These Etudes were written for Grete Sultan, 1974-75, they occupied a cultural stasis, a void in some respects,i.e. the Seventies, when structuralism was fashionable; the word "(or term) "post-modernity" was fast becoming the new buzz, perhaps because of Frederic Jameson's book, but also Jean Baudrillard, Jean Lyotard.
Etudes, conceptually are like a "holding-patter" in the serious trajectory of music,. It always has been, Debussy at the end of his life wrote 12 Etudes, didn't know anywhere else to proceed but to his "comfort zone" of Diatonicisms, He knew of Stravinsky, Igor as well, utilized traditional chords, only without traditional function; Both knew of 12 Tone thinking,Mahler as well- well Atonality; But had no sensibility for it. . .
Cage's work is divided into 32 etudes,into 4 Books, each book having 8 Etudes.Each Etude is more or less about 8 minutes.But there is no strict sense of that. . .
The title comes from Cage's affinity with the natural order of things of physical space, So here he utilized "Atlas Australis"; a book of star maps.How stars look from Australia. a great distance from New York City where he was living at the time. . .
I recall the original vinyl with Grete Sultan. It had a page of these star-maps with the rubber wedges needed in this etudes to hold down designated tones for one entire etudes, these are designated with diamond shapes tones, and change with each Etude.. . The cover(not the music) actually won a prize for graphics. . .
So interesting that there is a constellation, a configuration of harmonics that cycle thru the etudes,like revolving tones of the ether- that introduce themselves into the etudes, but we as listeners--- never really know how or when harmonics partials occur, unless we listen intently. Certainly the performer knows, and can also excite the tones that would produce more or less overtones, Dynamics are left to the performer's discretion, so if you know for example what lower piano tones are being continually held down, without the damper pedal you can shape your dynamics to excite those overtones.
The "study", the "chore", the "work" in generic terms-- here is to read four staves, 2 for each hand, and to read/project the tones as in real space, so the closer the tones are together, the faster you hear them in proximity to the others.And this can be "asa fast as possible" or gradations from that. . . Given the amount of density of the graphics one sees, it would be almost impossible to play fast, but there are sections that lend itslef to this "reading" . . . So the graphic depictions on the page should resemble what we hear in real space--time. Neither Tempo or dynamics are given by Cage. So the pianist performer is free to shape things as they want.
The challenge here really is what the pianist brings to these etudes. They are interpreted, or "read"; so the listener does in fact get some psychological "snapshot" of the emotive dimensions of the performer. The subjectivity of this is at a lull, at third person point, yet is still there.
I've heard Stefan Schleirmacher play these in his complete recording,wonderful, a bit harder to listen,relatively speaking; and Grete Sultan,who brings a sense of beauty to it;
Frederic Rzewski and Stephen Drury played these together,(different Books ) at the Festival d"Automne in Paris this last November 2011.
Sabine Liebner, is thus far the most interesting interpretively. Well, to my sense of hearing; In the aesthetic philosophy of Cage recall there is no good or bad, just technically accurate, astute and/or interesting or not, you must decide. . .
Liebner brings a kind of lyricism,a playfulness,plaintive moments, and serious all simultaneously--- (if that is possible) to these etudes.
You need to have a free sense of time, and acoustic space, which all the performers certainly do. . .You must also sense the endlessness of time itself. So there are many dimensions of these etudes that are hidden conceptual things, ideas, that never get imparted into the music itself;So the etudes do become like a personal odyssey---a leftover from modernity of tradition; But if these ideas are not there, one knows it, or should know it; Many of the intervals, do in fact resemble traditional harmonies, of course always disrupted, and non-functional. But each pianist to the best of their ability cannot escape the arresting beauty, the threadbare beauty of this great work.