Nine ways to fall in love with Cage on his birthday
For those new to Cage's philosophies and music, here are nine points of departure...
1) Gramophone recommended recording:
The Seasons. Suite for Toy Piano (orch L Harrison) Concerto for Prepared Piano and Chamber Orchestra. Seventy-Four (Versions I & II) Margaret Leng Tan toy pf/prepared pf American Composers Orchestra / Dennis Russell Davies ECM New Series 465 140-2 (76' · DDD · Recorded 1979) Buy from Amazon
This is an enchanting CD, every item a sheer delight. Margaret Leng Tan worked with Cage in the last decade of his life, and her earlier recordings show a special sympathy for Cage’s keyboard music. The second of her New Albion CDs included the piano solo version of The Seasons, and Cage was honest enough to admit to her that he had help from Virgil Thomson and Lou Harrison in making the orchestral version recorded here. The result is Cage at his most poetic, evoking each of the four seasons in lovely changing colours.
There are two realisations of one of the last of what are called Cage’s ‘Number Pieces’, Seventy-Four, written for the American Composers Orchestra a few months before his death in 1992. This seamless garment of sustained sound in two overlapping parts is an immensely moving document from a unique human being at the end of his life. Anyone who responds to the spiritual minimalism of Pärt, Górecki or Tavener will understand, especially in these dedicated performances.
The Concerto for Prepared Piano (1951) takes its rightful place as the major classic for the transformed instrument with orchestra – a status emphasised by this fastidious performance with its delicate sonic tapestry, including discreet radio, all reflecting Cage’s absorption with oriental philosophy.
Tan has recorded the Suite for Toy Piano (1948) before. This time the sound is closer, you can hear her in-breath just before some movements, and we could have done with more precise rhythms. Lou Harrison’s orchestration is perfectly in the spirit and makes a fascinating complement – Cage writing memorable tunes! This disc shows that much of Cage has now entered the mainstream and that his music is unique. Peter Dickinson
2) John Cage's musical philosophy, from the man himself:
3) Gramophone recommended recording:
Number Pieces – Three². Seven. Ten. Fourteen The Barton Workshop / James Fulkerson tbn Megadisc MCD7801 (79' · DDD) Buy from Amazon
Cage’s late ‘Number Pieces’ transform the act of subversion into a thing of majorly profound beauty. Musicians are given material framed by ‘time brackets’ that indicate how long each sound lasts. The different instrumental parts aren’t meant to coordinate, and the random overlapping of colliding time brackets creates a texture where harmony without function and over-exposed instrumental timbre fuse with clandestine intent.
The Barton Workshop’s survey of four ‘Number Pieces’ is dominated by a monumental 30-minute performance of Ten (1991). The wind players dig deep into the fervent beauty of a carefully conceived microtonal patois. The piano is deployed to add pointed perspective, with inside-of-the-instrument stabs cutting across the fluidly sustained grid of the wind and strings. The structure is punctuated by wild-card percussion strokes, the whole unfolding construct growing holistically from the DNA of the material and the process the composer has set up.
Three² (1991) for three percussionists teases by hovering on a precipice of inaudibility, a device that overturns expectations of percussion music. The piece stutters between momentum and interruption, and the coolly abstract process is embedded with unexpectedly potent drama. Two earlier ensemble works – Fourteen (1990) and Seven (1988) – are perhaps slightly arid in their realisation but this is a beautiful and worthy disc none the less. Philip Clark
4) John Cage performs Water Walk on the TV quiz show I've Got a Secret in 1960. Cage's performance, which provokes raucous laughter from the audience, begins at 5'38'':
5) Gramophone recommended recording:
Music for Piano – 1; 2; 3; 4-19; 20; 21-36; 37-52; 53-68; 69-84; 85. Music for…Two Pianos I/II; Three Pianos; Four Pianos; Five Pianos. Electronic Music for Two Pianos Steffen Schleiermacher pf Dabringhaus und Grimm MDG613 0784-2 (153' · DDD) Buy from Amazon
This set is devoted to the Music for Piano series almost entirely written in the 1950s, which is otherwise neglected and mostly unavailable. You can see why performers have found these pieces less attractive. After Cage’s crisis year of 1952, which saw him produce the so-called silent piece 4'33", he was obsessed with removing his own tastes and desires from his compositions. Before he became fully committed to the I Ching’s random numbers he marked out imperfections in the manuscript paper he was using as a way of getting the notes. He said he looked at his paper and suddenly realised that all the music was there. This procedure also settled the density of notes on the page. In the whole series the performer is left to decide dynamics and pace in a continuity dominated by single notes. If this sounds austere, we’re reckoning without Schleiermacher’s ingenuity. Cage specifies various types of sound production, apart from the use of the keys: primarily, plucking the strings from inside or muting them. As in Schleiermacher’s prepared piano recordings, the quality of sound has been carefully considered. A muted low note or a single plucked string can be marvellously evocative in conjunction with conventionally produced pitches. The ambience of the prepared piano isn’t far away. Further, Schleiermacher avails himself of Cage’s provision for several of these pieces to be played together, which he does at intervals in the series. Since we’ve heard the same pieces solo, the superimposed versions bring back familiar material in a fascinating way. Fastidiously researched and performed, Schleiermacher says he’s taken the pieces seriously. In so doing he’s begun a new chapter of virtually unknown Cage. Peter Dickinson
7) Gramophone recommended recording:
In a Landscape. A Metamorphosis. The Seasons. Ophelia. Two Pieces (c1935). Two Pieces (1946). Quest Herbert Henck pf ECM New Series 476 1515 (69' · DDD) Buy from Amazon
The shock here is that this is simply piano music – no preparations, nothing played from the inside, every detail notated. In a Landscape, with a dozen recordings already, tops Cage’s greatest hits. It was written for dance, can be played on harp or piano, and again exercises its uncanny, mesmeric powers in this performance by Herbert Henck, who takes it much more slowly than the marked tempo. But Henck’s performances throughout are fastidious in representing every detail of the scores. The longest work, The Seasons (1947), was a ballet for Lincoln Kirstein which, like the Sonatas and Interludes, shows Cage’s interest in Indian philosophy before he moved on to Zen. At this period, perceptibly under the influence of Satie, Cage would assemble a collection of attractive sounds and then rotate them automatically, a procedure that became his trademark. The Two Pieces (1946) use some of the same autonomous sonorities as The Seasons in a different context.
