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John CAGE (1912-1992)
The Works for Piano II
Swinging (1989) [0:57]
Cheap Imitation (1969) [32:40]
Cheap Imitation (1969, arr. Morton Feldman, 1980)* [33:49]
All sides of the small stone for Erik Satie (secretly given to Jim Tenney) as a koan (1978) [4:24]
Aki Takahashi (piano)
Margaret Lancaster (flutes, piccolo)*
David Shively (glockenspiel)*
rec. 6-7 July 2016, Oktaven Audio, Yonkers, New York
MODE 327 [76:01]

This is volume 54 of the Mode label’s Complete John Cage Edition and it has some fascinating rarities on offer. The main features are two versions of Cheap Imitation, the extensive background to which is outlined in some detail in the booklet notes for this release. As are many of Cage’s works, the piece came about as a result of his collaboration with Merce Gunningham’s dance company. The project in question originally used Erik Satie’s Socrate in an arrangement for two pianos, but Satie’s publisher refused permission to use the music in this way, and so Cage was obliged to imitate Socrate to match Cuningham’s already prepared choreography in a new piece for solo piano.

Divided into three parts, most of Cheap Imitation is monodic. Cage’s piece reduces Socrate to its essence, drawing on melodic fragments and transposing and shifting material to suit his needs. The atmosphere of Satie’s enigmatic voice is retained and indeed heightened, and as James Pritchett puts it, this is “both a reworking of Satie’s Socrate and a profound tribute to it… We can think of Cheap Imitation as a quiet, constantly unfolding conversation between two composers… This in turn brings us back to Morton Feldman and the many, many conversations he and Cage had during their long friendship…” Their connection was initially a love of the music of Anton Webern, and this influence can be heard in Feldman’s arrangement of Cheap Imitation, with the flute and glockenspiel taking on single notes and ‘handing off’ the melody with the piano still sometimes as a central character, and sometimes as a more equal partner. The arrangement was made as a gift to Aki Takahashi and, though she never dared ask why Feldman had made this transcription, the instrumentation is the same as his Why Patterns? from 1978. Feldman’s inspiration as the result of Takahashi’s playing is well documented, and “this is [after all] a piece that is tied up with memory and relationship in so many ways.”

The remaining pieces are all miniatures of one kind or another. Swinging and Perpetual Tango are connected to Erik Satie’s Sports et divertissements, Cage taking the originals and “shredding and blurring” them by removing notes and filling the empty spaces with either silence or sustaining the previous note to fill the gap. Pitches are not specified, and so the pianist is left to select their own notes to be played in the rhythms given. Conceptual genius or a composer getting away with artistic murder? You decide. All sides of the small stone for Erik Satie (secretly given to Jim Tenney) as a koan is, we are told, “a composition with a completely unknown history.” It was found in the back of a score from James Tenney’s papers after his death, and the attribution to Cage is shaky to say the least. The piece is like an add-on to Satie’s Gymnopédies, with a rather nice modal repeating circle of chords and a simple melody that comes and goes over the top. Neither the style nor the handwriting appears to be Cage’s but Takahashi plays it with suitably restrained reverence, making a fine little anonymous encore to a strange but intriguing programme of Cage’s less well-known music.

Dominy Clements