This is a thoroughly imaginative pairing of John Cage and Henry Cowell, especially coming after Cowell’s impressive showing as Composer of the Week on BBC Radio 3 last October, drawing on Joel Sachs’s biography. Both composers were pioneers but Cowell’s versatility and stylistic diversity have confused people. He was in his teens when he supported a MacDowell type of harmonised melody with low tone-clusters in his Irish Legends; he got inside the piano for The Banshee, sweeping prettily across the strings; in his European tours starting during the 1920s he became so famous for his aggressive tone-cluster pieces that Bartók asked his permission to use them; and he was a writer, publisher, propagandist for new music and theoretician. After the Second World War he visited Iran, India and Japan and incorporated aspects of their musics into some of the most impressive multicultural works of the kind now fashionable.
Liebner alternates her two composers attractively. The 1940s were the heyday of Cage’s prepared piano and the pieces here, often for Merce Cunningham’s dances, are as fascinating as any – just gorgeous sounds, played with clear rhythmic drive too. Dream, in the Phrygian mode, is one of Cage’s best tunes. I’m not joking – look at the last movement of the String Quartet or In a Landscape, from the same period.
The booklet-note is a lengthy generalised essay, not always sufficiently informative about each work. (Cowell was unjustly imprisoned for four years, not 15.) Liebner is a persuasive performer, creating an anthology which is ideal for introducing either composer and containing surprises for those who know the work of both.