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John CAGE (1912-1992)
Thirteen (1992)
Version I [29:47]
Version II [29:53]
Ensemble 13/Manfred Reichert
rec. 1993, Sendesaal Radio, Bremen, Germany.
CPO 999 227-2 [62:00]

Ensemble 13 from Baden-Baden has been specialising in contemporary music since 1973, and this is a re-release its 1993 recording of Thirteen, probably Cage’s last completed work, and composed for Ensemble 13. While Cage’s collection of late number compositions often has some freedom in terms of instrumentation, Thirteen was specifically written for four woodwind instrumentalists, three brass instrumentalists, two percussionists, and four string players. The work has no score as such, being is notated in individual voices with “flexible time brackets, within which the tones are to be played.” Despite this open character, Thirteen has its own distinctive identity, with sustained notes creating chance harmonies and fields of sound that are penetrated by staccato interjections and brief dynamic contrasts. The programming of two versions of this same piece on a single disc shows how this composing/performance technique creates contrasts and retains a degree of integrity.

Manfred Reichert’s booklet notes for this release are very informative, but it is in reference Cage’s own remarks on his later works that we get to the heart of this music: “In a 1990 interview Cage stated that he was finally writing beautiful music of an increasingly harmonic quality. Cage, who had named ‘the elimination of harmony’ as his ‘greatest contribution to composition’, attained to a quiet and almost fragile harmony at the end of his life… Cage termed it ‘illegal’ or ‘anarchic harmony’. Tones like sound strands, long, drawn-out and seemingly immobile, always finding their way to chance, yet complex constellations of sound and patterns. Diaphanous fabrics spun by the musicians from the sparing givens.” This, aside from inviting some final editing by a native English speaker, sums up Thirteen very neatly indeed.

The last time I came across John Cage’s Thirteen on a recording was with the Barton Workshop (review). This version has a more chamber-music feel, which is the result of more distinctively defined instrumental ‘characters’ and generally rougher edges. Ensemble 13 has a more homogenous blend in its sonorities, and more refined intonation. As this work’s dedicatees and performed in the wake of its composers recent passing, there is a unique atmosphere to this recording that makes it a must-have for all Cage fans. If you are a Cage newbie then the Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano might be an easier place to start, but if you appreciate ambient timelessness and final artistic monuments then Thirteen is by no means hard to appreciate.

Dominy Clements

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