Some of these early pieces are not linked to dance but stem from Cage’s study with Schoenberg and his development of his own kind of row technique. Late in life Cage liked his early keyboard pieces but found A Metamorphosis the least interesting. These are fascinating documents, well recorded, which bring this part of Cage’s enormous output quite naturally into the mainstream of 20th-century piano music. Peter Dickinson
8) Gramophone recommended recording:
Litany for the Whale. Aria No 2. Five. The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs. Solo No 22. Experiences No 2. 36 Mesostics re and not re Marcel Duchamp. Aria (arr Hillier). The Year Begins to be Ripe Theatre of Voices (Paul Elliott, Andrea Fullington, Allison Zelles, Terry Riley vocs Alan Bennett voc/closed pf Shabda Owens voc/electronics) / Paul Hillier voc Harmonia Mundi HMU90 7279 (72' · DDD · T/t) Buy from Amazon
This is a landmark for Cage, Paul Hillier’s group and everyone else. Hillier says he’s been interested in Cage for years and here his own considerable advocacy has turned Cage into a troubadour of our global village. The Theatre of Voices’ collection jumps right in at the deep end with Litany for the Whale (1980), a 25-minute monody with two uncannily similar voices (Alan Bennett and Paul Elliott) using only five notes in antiphonal phrases. Shut your eyes and this ritual could almost be Gregorian chant. The scope narrows to three notes in The Wonderful Widow, where the closed piano part is slightly subdued, and the same three recur in 36 Mesostics, spoken by American minimalist Terry Riley and sung by Hillier.
Cage’s Aria (1958), for Cathy Berberian, has been associated with one voice but this realisation for seven voices and electronic sounds is thoroughly idiomatic. Experiences No 2, another monody to a poem by EE Cummings, is beautifully sung, but the precisely notated pauses aren’t always accurate. Aria No 2 is a fastidious mix of extended vocal techniques by Alan Bennett with weather sounds. Cage convinces us of the musical beauty of rainfall, water and thunder. Five is a vocal version of one of Cage’s late Number Pieces. This type of sustained writing is ideal for voices and there are meditative qualities in all these performances. The close-microphone breathing in Solo No 22 is, like everything else here, artistic and well engineered. Peter Dickinson
9) Gramophone recommended recording:
'49 Waltzes for the Five Boroughs' Video director Don Gillespie Mode MODE204 (127' · NTSC · 4:3 · 2.0 · 0 · N/s) Buy from Amazon
In 1977 Cage devised this do-it-yourself environmental piece based on 147 New York street locations selected by using chance operations. The conception was realised complete only in 1994/95 when Don Gillespie and colleagues decided to visit all these places and video whatever they saw and heard. So the 49 Waltzes (three sections each = 147 places) are simply film with no other soundtrack apart from what is heard at the time. It’s a celebration of ordinary life in urban and residential streets. Refreshingly there’s no background music, no asinine commentator, and the visual aspect dominates so that it’s more film than music. Cage enjoyed the sound of what happens – so here it is for just over two hours.
In each shot the camera swings out and back from a fixed position; and apart from endless ordinary streets there’s a subway station, the Bronx Zoological Gardens, Cunningham Park in Queens, and JFK. The random processes often focus on Staten Island and the whole series ends picturesquely with the sound of gulls and waves at Weir Creek Park in the Bronx. Birds are the soloists elsewhere too. As people go about their business there’s surprisingly little conventional music, apart from operetta on tap in a record store and the occasional car radio. The team has realised exactly what Cage intended in the most conscientious way; excellent documentation in three languages. Peter Dickinson