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John CAGE (1912-1992)
Three (1989) [37:24]
Twenty-Eight (1991) [28:00]
Twenty-Six with Twenty-Eight (1991) [28:00]
Twenty-Eight with Twenty-Nine (1991) [29:00]
Susanna Borsch – recorders (Three); Prague Winds; Christina Fong (violins, violas); Karen Krummel (cellos); Michael Crawford (basses); Glenn Freeman (percussion, bowed piano).
rec. Prague May-June 2007 (exact location not given)
96kHz/24bit Audio DVD
OGREOGRESS B001582D06 [122:07]
Experience Classicsonline

Minimal music, as opposed to ‘Minimalism’, is an idea, a notion which can take many forms. The ‘ism’ aspect would seem to indicate a diminishing of possibilities – a narrowing of frameworks which can arguably be seen as having started with Terry Riley’s ‘In C’. Cage’s concept of paring music into minimal technical means and the ostinato-based worlds of early Riley, Glass and Reich, the ‘less is more’ viewpoint, would both seem to have borderless and infinite horizons, starting from entirely different point of view, and both having the potential to lead irreversibly into conceptual cul-de-sacs. Removing the notes entirely and having just the sounds within whichever space is used for a performance of the notorious ‘4:33’ might well be the antithesis of Riley’s extreme-tonal space-filling ostinato. In their way, both works have rigid boundaries, and ‘4:33’ arguably has no freedoms whatsoever: the sounds are framed by a strict time limit, and are corralled into our consciousness as ‘music’ when all our pre-programmed aesthetic senses are telling us that these sounds are interruptions, imperfections into what should be silence. This may be one of the reasons my cat hates the music on this disc, rating it alongside some of the worst excesses of free jazz as a conceptual interruption to his 24-hour nap time.
 
Thus is the thirteenth in a series from OgreOgress featuring previously unreleased or rarely recorded works by well-known composers, and claims the world premiere recordings of John Cage’s Twenty-Eight, Twenty-Six with Twenty-Eight & Twenty-Eight with Twenty-Nine. The extended 122-minute playing time is thanks to this release’s 96kHz|24bit Audio DVD format, which should play on your domestic DVD recorder or computer. It will not play on conventional CD playing equipment. This would appear to be a limited edition release, and availability is something of an issue – I was unable to find it on the usual outlet CDBaby - though as you can see it is available through MWI's two American partners, Arkiv and Amazon.
 
Three takes the recorder, played here by Susanna Borsch, into the spare, chance-based world of Cage’s number pieces. Cage gives the option of playing “one or any number of” nine 3-minute movements between two outer movements, and Borsch gives us the full works by playing them all. Sustained, vibrato-free notes are held, starting and stopping in a state of apparent randomness, the difference in colour and pitch between different kinds of recorders and the difference between sound and silence being the only real characteristics of contrast and recognition. The low notes of the bass-contrabass recorders can also have an alienating effect, but the sound is not unlike a baroque portativo organ in a gentle register. Notes sometimes appear more than one at a time, and when there are more than two you get chords, which may or may not create felicitous harmonies. Like a Japanese garden, the music creates its own world of Zen meditation, which you can take or leave – neither Cage nor the piece care one way or the other. The effect is one of extreme slow-motion and timelessness, but it will only slow your heartbeat if you can accept it for what it is, and ignore any preconceptions you may have for the value of musical content: melody, harmony, contrast, expression...
 
Twenty-Eight is played here by the Prague Winds. The work can, and is combined in the subsequent two pieces, with Twenty-Six and Twenty-Nine. In his booklet notes, Rob Haskins describes all of these works as “the placid world of Cage’s Number Pieces”, and indeed, the sound world is one of music drawn out of silence like glowing strands of silk emerging from a bath of black dye. The timbre of the instruments is inevitably a more significant feature than in Three, but the atmosphere is similar, with long, vibrato-free notes sounding singly, in dissonance or more often in consonance, forming an extended slow-motion chorale. Combining this with the strings of Twenty-Six creates a building tension like some of Don Ellis’s film music in ‘The French Connection’ or a highly-strung version of Louis Andriessen’s De Tijd. Percussion – bowed, rumbled, tintinnabulating or hissing, is added to the mix in the combination with Twenty-Nine, and the extended, slow-moving fields of notes and textures are, I suspect, a nut few will be really willing to crack on anything like a regular basis. There is however a grinding fascination in this music. To my mind, it relates to the kind of horror-minimalism expressed in a piece like Gavin Bryars’ ‘The Sinking of the Titanic’. Vast, undiscovered tracts of strangeness are created in these pieces, and as a result they possess their own inner strength and stimulating energy for anyone willing to bathe in their perilously dark and unfathomable waters.
 
If you are intrigued by Cage’s number music and able to find a copy, I can only recommend this disc as a unique sound-document with which you can give yourself and your neighbours nightmares whenever the mood takes. Once you have heard Twenty-Six with Twenty-Eight I can guarantee you will have a hard time getting it out of your system. This is not a disc for the faint hearted, and, while they are in no way mutually exclusive, more for the fans of Morton Feldman than those of Fauré.
 
Dominy Clements
 

 


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