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John CAGE (1912-1992)
Sculptures Musicales (1989) [33:00]
Twenty-Six with Twenty-Nine (1991) [29:00]
Twenty Six with Twenty-Eight & Twenty-Nine (1991) [29:00]
Eighty (1992) [30:00]
Prague Winds (Twenty-Eight; Eighty): Jirí Maršálek (flutes); Zdenek Rys (oboes/english horn); Petr Donek (clarinets); Libor Soukal (bassoons); František Pok (french horns); František Bílek (trumpets); Lukáš Cermák (trombones); Lubomír Maryška (tuba). Christina Fong (violins) (Twenty-Six; Eighty) (violas) (Twenty-Nine). Karen Krummel (cellos) (Twenty-Nine; Eighty). Glenn Freeman (percussion) (Twenty-Nine). Michael Crawford (basses). Chance Operations Collective of Kalamzoo (Sculptures Musicales)
No recording date or location given.
96kHz/24bit Audio DVD
OGREOGRESS 634479962141 [121:00]
Experience Classicsonline

This is the eighth release of John Cage’s music on Glenn Freeman’s OgreOgress label, and another of those improbably long DVD audio discs in digital stereo. This label has experimented with packaging somewhat in the past, but I like the minimalist but sturdy case for this disc. The sticker on this clamshell case states that these are “Four first recordings... Three Late Orchestral Works [, one] Marcel Duchamp-Inspired Work.” The latter is a reference to Sculptures Musicales, which is listed as being for ‘Four performers using electronics’. Cage acknowledges Duchamp’s conceptual fatherhood of this piece in the brief quote slipped in with the disc: “...[Duchamp] made a piece called Sculptures Musicales which means different sounds coming from different places and lasting, producing a sculpture which is sonorous and which remains.”

With frustratingly little information and no photographic clues as to the paraphernalia used in Sculptures Musicales, the listener is confronted with unusual blocks of sound and blocks of unusually absolute silence. The blocks of sound have a machine-like quality, with deep industrial rumbles, and repeated nuances which might be percussion instruments, or might be some heavy Jean Tinguely-like apparatus generating its own patterns. This is one of those pieces which stimulates the inner-eye, provoking mobile portraits of different shapes and sensations of movement - slow and lumbering, sometimes rattling and seemingly on the point of breakdown, sometimes threatening in their grinding advance, or at times lightened by the more playful elements of distantly perceived musical toys. Looking for parallels, it can be like being stuck in the engine room housed in the bowels of some vast and noisy ship, or transported into the power house which runs some bizarre fairground ride - the sound of chimes and pipe organs in the final moments of the work leaking through into a dark and greasy subterranean generator. For all these imaginative flights of fantasy, these are real ‘sound objects’, objective and dispassionate. They’re like big boxes of noise, to which soundproofed doors are opened and shut by turns, and we all know the power of curiosity which can be exerted by doors in boxes.

Twenty-Six with Twenty-Nine combines Twenty-Six for 26 violins, and Twenty-Nine for two timpani, two percussionists, piano and strings. Sustained notes characterise the work, the compositional technique consisting of flexible time brackets which contain single notes played only once. This results in a drawn-out but constantly shifting clusters or chord formations in the strings, the rumble of extended timpani rolls, and textural content provided by the swish of one or more protracted ‘notes’ from cymbals or metal objects played by the percussionists. Twenty-Six with Twenty-Nine generates an atmosphere of almost unbearable intensity. The seemingly endless string notes create a collective tonality or a-tonality which simultaneously ‘exists’ without an apparent direction, but also moves inexorably through changes where the function of voices and the nature of their sonority and context are eternally shifting. If you’ve heard Glenn Branca’s Symphony No.3 you might have some idea of the string textures involved, but even this provides little preparation for the sheer monumental single-mindedness of purpose which drives this work.

Twenty-Eight as a separate work is scored for 3 flutes, 1 alto flute. 4 clarinets, 3 oboes, 1 english horn. 3 bassoons, 1 contrabassoon, 4 trumpets, 4 horns, 2 trombones, 1 bass trombone, 1 tuba. Adding this into the mix described previously and we get what Glenn Freeman describes as “One of closest things to a John Cage symphony, Twenty-Six with Twenty-Eight and Twenty-Nine (1991) is a major orchestral work...” There is information about these works and a record of a premiere of this piece to be found on the John Cage Database: September 5, 1992 at the Alte Oper (Grosser Saal) in Frankfurt, Germany, performed by the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Saarbrücken, conducted by Hans Zender - apparently not recorded. As this new release reveals, this a significant work which shows Cage to be something of a master when it comes to monolithic works on a vast sonic canvas. The extended notes from the wind players affect the sonorities in the piece as one would expect, but surprisingly I don’t find they truly heighten the intensity of the music. It is still the strings which hold onto mastery of those dramatically long, horizontal lines. The winds warm the sound and create other worlds and some dramatic moments within its landscape, but the colour of the sky is still string, and all light reflects from the hues in that sky. 

Eighty
is scored for an orchestra of 80 musicians: 7 alto flutes, 7 English horns, 7 clarinets, 7 trumpets and strings. “Every player has the same succession of notes, notated in time brackets. Every time bracket contains one note. The work should be performed without conductor.” Not having a conductor shouldn’t really be a problem for most musicians these days, but I do find it remarkable that this piece has never been performed before. Looking at the performing credits for this premiere recording makes one realise that all of these instrumental ‘orchestral’ pieces must have been created with a huge amount of over-dubbing of a relatively few musicians. This is utterly convincing in the Twenty-Six, Twenty-Eight & Twenty-Nine combinations, but I have my doubts about Eighty. Maybe it’s my own wind-player credentials which makes me more sensitive to over-homogeneity here rather than with the strings, but even with some tweaks of tuning I can’t help hearing a certain ‘flatness’ in multiple tracks of the same players. Never mind: this is another fascinating work, though without the sheer nerve-stretching power of the other pieces. Here, the instruments emerge from periods of silence playing unison notes. This may not sound interesting, but the interaction of multiple instruments on the same tone creates its own spectrum of colour in terms of sonority and overtones. Sometimes it almost sounds as if an ethereal vocal chorus is emerging from the sonic texture.

This is another valuable disc from OgreOgress, and a significant contribution to our awareness of John Cage as one of those remarkable and unique figures of 20th century music, the like of which we are unlikely to see again. Like others from their collection of DVD Audio discs, the function of these recordings as ‘entertainment’ is limited only by the willingness of the listener to open their mind to spans of time and content which have little connection with the conventions of most Western music. Zen meditation might be enhanced by Eighty, but I fear New Age fans may find the other pieces on this disc a little distracting when it comes to seeking inner peace - and thank goodness for that. As ever on this subject, John Cage has the best of last words: “People expect listening to be more than listening... whereas I love sounds just as they are and I have no need for them to be anything more than what they are.”

Dominy Clements


 


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