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Bolts, Hammers, and Toys: Primitivism in the Early Piano Works of John Cage


This paper examines the primitivist tendencies that operate in two early piano works by the American composer John Cage (1912 – 1992). His material alterations of the traditional piano in Bacchanale (1938/40) and Suite for Toy Piano (1948) are historically contextualized and intellectually situated in reference to the work of earlier modernist figures such as Igor Stravinsky (1882 – 1971), Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900), Walter Benjamin (1892 – 1940), and Sigmund Freud (1856 – 1939), in order to explore the ways in which these early Cage works are linked to the primitivism of European modernism at the beginning of the twentieth century. By focusing on the composer’s output of the 1930s and 1940s and by also adopting an interpretative lens that tracks his fascination with African music and children’s play, this paper critiques prevailing Cage scholarship that primarily relies on his better-known later works and philosophy in and after the 1960s.

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