John CAGE (1912-1992)
108 (1991) [43:30]
One8 and 108 (1991) [43:30]
Two3 and 108 (1991) [43:30]
rec. no date or location given.
OGREOGRESS 884502966343 24bit/96kHz DVD-A [128:54]
This is another release of John Cage’s music on Glenn Freeman’s OgreOgress
label, and another of those improbably long DVD audio discs in digital
stereo – not playable on a standard CD player.
John Cage’s Number Pieces were the product of his last years, and are
representative of that strange mixture of precision and chance which became
one of the composer’s trademarks. The timing for 108: 43’30”, might
lead you to expect an extended version of the notoriously ‘silent’ 4’33”,
which dates all the way back to 1952. In fact 108 has the largest ensemble
of any of the 50 or so number pieces, and with its full orchestra is the closest
the composer came to writing a traditional symphony. That is not to say that
the music is ‘symphonic’. The military ranks of the Beethovenian orchestra
dissolve here into individual voices, and the overall effect is of a chamber
music performance with a huge variety and breadth of instrumental colour.
Contrasts between sound and silence, texture and stillness, timbre and suspension
of timbre are the typical elements of such extended works, and the idea of
listening to a symphony should be left aside. The mind needs to become immersed
in the relationships of instruments to each other, pitches of notes and their
duration, the moments of dissonance and more often of surprising harmony allowed
to work a subtle spell.
The techniques John Cage uses place unusual demands on the players. Durations
of notes, dynamics and technical details like bow positions for string players
are all left to the performer. If some notes sound strange or slightly out
of tune, this is due to microtonal shifts in conventional pitch, indicated
by small arrows on the accidentals: sharps, flats or naturals, in front of
the notes. This again shows that precision and freedom which guarantees both
the qualities in the music and its typical atmosphere when played correctly,
while also ensuring that no two performances or recordings will ever be the
As with all of the number pieces, certain works can be combined, and 108
can be played with One8 for cello solo. This is labelled
for this release as a Cello Concerto though I don’t believe this title
is Cage’s. The score for One8 consists of 53 flexible
and overlapping time brackets with single sounds produced on one, two, three
or four strings, using a special curved bow which was developed by Michael
Bach. This bow was fashionable for a time amongst some players of J.S. Bach
who wanted to re-create his multiple-stopping in an entirely literal way.
The extended techniques of the cello and its sometimes unearthly flageolet
sounds take 108 into a different place of expression, creating some
remarkable effects. The periodic focus on a solo line and its interaction
with the large ensemble turn what was a relatively passive experience into
something with a different kind of intensity.
108 can also be combined with One9 for sho,
or, as with this recording Two3 for sho and conch-shells,
a piece already encountered on these pages (see review).
Two3 is another work with flexible time-brackets,
providing limits and a framework to the number of times each player contributes.
The sho is an exotic, reedy-sounding bamboo organ blown by mouth, and the
conch shells contain water produce noise through the bubbles which are created
by tipping them. These latter sounds are infrequent but very surprising when
they do occur, amplified as they are. This combination creates yet another
experience, with the high, coolly objective tones of the sho entirely in contrast
to the orchestral instruments, but mixing in a fascinating way with the percussion.
Cage doesn’t specify the individual percussion instruments to be used in the
orchestra, but there is an indication that they should be very resonant, and
their tones extended by being played with bows or in ‘tremolo’. The overtones
of solo and percussion together is a unique and rather special sound. Neither
the sho nor the conch shell noises ‘fit’ with the orchestra as such, but in
opposition to the way the solo cello can blend with the orchestra as well
as rise from within it, the exotic combination of Two3
and 108 results in a more extreme concerto grosso relationship.
I have to admit to having something of a dual response to this recording.
Glenn Freemann’s players and his production is very good, and I have no complaints
about the way these works are presented – on the contrary, it’s a unique privilege
to have such a trilogy together in a single span. At a basic level, my brain
is saying ‘what if this weren’t John Cage? What if it was a student concert
at some Conservatoire? Wouldn’t we all be sitting there and thinking too
long.’ The reason I say this is that, with only combinations of single
notes of greater or lesser extent, there is a bottom-line uniformity which
might legitimately be described as ultimately somewhat dreary. This is only
one rather narrow point of view however, and as I mentioned at the beginning,
as with all of these number piece recordings one has to suspend all expectations
of conventional musical development. The more time passes with this music,
the more it seems to slow down. The entire programme is like the eternal winding
down of some vast sonic clock: a Foucault pendulum which moves almost imperceptibly,
but which sings against the air at times with a monumental weight of expression.
This disc is one which contains some truly magical moments, and as an entirety
is a work of art in its own right. The last section, deep into track 6 and
from two hours and onwards on the total timing is quite a clincher in this
regard, with the entry of the orchestra after an extended sho solo creating
something as expressive as anything in 20th century music. If you
can suspend all prejudice, open your mind, lose your pressing day to day concerns
and free your spirit, this recording will indeed take you to places beyond
Like the eternal winding down of some vast sonic clock.