchestral chords are repeated several times, with microtonal and microrhythmic variations distributed among the instruments as noted above. As in many of the other late works, such as parts of Music for ... and especially the number pieces, the nearly unchanging repetition of sounds can be heard not only as the perpetual renewing of the presumed familiar, but also as an image of the final, unchanging silence at life's end.