John CAGE (1912-1992)
108 (1991) [43:30]
One8 and 108 (1991) [43:30]
Two3 and 108 (1991) [43:30]
Chance Philharmonic
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 same.

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 imagining.

Dominy Clements

Like the eternal winding down of some vast sonic clock.