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John CAGE (1912-92)
The Works for Organ
Souvenir (1984) [6:50]
Some of “The Harmony of Maine” (Supply Belcher) (1976) [41:33]
ASLSP (1985) [23:02]
Organ²/ASLSP (1987) [32:56]
Gary Verkade (organ)
rec. November 2007, Nederluleå Church, Gammelstad, Luleå
MODE RECORDS MODE 253/54 [48:05 + 55:41]
 
DVD version also includes:
4:33 (1952) [6:16]
Discussion with Gary Verkade [31:00]
Audio 1: 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround
Audio 2: 5.1 DTS 24-bit Surround
Audio 3: 2:0 Dolby Stereo
MODE RECORDS MODE 253 [144:00]

This is volume 47 of the Mode label’s Complete John Cage Edition, a clearly magnificent project which has I am ashamed to say has passed me by almost completely until now. Cage didn’t write much music for organ, but the advantage of this is that we can have the entire oeuvre on a double disc CD or a single DVD. The CD is nicely produced, but the DVD has numerous advantages which will appeal to audio buffs, the considerable spatial qualities of the remarkable 1971 Grönlunds organ in Gammelstad being captured in fascinating surround-sound on the DVD. The quality of the instruments in Luleå has already been encountered in Hans-Ola Ericsson’s very special The Four Beasts’ Amen (see review).  

This would seem to be enough of a USP for anyone, but the complex and balletic interaction of the assistants changing stops on Organ²/ASLSP and other works makes this one of the most visually appealing organ videos you’re likely to find anywhere - short of one of those spectacular productions which have cameras racing up and down the pipes and flying over landscapes in efforts to compensate for the static nature of the instrument.
 
Paul Serotsky goes into some length on the conceptual ins and outs of Organ²/ASLSP in what in fact is a spoof review from one of those historic April Fool lists, but which does throw up some interesting views and issues. The “mechanics of going ‘as slowly as possible’” can of course be taken to ridiculous extremes, “Yet, Cage wrote a piece of music…” with the resulting associated problems laid out extensively. I would counter this by positing that Cage might also have considered his composition a piece of art, at which point all of the stresses of relating an ‘endless’ piece of music to our usual expectations fall away. Whew. By accepting a definition of music as ‘organised sound’ and having a requirement of a certain quality of character and recognisability within its sonic parameters as a work of art in sound then it’s ‘up, up and away to infinity’ as far as performance duration is concerned. If you substitute your eyes for your ears, then all conceptual and almost all practical arguments on this subject are dissolved.
 
In any case, the intriguing nature of the piece played in a reasonably practical span of just over half an hour means that it is no harder to consume than, say, one of Messiaen’s cycles. The musical content is by no means as static as you might expect either, with fascinating contrasts of colour and texture to go along with the remarkable and sometimes chilling effects of stops half opened or being squeezed shut slowly, with the resultant deflating bagpipe effects also beloved of György Ligeti, Keith Jarrett and Tilo Medek. I’ve had a look at the score and I’m not sure how much of this is down to the interpreters - it doesn’t seem to be one of Cage’s performance requirements, but I love the sound anyway so who cares. These effects and the ways they are achieved are explained at length by Gary Verkade in his talk at the end of the DVD.
 
Some of “The Harmony of Maine” (Supply Belcher) is a sequence of 13 movements which refer to 18th century psalm tunes, something he was occupied with at the time. Cage’s treatments remove some notes and extend others as well as adapting the meter of Belcher’s music, but the more apparent element of this confluence of the ancient and the modern are the hymn-like harmonies which frequently pop out, taking our expectations of angular melody and dissonance by surprise. There is some more visual relief in this piece from the DVD, with interior views of the church and some of its art works. This is a sequence of pieces which will either draw you in and fascinate through its filtering of the old into new vessels, or will drive you up the wall with its constant return to fundamental harmonic intervals which are never allowed to develop conventionally. As ever with Cage, it is up to us to ditch our pre-programmed expectations, and allow his uncompromisingly purposeful and consistent language to take us on its own journey.
 
By comparison with the previous monumental pieces, Souvenir is like finding an extra sweet in your bag when you thought you’d finished them. It harks back to forms found in some of Cage’s earlier piano pieces, and with nicely shaped melodic phrases and only mildly gruff interjections of low clusters, this smaller work has at times an almost medieval, even meditative feel.
 
ASLSP was originally written for piano, and has a more restrained feel than Organ²/ASLSP, lacking the pedal part, though comparable effects arise from those shifting stops. Watching 4:33 feels almost as silly as performing it, and seeing the track lasts 6:16 also made me chuckle. This is something everyone should however do at home now and again. Stop and hear the concert going on around and within you all the time.
 
Gary Verkade’s little talk on the DVD has some nice personal anecdotes and is highly enlightening on the music in this recording, another very good reason for choosing the DVD over the CD version of this release.

Of the competition in this field this version comes out pretty much on top, and certainly beats all comers when it comes to completeness. Gerd Zacher’s 29:25 performance of Organ²/ASLSP is available as a download and is one of those real bargains if you are after a superb duration per penny ratio. Zacher’s instrument is however set in a rather dry acoustic, and I don’t prefer it to Verkade’s. There’s a recording of Souvenir on the New Albion label, NA074CD, with organist Christoph Maria Moossmann emphasising the mysterious and stretching the piece to 10:55 on an instrument which also seems to be being encouraged to manufacture microtones to a far greater extent in Verkade’s - that or it’s just horrendously out of tune. With the remarkable instrument at Gary Verkade’s disposal I can’t imagine these recordings being bettered any time soon, whatever your opinion on some or all of the music.
 
Dominy Clements