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John CAGE (1912-1992)
Two5 (1991) [39:57]
Variations I (1958) [2:33]
Music for Two (1984-87) [29:27]
Mike Svoboda (trombone)
Steffen Schleiermacher (piano)
rec. June 26, 2007, Fürstliche Reitbahn Bad Arolsen
Experience Classicsonline

Steffen Schleiermacher’s complete edition of the piano compositions of John Cage has been examined on these pages, and generally very well received. This set launched his career as a recording artist, and MDG sees this new release as a complement to his discography with what amounts to Cage’s complete work for piano and trombone.

Teamed with American trombonist Mike Svoboda, both musicians have written their own response to Cage and the works on this disc. It turns out that only Two5 is explicitly written for trombone, Variations I being for “any number of players and any sound producing means”, and Music for Two is only part of a work which can be performed with larger forces.

As with many of Cage’s late ‘number’ works, Two5 is a vast field of silences, sparse intervals, lonely and isolated notes. There is precision in the timings for each section – something which is reflected in the almost identical duration of the only other recorded version of this piece I could find, that on James Fulkerson’s album for the Etcetera label. There are also precise instructions for a variety of microintervals, but the ultimate effect is, and should be “absent minded, without regularity or presence.” The meditative 40 minute span contains elements of disorientation, such as the note being ‘bent’ subtly by the trombonist, which can sound strange enough in isolation, but against the piano can have a dramatic ‘out of tune’ effect. The span of tones used by the piano is restricted to a little over two octaves in the middle register. This might seem strange, but if you relate this to the range of an average human voice then it does make the piano part something less alien in terms of character. If you know Cage’s late ‘number’ pieces then you will have some frame of reference for appreciating this music as a slowly rotating kaleidoscope in which the notes gently drop at seemingly random moments against a black velvet background of silence.

The opening foghorn blast of the compact Variations I comes as a shock after Two5. This is one of those scores where the music is notated in terms of shapes, lines and dots, and in which the interpretation should change with each performance – based of course on a great deal of meticulous preparation. This duo’s approach is replete with avant-garde effects – vocal and Aeolian sounds through the trombone, with mutes also playing an important role in terms of sonority and colour. The piano strings are struck in a variety of ways, those with the keys of the piano being in a minority. In all, this sounds like a potent improvisation, which I can imagine was the effect Cage would have wanted though my confidence in this was entirely destroyed when we students were told by the composer that we were “doing it all wrong” with a similar score way back in the early 1980s. Even without Cage himself to cast his magic I very much have the sense of this being a strong performance, but it would be intriguing to have more than one performance, so that a more 3D sense of the parameters and variations in this kind of piece might be communicated.

The same goes for Music for Two, which is however notated in a more traditional way. This comes across in how the music is played – one senses the lines and phrases coming from a score rather than from a semi-spontaneous discovery which just happens to have been recorded. This is not to say that the music lacks spark and energy, and the startling contrasts and interactions between the instruments make for stimulating listening. There are some subtle effects, such as what sounds like a small handheld electric fan being allowed to create sustained notes on the piano strings. Michael Svoboda has a wealth of modern music credits, including being the trombone sound for Frank Zappa’s ‘Yellow Shark’ project with Ensemble Modern and a collaboration with Karlheinz Stockhausen, performing as soloist in part of the opera cycle LICHT. This security and depth of technical inventiveness and expertise comes across throughout this disc, and I especially love his intense vibrato-laden passion – only occasionally allowed to let rip, but nonetheless a fulsome experience each time. This piece gives the overall impression of having some kind of extreme serialist atonality as part of its structural basis, but Cage’s exploratory spirit is always ever-present, and elements of surprise and surrealist charm are never far away.

Two5 appears as recorded by James Fulkerson for the Etcetera label, coupled with Ryoanji and a version of Solo for sliding trombone, but a brief online search shows that few of the works on this disc have been readily available until now. The recording has all of the immediacy and clarity one would expect from MDG, and the texture and shapes in Cage’s music leap out from you speakers in full Technicolor. This is pretty much a disc for modern music aficionados, but those who appreciate Christian Lindberg’s pioneering trombone work via the BIS label can extend their depth of experience with this disc, both in terms of performance and programme.

Dominy Clements


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