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John CAGE (1912-1992)
Two3 (1991) [121:00]
Inlets (1977) [7:00]
Two4 (1991) [30:00]
Tamami Tono (shō)
Christina Fong (violins)
Glenn Freeman (conch shells)
rec. 2004, exact date and location not given.
OGREOGRESS 34479370557 [2:38:00]
Experience Classicsonline

The present disc is the tenth in a series from OgreOgress featuring previously unreleased works by well-known composers. This 158-minute 96kHz|24bit DVDAudio contains the world premiere recording of John Cage’s huge Two3 and Cage’s complete scores for shō and/or conch shells. The disc is packaged in a rather flimsy card foldout with one of those rubbery nipples to hold the disc, so portability or even storage without damage has to be a concern. The booklet notes are spread across the inside in a single grand typographical gesture which makes the text very hard to read indeed, especially for old folk like me who ruined their eyes in the age before computers; copying scores by hand.
 
Two3 has ten sections, none of which are shorter than 10 minutes each, some nearly 15. These are described as duets, but in fact the conch shells, filled with water and moved to produce odd gurgling noises, only appear very briefly towards the end of each movement. The great stretches of time are occupied by a solo shō, an instrument best described as a Japanese mouth organ with bamboo pipes. The sound of this instrument is strangely lonely and remote, and the player’s sparing use of notes and crescendo/decrescendo gives the music an Aeolian feeling – as if the instrument were hung in a tree, and allowed to respond to the wind in its own way. I found the sound rather penetrating – like a high reed harmonium or indeed a conventional western mouth organ, but heard through the irresponsibly loud headphone speakers of someone sitting next to you. It is a sound to which you can become accustomed, but it won’t cure your hangover.
 
This vast tract of highly abstract music really is the sonic equivalent of a Japanese ‘karesansui’ garden – the kind with the raked gravel and isolated stones. The only way to approach it is with at least a modicum of ‘zen’, since concentrated listening to such a piece for two whole hours can only otherwise result in lockjaw or some other negative physical side effects.
 
The conch shells in Two3 take on a more prominent role in the relatively embryonic earlier work Inlets. This is a work in which the role of both the composer and the musician is taken over by the random factors involved in allowing water to gurgle through conch shells. In this way, the concept takes on as much importance as the end result, but as always with Cage, the end result almost invariably ends up with some kind of bafflingly compelling element which draws your interest. The bubblings each have their own tone and pitch, and once your ear and mind relinquish all gastric or bath-time associations the piece takes on its own life and strangely fascinating character. The further random cracklings of what sounds like a fire later on in the background gives the association of water a different meaning – a piece of aural theatre which Ivor Cutler would no doubt have appreciated.
 
Two4 is for shō and violin and works with an interesting, organically overlapping compositional process. The shō part is in three movements lasting 10:00, 12:00 and 8:30 respectively, while the violin has four movements, one for each string, of 10:10, 4:40, 12:40 and 2:20. The music for the shō is reminiscent to that in Two3, but is given an extra dimension with the violin part, which lays down a series of suspended, single notes, out of which the shō’s often dissonant chords grow and fade.
 
Rob Haskins’ notes, once you’ve adjusted your eyes to reading them, provide some useful insights into this strange sound world. In summing up Cage’s ‘number pieces’, he succinctly places the remote stillness of the music in a nutshell: “There is no contrast, no epiphany, no drama, no point.” This may be true, but the ‘point’ could be part of his further response, which sees the music “gently enveloping me until I see and hear minute details of everyday life with a fresh, uncluttered clarity.” This might or might not have been Cage’s intention with the longest of these pieces, but I can only imagine that he would embrace such an effect as a positive function of the sounds and span of these works. For me, this music is kind of alternative to a work like Erik Satie’s Vexations, where the minimalism is freed of its mesmerising sense of tonal repetition, but the mind achieves a similar state of meditative saturation – if you let it. Through the medium of Audio DVD these pieces at the very least finds the space to exist outside a live performance. Having them in your collection may alter the length and value of your day considerably.
 
Dominy Clements
 

 


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