CAGE Chess Pieces. Four Dances JOHNSON Rational Melodies
As David Lang indicates in his warmly opinionated booklet recollections, Tom Johnson (b1939) is best known as an insightful and frequently humorous observer of the American experimental scene – his distinctive outlook being no less typical of his own music. Rational Melodies (1993) consists of 21 pieces each averaging under two minutes and scored ‘for any instruments’. As realised for the clarinet, piano and percussion formation of Trio Omphalos, these unfold as single-line or unison melodies which prove as winsome as they are diverting; albeit with that inscrutability, even anonymity of manner that remains key to the thinking of one long intent on the eradication of what might be termed ‘composer-centric’ expression.
In that sense, and whatever his stated assertions to the contrary, John Cage was always his own focal point artistically. Not least in the Four Dances (1943), written for choreography by Hanya Holm, three of which draw upon elements from blues, ragtime and even stride in an animated as well as amusing fashion. By contrast, the second dance evokes more the ethereal whimsy of Satie – reminding one that Cage was nothing if not provocative in his disavowal of ego-driven creativity. The Omphalos render both these works with precision and enjoyment.
A pity only 13 of the Johnson pieces are featured (there was room for the remainder), though listeners are given the second piece from his Counting Duets (1982) as a whispered encore and, more substantially, a realisation by the redoubtable pianist Margaret Leng Tan of Chess Pieces – Cage’s contribution to a 1944 art exhibition, its notated element duly transformed into this eventful musical process. All very distinctive and (whisper it quietly!) individual.