John Cage was remarkable in that he either was influenced by
and/or knew - and in some cases worked with - the majority of
the most influential composers of the twentieth century. It
would be hard to find many composers from its second half who
were not themselves influenced by Cage, even if indirectly -
or when they avowed disassociation!
So it's tempting to expect that every work which Cage wrote
to aspire to some sort of iconic or infallible status, illustrating
some principle or proving some musical or theoretical point
of doctrinal proportions. Not so. Cage would have been the first
to assert that his music was music (indeed, sounds) first; and
not illustrative of much else. This was not a self-effacing
pose… he once replied with great courtesy and dignity
to a detractor suggesting that they ignore him and concentrate
on what they could do best. It's a shame that Cage's work still
has to be prefaced by such contextualisation.
But paradoxically it helps: we are, hopefully, more likely to
take his music at face value if we acknowledge its innate special
qualities. Here is a CD from the ever-enterprising Col Legno
label of two of Cage's compositions, between which were 35 years:
Six Melodies dates from 1950 and reflects Cage's interest
in sounds, silence and time - against the backdrop of Eastern
religions. He virtually defines sounds (hence silence) chiefly
in terms of the time(s) they take to experience. Written for
violin played without vibrato and minimum bow pressure and a
keyboard of the performer's choice, the Six Melodies
points the way towards some of what proved Cage's more interesting
explorations of the relationship between sound and silence.
They are spare, highly accessible and at times very melodic,
often with snatches of melody redolent of the repertoire of
preceding centuries' music.
Thirteen Harmonies was completed in 1985 and approves
the violinist Roger Zahab's idea of selecting 13 of the 44
Harmonies originally written for Apartment House 1776
and arranging them for keyboard and violin. The number 13, the
original number of colonies must contribute to Cage's belief
in strengthening the Americanism of (his) music in the face
of European dominance. They're based on East Coast church music.
In accordance with Cage's own compositional and performance
techniques, though, the keyboard player on this CD, Klaus Lang,
has interwoven pieces from the two works. They are not played
simultaneously but in the order Melody 1; Harmonies
18, 42; Melodies 2, 3; Harmonies
26, 21, 19, 5, 11; Melody
4; Harmony 14; Melodies 5, 6; Harmonies
15, 28, 35, 38, 44. Interestingly,
the pauses between tracks have been very precisely worked out
by Lang and correspond mathematically to the length of the foregoing
and following music.
In contrast with Dominy Clements' assessment,
surely we have to accept Lang's decision to play the - admittedly
somewhat artificial-sounding - Fender Rhodes electronic instrument.
Not only because Cage specified that the performer choose. But
also because it provides an alternative set of nuances to those
of the piano, of which Cage would have approved. It is undeniable,
though, that the instrument's association with mid-Century 'experimentation'
(not to say, coffee bars!) is passé. The violin sounds
of Annelie Gahl are at times a touch strained when she is tackling
sostenuto notes and phrases.
Otherwise, the performance that results from two committed musicians
looking both inwards at their own mental (and emotional) stamina
for over 55 minutes; and outwards to convey the essence of the
music to us listeners as forcefully and yet as gracefully as
they do is a more than satisfactory one. It goes well beyond
'charm' and 'curiosity' to provide us with a lasting sense of
notes and the pace of sounds. If we concentrate on that, rather
than on expecting sustained development of melody, we shall
not be disappointed.
The CD comes with a well-produced booklet with informative notes
and a poem by Heinz Janisch on 'Melodies & Harmonies'. The
acoustic is close and helpful to the spirit and letter of the
pieces. Dominy suggests alternative recordings. But this is
also a good place to start an understanding of the intimate
side of the world of John Cage.
see also review by Dominy