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John CAGE (1912-1992)
Thirteen (1992) [29:56]
Four6 (1992) [30:00]
Four3 [Excerpt] (1991) [19:27]
The Barton Workshop/James Fulkerson
rec. 13 August 2002, De Hoop, Diemen, The Netherlands
MEGADISC MDC7799 [79:32]
Experience Classicsonline

‘Ooooh dearie me’ I hear you saying, ‘nearly 80 minutes of that conceptual John Cage bloke, I’m not going to like it, run away ...’ Well, fair enough – if you know what to expect and know you don’t like it, off you go. The thing is, some of this probably isn’t what you would expect, so stick around, and we’ll see if I can sell it to you.
John Cage’s “number pieces”, of which there are forty-eight in all, belong to the final six years of his life. They are so called because both their titles, and the construction of each composition, are based on numbers. They were created with the aid of software designed by Andrew Culver who had worked with Cage on many occasions previously. This enabled Cage to work quickly and thus fulfil the many commissions that came his way.
Arguably, such mathematical method might smack a little of commercialist exploitation, and it is true that Cage’s music business flourished as much on the idea behind pieces rather than on thick, painstakingly worked-out scores, black with densely written notes, precise dynamic markings and 17 different kinds of accents. I always remember a carillon playing friend of mine moaning about the coffee-stained sheet of John Cage-blessed A3 paper he received through the post after shelling out many hard-earned student shekels. I also acutely remember the great man’s critical assessment of some performances we gave of his work back in the late 1980s. He clearly knew what he wanted, but to us his scores were anything but a clarification of his intentions. This is the only thing which makes me a little suspicious of any Op. Post. performance of late Cage, when the performing tradition is sometimes fragile to say the least, and he himself is not around to say, “you’re doing it all wrong.”
It is interesting to read the instructions for these pieces. As quoted from the CD booklet, the entire road-map to a successful performance of Thirteen reads: “Flexible time–brackets within which tone(s) are to be played. Long tones are soft. Short ones can have any dynamic. The two percussionists whose parts are identical should make no attempt to play in unison. Long tones extended by breath or bow should be so extended imperceptibly.” To a sensitive musician, this is actually quite clear, and what the Barton Workshop has is a good improviser’s acute ear for the appropriate, the well timed, and the well aware of what everyone else is doing. The result is actually more like stretched-out Ligeti, with clusters of notes extending and interweaving like a trompe l’oeil chorale – one you can’t quite recognise, like the skull on Holbein’s ‘The Ambassadors’, tantalisingly elusive, and an enigma –even when you ‘get’ it. 30 minutes seems like a long time until you start listening, and then it’s over before you know it.   
Four6, for any way of producing sounds (vocalisation, singing, playing of an instrument or instruments, electronics, etc.) was composed for Pauline Oliveros to celebrate her sixtieth birthday. It was premiered on July 23, 1992 at Central Park Summerstage in New York City by John Cage, Joan LaBarbara, William Winant and Leonard Stein. It was also used for the dances Tune in/Spin Out (1996) and Rondo (1996) by Merce Cunningham. The instructions are: “Choose twelve different sounds with fixed characteristics (amplitude, overtone structure, etc.) Play within the flexible time brackets given. When the time brackets are connected by a diagonal line they are relatively close together.” This last sentence is presumably clearer when you have the score in front of you. Either way, the sounds and energy of the piece have more of that ‘expect the unexpected’ feel of Cage’s earlier improvisatory scores. Sounds mix in surreal ways, combining, colliding or contributing to create the kind of framework of ‘organised sound’ which was one of Cage’s claim to fame.
The choices made in performing this work are crucial, and The Barton Workshop makes for an interestingly euphonic and contrasting palette of sounds in this version. Amplified whistles, flute, violin – instruments or effects which are usually relatively soft, rear up like monstrous presences. High whines like an off-tune radio, the slow/fast resonances of machine-like apparatus, percussion, gurgling, abrasions and overtones, all create a soundscape which transports you into a world of the imagination. True, it may not always be a comfortable or easily interpreted vision which your mind is given, but the shapes carry their own expressive weight, and coincidences and confluences of sonority and the associations of past experience mean that your mind is constantly being stimulated, if you want it to be or not.
Four3 is for four performers (one or two pianos, rainsticks, viola or oscillator and silence). It was composed for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company for the choreographies Beach Birds/Beach Birds for Camera (1991) and was premiered on June 20, 1991 at the Theater 11 in Zurich, Switzerland. It was performed (to a choreography by Merce Cunningham) by David Tudor and others. As with the given instrumentation, the instructions are also more lengthy and detailed. The timing specified is also that of around 30 minutes, so this is deemed to be an excerpt, though quite a substantial one – you do not have the sense of it being severely truncated, though a two disc set with this and one other ‘number’ work might have been a more ideal solution. The booklet notes qualify it as “nevertheless a complete performance, albeit one lasting >20’ instead of c.30’”, but in fact, the piece cuts off disconcertingly while the music is still going on. This is an editing faux pas worse than the somewhat confusing booklet cover, which has Fourteen as one of the works on the programme. Not that it will make a huge difference to ‘casual’ listeners, but this is a typo - everywhere else the first work is named Thirteen, and that is the correct title.
Rain sticks have a comforting, gentle sound, and the familiar colour of the piano is also a useful point of contact in Four3. The use of silence is an element of the previous work as well of course, but here it is built into the score as a structural element from which the ‘fields’ of sound can emerge and grow. The piano has a lyrical function: when it plays, serving up Satie-like fragments of very few notes around a restricted, middle register. The whole thing has quite a meditative feel, and as a result is a good foil for the opening Thirteen, and making for a satisfying programme on this disc.
There have of course been several recordings of a variety of Cage’s ‘number pieces’, and a trawl through the catalogue will throw up a few choices. Patrick de Clerck’s Megadisc label has been a staunch supporter of contemporary music for many years now, and this is another fine addition to his catalogue. The Barton Workshop convinces in these works though its close sense of ensemble, and individual member’s acute responsiveness to these scores, and each other as elements within them. The recordings are clear, but the musicians are often placed quite a distance from the microphones, increasing the atmospheric feel to the music if giving a less etched sound than that to which we have become accustomed these days.
Small blips aside, this is the kind of disc which might change your mind about Cage – even if you take it as a CD single of Thirteen with two bonus tracks. You might also just thing he’s “avin’ a laaarf” at our expense, which may well be true – we will never know, but I don’t think so myself.
Dominy Clements             


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