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John CAGE (1912-1992)
4 Solos for Voice (1988) [14:54]
Solo for Voice 93 [14:14]
Solo for Voice 94 [13:49]
Solo for Voice 95 [14:13]
Solo for Voice 96 [14:11]
Electric Phoenix
Judith Rees (93), Meriel Dickinson (94), Daryl Runswick (95), Terry Edwards (96).
rec. 1999, October Sound, London.

Daryl Runswick’s notes for this release contain anecdotes of encounters with John Cage, and the genesis of 4 Solos for Voice, which was written for Electric Phoenix. This recording was made some time after Cage’s death, but the composer was involved in rehearsals with these musicians for the work’s New York premiere. Runswick as producer of this recording has “adapted several procedures of which I hope he would have approved.” Editing and selecting aside, Cage’s stipulation for this work was that the performers should ignore each other completely. The recording in fact takes this stage instruction a step further, with each part recorded entirely separately and put together subsequently. When it came to actual performance Cage’s attitude to the possibility of, for instance, adapting the timing of an entry that might be rendered inaudible by another performer was that this should not be a consideration: “Something that happens by chance is always more interesting than something a human being thinks might be interesting.”

There are a few additional sound effects in this recording that take the place of visual actions on stage, but the main impression is of skilled vocalists engaging in teasing fragments of text, occasional but by no means overcooked extremes of technique, and a mixture of silent darkness and intense drama. There is humour here as well as moments of surprising tenderness. Despite the apparent randomness of the concept, the result is by no means confusing. It has to be admitted that this won’t be to everyone’s liking, but there is a ‘radio play’ quality to the whole which, if you let it, will keep you entirely engaged for the work’s relatively compact timespan.

There would have been an argument for putting the complete 4 Solos for Voice at the end of the programme, as each of the Solo for Voice pieces that follow are the tracks that make up the whole, just played individually as separate pieces and dubbed ‘world premières’. This is legitimate I suppose, but there is a lot of silence on each solo track - a good thing for the transparency of the ensemble result, but not necessarily what you want for an entire hour of further listening. What is worth hearing is the quality and range of each individual performance, and each singer brings tremendous character to their part, from regional and national accents, vocal textures and gestures that are guaranteed to bring out responses from the listener - you can’t listen to this passively. My only reservation in doing this is that it results in something more like an analysis: an opportunity to examine the 4 Solos for Voice in depth, rather than creating four ‘new’ Cage works.

Either way, this is a very well recorded and superbly performed album made by the dedicatees of a work by an iconic 20th century composer in his late, relatively simple style. With no other recordings of this work around, get it while you can.

Dominy Clements

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