John Cage (1912–1994)
Hymns and Variations (1979)
Latvian Radio Choir/Sigvards Kļava
rec. 2007/20, St. John’s Church & Sig.Ma Studio, Riga, Latvia
ONDINE ODE1402-2 
Classical music normies recognize John Cage only because of a single, notorious piece that, in the long run, may have done the composer’s reputation more harm than good. Look, everyone—4’33”—the funny “song.” Laugh!
That Cage delighted in provoking audiences—many of whom now expect serious music to be nothing more than elegant sonic wallpaper (or, worse, aural ideological screeds)—is undoubtable, but his mischief concealed his seriousness of purpose. He revealed and explored a vast New World of sound which had hitherto been a terra incognita of the mind. To this he added a further revolutionary dimension, forcing both musician and listener to not only consider and reconsider their respective roles, as well as their relationship to each other, but also the very nature of sound itself and the nebulous region that divides it from “music.” But above all, Cage was a tireless proselytizer of the gospel of beauty and created some of the 20th century’s most radically beautiful music. These strands are united here in this breathtaking collection from Ondine of some of the composer’s late choral music performed by the Latvian Radio Choir. As James Pritchett writes in his fine liner notes for this release, choral music would not seem an obvious fit for a composer who once proclaimed that he would devote himself to beating his head against the wall of Western harmony.
One of the major works on this album is Hymns and Variations from 1979, one of Cage’s derivations from Apartment House 1776 that had been a joint commission from six orchestras for the American bicentennial. Two hymns by colonial-era composer William Billings are submitted to a process of subtraction aided by the I-Ching. The results of this cut, paste, and scramble are alluring, touched by a discernible sadness—exceptional in Cage’s work up to this point—that can make for an intensely moving experience. While the nation exulted in the “Spirit of ‘76,” Cage turned his gaze inwards. For the first time in its postwar (if not, arguably, entire) history, the United States experienced a profound crisis of confidence in the 1970s. Political intrigues, growing social divisions, skyrocketing crime, oil shocks, the collapse of blue-collar work, runaway stagflation and inflation—did these leave their imprint upon Cage the composer? Neither bellicose, nor saccharine, Hymns and Variations is a fascinating, poignant reflection on what America means. Or, perhaps, “meant.”
The rest of the album consists of a selection of Cage’s late number pieces. Joy and laughter here flicker amidst the growing shadows of twilight. Five, one of the first number pieces, begins this disc. It was originally composed for a high school choir in Oregon. Neither Four2 nor Four6 specify any particular instrumentation, but both works fit voices well. Five and Four2 are performed with remarkable unanimity of intonation and sensitivity. These are some of the most beautiful performances of Cage I have ever heard.
Which makes it all the more regrettable that this album falls from its soaring heights with a thud. Although Cage left it up to the performers to choose whatever sounds they want in performing his Four6, the final work on this album, I find it difficult to believe that he would have liked what the Latvian Radio Choir does here. Their choice of animal and nature sounds are pure kitsch. Imagine a modernist response to Ravel’s “Music of Insects and Frogs” from L'enfant et les sortilèges. Or a bad nightclub comedian whose lame act drags on interminably as he searches for a punchline (Neil Hamburger, but without the humor, perhaps). Far preferable is the world premiere performance of Four6 with Joan La Barbara and Cage himself, among others, on Music & Arts, which more subtly navigates the tightrope of play and poise.
Still, if you can get past this album’s closing misfire, there is much to enjoy and treasure here.