John CAGE (1912-1992)
Melodies and Harmonies
Six Melodies (1950) [12:40]
Thirteen Harmonies (1985) [43:22]
Annelie Gahl (violin); Klaus Lang (keyboard - Fender Rhodes)
rec. Amann Studios, Vienna 29-30 September 2009
COL LEGNO WWE 1CD 20292 [55:55]
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 (http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2010/July10/cage_wwe_1cd_20292.htm), 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.
A pair of Cagean works performed in true Cagean style.