Often feared but hard to ignore, Los Angeles-orn composer John Cage remains a significant figure in twentieth century music. A creative maverick, an experimenter and an imaginative producer of unconventional sounds, Cage was a pioneer of the minimalist school of composition. Many of Cage’s scores involve a ‘prepared’ piano that has been modified to produce unusual sound effects.
This three disc set recorded in 2009 at the Fazioli Hall in Sacile, Italy features the piano playing of Roman pianist Giancarlo Simonacci an established champion of the music of John Cage. We are told that the set is dedicated to the memory of the renowned record producer, writer and musicologist Gian Andrea Lodovici who died in 2008.
Disc one comprises of fifteen works for solo piano, six of which are sets of mainly short pieces with the remaining nine single works. In some of the pieces Cage uses his own working of the twelve tone method of composition, rather then the Schoenberg method, but there is nothing here in the music to be afraid of. Of the set of three discs this is the most accessible.
The Three Easy Pieces (1933) are composed in the most conventional style. As the title suggests these attractive pieces are uncomplicated exercises. I enjoyed the brief piece Quest (1935) that reminded me of an inner-city landscape. Comprising of five pieces Metamorphosis (1938) finds Cage somewhat cautiously using a twelve tone technique. The longest piece of the set number three is the most interesting, deep and leisurely paced and I liked the leaping figures in number four. Highly appealing the foot-tapping piece Jazz study (1942) is an interesting take on a fusion of jazz with a touch of blues.
I found the rhythmic pieces Ad lib (1943) and Soliloquy (1945) a spiky and fascinatingly combination of sounds. The splendid Ophelia (1946) has a wide variety of rhythmic sound patterns. In the Two pieces (1946) Cage ensures that the pauses of silence are as important as the notes. The first piece is slow and meditative with the second piece built around irregular percussive effects. Lasting eight minutes In a landscape (1948) was evidently intended for use in dance and is one of Cage’s most performed and recorded pieces. Meandering along In a landscape is relaxing score. With virtually no variation in mood and tempo Cage creates a hypnotic effect. Rather similar to In a landscape the piece Dream (1948) maintains an undemanding atmosphere of soothing reflection.
Bordering on the fanciful the five pieces of the Suite for toy piano in the 1948 version for piano are thematically linked and inhabit a generally similar sound world. Lasting just over two minutes in total the Seven Haiku (1951) feels like a number of differing and nuanced sound effects spaced over silence. Also displaying Cage’s fascination for silence For M.C. and D.T. (1952) is designed around percussive effects. In the perplexing piece called Waiting (1952) over a three and a half minute span of silence brief obstinate figures occur several times. It is one minute forty seconds before any sound is audible to me. It would be interesting to know what Cage was attempting to depict here as my sense of anticipation was almost overridden by tedium. I’ve got it! It means waiting around, of course!
On disc the two pianists Gabriella Morelli and Giancarlo Simonacci are partners in the dance score Socrate. Also included on the disc is the dance score Cheap Imitation for solo piano played by Giancarlo Simonacci. Cage was very taken with Erik Satie’s music and collaborated with chorographer Merce Cunningham in a dance project preparing a two piano transcription of Satie’s Socrate (1944/68) a symphonic drama in three parts for soloists and chamber orchestra. Copyright problems with Satie’s French publisher prevented the performance of Cage’s two piano transcription of Socrate which meant that Cage had to ingeniously rewrite his transcription using it as a base for the new score. It is an imitation of Satie’s work hence the title Cheap Imitation (1969) a score of which Cage became justly proud. Cunningham countered Cage’s title by calling his dance production Second Hand. Without the visual aspect of the dance clearly both three movement scores Socrate and Cheap Imitation lose a great deal of their impact. Nevertheless both dance scores are accessible and appealing with a moderate degree of variety. Often the slowly shifting moods are so subtle they are scarcely noticeable.
The third disc comprises Cage’s Etudes Boreales
, a score of unconventional sounds that Cage prepared in three versions: the first for solo piano; a second for solo cello and the third for cello and piano. Cage based the piano version on star charts of the Atlas Borealis. Owing to Cage’s ultra precise technical instructions, that restricted interpretative opportunities, pianists found the score fiendishly difficult to perform. Cage requires the performer to use the piano keys; the case; pins; strings etc. with what I take to be a combination of various bangs; taps; scrapes; plucks; knocks; thumping groups of piano keys and so on. I laboured intensely to make some sense of the Etudes Boreales. In the piano version I found it difficult to hear past the mixture of the percussive sounds that broke through the silence. In the cello version played by Marco Simonacci the line consisting of a miscellany of string sounds is punctuated by pauses. The version for cello and piano is predominately for cello accompanied by a variety of percussive sounds on the piano made in range of ways.
Giancarlo Simonacci is an impressive interpreter in this selection of piano music by Cage. The sound quality from the Fazioli Hall in Sacile is impressively clear if over-bright.
This set presents a satisfactory variety of Cage’s music that will present numerous challenges for the general listener yet will never fail to fascinate and perplex; and often reward. It would make a splendid introduction to a range of Cage’s scores for piano.