The first sound you hear – the reedy tones of Wu Wei’s sheng smearing itself against Stefan Hussong’s husky accordion – will, the occasional tickle of pulse emanating from a set of five water-filled conch shells notwithstanding, be the only sound you hear for the next 100 minutes as John Cage’s Two3 (1991) goes nowhere in particular – very slowly, very deliberately and very beautifully.
Cage’s late-period Number Pieces – a sequence of modular scores where individual musicians are free to place given notes anywhere within ‘time brackets’ which determine when a specific sound must start then stop – render anything that might even approximate the continuity of a conventional narrative, or the discontinuity of an anti-narrative, impossible. Harmony becomes liberated from metric time; from needing to have a beginning, a middle or an endpoint. When instrumentalists play the material inside their time brackets simultaneously, disembodied harmonies – isolated notes decaying as others hairpin forwards – are left hanging in the continuous present.
Two3 was designed originally for the great shō player Mayumi Miyata, whose mastery of the ancient Japanese mouth organ had impressed Cage deeply. This new version is a logical adaption of his original score, the sheng being the Chinese equivalent of the shō, which itself was a precursor of the accordion.
And I very much doubt whether Cage would have objected to the rethink. Removing directional purpose from harmony has the effect, perhaps unexpected, of subtly deflating the standard timbral function of instruments. Bass instruments, for example, no longer need to bolster chords from the bottom and, instead, fall towards a rough timbral shag, like random bricks finding a unified colour as they weather. Sheng and accordion form a hybrid identity, the combined shadows of their overtone series creating a completely gorgeous ozone layer of ebbing and drifting harmonic vibrations. The conch shells – filled with water and rotated to generate randomised splashes – add occasional markers. But Two3 can be a very short 100 minute piece – assuming you’re willing to submit to a concept of time that has no point of reference within Western classical music.