Cage Litany for the Whale

Author: 
Peter Dickinson
CAGE Litany for the Whale

CAGE Litany for the Whale

  • Litany for the Whale
  • Solo for Voice 52 (Aria No. 2)
  • Five
  • (The) Wonderful widow of eighteen springs
  • Experiences No. 2
  • (36) Mesostics re and not re Marcel Duchamp
  • Aria
  • Solo for Voice 49

This is a landmark for Cage, Paul Hillier’s group and everyone else. Hillier says he has been interested in Cage for years – as a composer and not just an influence – and now his own considerable advocacy, which has meant so much to Arvo Part, 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, austere and liturgical, since there are powerful associations with these voices in early music repertoire.
The scope narrows to three notes in The Wonderful Widow, where the closed piano part is slightly subdued, and the same three recur in Thirty-six Mesostics (organized like an acrostic but down the middle) spoken by American minimalist Terry Riley and sung by Hillier.
Cage’s Aria (1958), for Cathy Berberian, has always been associated with one voice but this realization for seven voices and electronic sounds is thoroughly idiomatic. Experiences No. 2, another monody to a poem by e. e. cummings (who said Cage couldn’t write a tune?) is beautifully sung by Andrea Fullington but the precisely notated pauses are not always accurate. The realization of Aria No. 2 is a fastidious mix of extended vocal techniques by Alan Bennett with sounds of weather. 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 – compare the Barton Workshop or the two versions from Ensemble Avantgarde. This type of sustained writing is ideal for voices and there are recognizable meditative qualities in all these performances. The close-microphone breathing in Solo No. 22 is, like everything else here, artistic and well-engineered. Yes, Cage is too good to be left to the avant-gardists, his house has many mansions and these performances are as attractive and dedicated as any.'

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