John CAGE (1912–1992)
Melodies and Harmonies
Six Melodies (1950) [12:40]
and Thirteen Harmonies (1985) [43:22]
Annie Gahl (violin)
Klaus Lang (keyboard – Fender Rhodes)
rec. Amann Studios, Vienna 29-30 September 2009
COL LEGNO WWE 1CD 20292 [55:55]

I have to admit my heart sank a little when I saw that an electronic keyboard had been used in this recording. I have nothing against the venerable Fender Rhodes stage piano, and yes, John Cage did nominate Six Melodies as being for violin and piano or keyboard, but the fascinating variety of tone and timbre from a good piano is always going to be more interesting in this kind of music than an electronic instrument, no matter how well it is played. The Fender Rhodes is fine as a jazz instrument or for nostalgic and sentimental moments in 1970s film scores, but I know of not a single pianist in any genre who would choose it over a decent grand piano if given the choice. Klaus Lang and the author of the booklet notes Markus Hennerfeind make no mention of any artistic decisions made in this regard. The Fender Rhodes sounds a bit like a big music box when quiet, and gently drills holes in your skull when played loud. I don’t feel it really makes for stimulating listening in these pieces.

I have another problem with this CD. The elegant self-sufficiency of Six Melodies is spaced through the other cycle on the programme, Thirteen Harmonies. Yes, you can programme your player to stir up the tracks into any order on CDs, and with Cage this can often be a fun variation to the given order of a piece or set of movements. Yes, both these works have a sense of homespun simplicity in the violin writing, and restricted use of intervals, sonorities and range in the keyboard. I do not however feel that shoving the sophisticated and integrated structure of Six Melodies against the more literally folksy Thirteen Harmonies does much for either. It strikes me as being like putting Brahms’ Op.9 and Op.23 Schumann Variations in a bag and shaking them up like Scrabble letters ‘because they’re a bit similar.’

John Cage once referred to Six Melodies as a kind of postscript to his String Quartet in four parts, even with the use of a similar range of sounds. With a well defined rhythmic structure of 3, 3, 4, 4, 3, 4, this simple sounding music possesses its own integrity and atmosphere.
The cycle Thirteen Harmonies has its origin in a larger piece called Apartment House 1776 from 1976, written for the two-hundredth anniversary of the American Declaration of Independence. A selection of 13 from a total of 44 Harmonies from this was made by violinist Roger Zahab, who arranged a version of the music for violin and keyboard. This arrangement was approved by Cage. While this probably won’t mean much in isolation, the selected Harmonies are: Nr.18 - Old North (William Billings), Nr.42 - Rapture (Collection Belcher), Nr.26 - Judea (William Billings), Nr.21 - Heath (William Billings), Nr.19 - New York (Andrew Law), Nr.5 - The Lord Descended (William Billings), Nr.11 – Wheeler’s Point (William Billings), Nr.14 - Brunswick (James Lyon), Nr.15 - Bellingham (William Billings), Nr.28 - Greenwich (Andrew Law), Nr.35 - Framingham (William Billings), Nr.38 - The Lord is Ris’n (William Billings), Nr.44 - Bloomfield (Andrew Law). The names given in brackets refer to the creators of the original hymns or songs which Cage used to make the pieces, all being part of the kind of Protestant Church music which had become established in isolation from European developments in the 18th century.

This is a well recorded disc, and strikingly presented in bright blue and orange, with an orange disc which kicks out from its blue background like Barnett Newman. The booklet includes an imaginative text by Heinz Janisch which you will find either illuminating and revelatory or annoying and kitsch. Both musicians play very well, and for those who can cope with or indeed relish the prospect of nearly 56 minutes of the Fender Rhodes sound then there will be rewards to be had here. The MDG recording of Six Melodies by Andreas Seidel, violin and Steffen Schleiermacher, piano (see review) is a desirable alternative. Thirteen Harmonies is harder to get hold of, though I see that Roger Zahab’s own recording on Koch is marked as with Eric Moe, piano – not a keyboard to be seen anywhere. Irvine Arditti has a version of 44 Harmonies from Apartment House 1776 on the Mode label which has to be interesting, but is for string quartet.

John Cage’s music is a world of sound which, if it does nothing else, should broaden your horizons and awaken realms of uncharted imagination. Annelie Gahl’s violin is good enough, but for my ears the mournful presence of the Fender Rhodes and the bizarre mixing of disparate works drags this recording into novelty territory.

Dominy Clements

Fender Rhodes fans, gather ‘round...… see Full Review