John CAGE (1912-1992)
violin and piano
Six Melodies for Violin and Keyboard (Piano) (1950) [12:36]
Two4 for Violin and Piano or Shō (1991) [30:02]
Nocturne for Violin and Piano (1947) [4:03]
Two6 for Violin and Piano (1992) [20:03]
Andreas Seidel (violin); Steffen Schleiermacher (piano)
rec. 1 October 2008, Ehemaliges Ackeraus der Abtei Marienmünster
With respected recordings of John Cage’s complete solo piano repertoire under his belt, Steffen Schleiermacher has already embarked on a series of chamber music recordings including the works for trombone and piano (see review). Earlier works and some of his last number compositions are evidently under the spell of Erik Satie. This forms a thread between the two, though the differences clearly show the vast creative distances Cage had travelled in forty years. This disc represents Cage’s complete work for violin and piano.

Six Melodies has an attractive almost folk-music feel in the violin part. The six movements are more like a set of variations on a restricted range of notes and gestures. Thinking of the freer forms which Cage later explored, it might seem strange to hear him setting such strict tonal boundaries, but the booklet notes point out the dedication to Josef Albers and his wife Anni, the former of whose paintings obsessed with coloured squares of one kind or another, so the possibility of Cage’s seeking a similar set of ‘frames’ is not so very unlikely. The precision within which he worked is in any case a factor which continually arose when preparing performances during his lifetime, as I know from personal experience: “you’re doing it all wrong” is a quote for some reason I’ve been reluctant to add to my CV. Bearing in mind the exactitude of duration pieces like 4:33 or those later number pieces, you’ll find as clear a set of frames as ever there was with Cage.

In terms of chronology, Six Melodies is preceded by the compact Nocturne for Violin and Piano. Schleiermacher describes this piece as having an “impressionistically tinged” feel; possibly Van Gogh’s Café Terrace at Night, but only representing a magnified fragment of the deep sky, the music from inside heard in the distance, and sometimes barely perceived. This piece comes from the period in which Cage was discovering Erik Satie, to the extent of organising a festival dedicated to and defending the French composer. The ‘homage’ aspect of pieces from this period cannot be ignored. This is not an imitation of Satie, but it does hold some of that Greek Mythological stillness and objective freedom from direct emotional associations which suffuses many of that composer’s works.

It was forty years or so before John Cage was to return to the violin and piano combination, though in Two4 even Steffen Schleiermacher admits that this option is likely to have been something of a pragmatic compromise given the scarcity of shō players in comparison to pianists. I’ve encountered Two4 on the OgreOgress label in a fine performance by Tamami Tono (shō) and Christina Fong (violins) (see review), and as one might expect, the piece sounds entirely different from the strike/sustain/decay quality of a piano note. The sound of the shō, a reed organ blown by the mouth, is quite penetrating, but the atmosphere created remains contemplative. It’s a bit like a Japanese stone garden, the notes being stones of different qualities, and their effects rippling outwards like raked gravel. In the present recording we do have the contemplative, but in a less ethnically associative way, more generalised. I am a little dubious about the performance as well though this might just be my comparing disparate recordings. Each version will be different and there is no such thing as a ‘definitive’ performance, the score representing complete independence for both musicians. Silence should play an important part in this as well, but the duo here confront us with a ‘discovery’ of silence a third of the way into the piece. Here they stop for a whole minute’s break at 11.00, and seem more inclined to create longer silences later on. I’m not sure how much chance is built into this recording, but I am uneasy about the sense of balance and proportion in this regard - it’s like a musician realising they are getting through too much material too soon when the piece is set to last exactly 30 minutes. I am sure this is not the case with such consummate professionals, but the impression is there, and that - albeit marginally - bothers me.

Two6 is Cage’s final listed composition, and brings us back to the Erik Satie theme - literally, since the bass line of Vexations is built into the piano part. Like Two4, the musicians are provided abstract time schedules - empty spaces in fact, which have to be filled by the performers. If you know Vexations you will hear the familiar pattern in the piano almost immediately, though elongated and stretched to create a quasi-abstract note row, the counterpoint to this theme also used to throw in more complexity. As with the pianist, the violinist also has the choice of silence, as well as microtonal passages - the ‘out-of-tune’ notes, and double-stopping single sonorities derived from any of eight pitches being selected by chance operations. The sparseness of this music in a way makes it more ‘difficult’ than Two4, which offers more variety in the multiple voices or chords in the piano part. The sustained notes of the violin in Two6 are also a step further into a world of abstraction which will require something of a leap for many listeners. Anyone approaching these number pieces would do well to connect them to the philosophies which brought Cage to these compositional conclusions. “Wherever we are what we hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating.” In other words, don’t expect a conventional concert work, and don’t expect to experience it in anything like the same way as a conventional western piece for violin and piano. Listen without expectations but with a receptive ear and an open mind, as if eavesdropping on a whispered conversation. The ‘zen’ state is pretty much the only one to have in the presence of Cage’s number pieces, otherwise you might find yourself starting to become testy and irritable.

As usual with MDG we are given a fine recording, and in these musicians’ hands I do feel we are provided the best of guides in these pieces, despite my semi-reservations about the ‘scherzo’ beginning of Two4. For a one-stop place to gather John Cage’s output for violin and piano I can’t think of a better location than this. For the really exotic experience of Two4 with shō I would however suggest the OgreOgress recording, though this is a DVD audio disc and not a normal CD.

Dominy Clements