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JOHN CAGE: “The Works for Percussion 4 – Music for Speaking Percussionist”, Blu-ray

JOHN CAGE: “The Works for Percussion 4 – Music for Speaking Percussionist”, Blu-ray (2017)

Performer: Bonnie Whiting, percussion
Produced by: Allen Otte
Label: Mode Records 296. Bluray. [5/12/17]
Run Time: 152 minutes
Video: 1.77:1  Color. 
Audio: Dolby, NTSC, Stereo
Subtitles: None
Extras: Interview with Whiting and Otte, 73 minutes.
Rating: ***

For the true ‘Cageophile’ only it seems.

There have been quite an array of releases on CD as well as video of the music and philosophies of the still controversial American composer and philosopher John Cage lately. I really think that the best and most absorbing of these are not those that feature performances only of his music and art. I think that if one wants to understand or become familiar with the music of John Cage, the way to go is to seek out one of  the many documentaries about Cage that feature excerpts of his music. For example, there is a film of just that sort from 2012 on the Accentus label entitled “John Cage: A Journey in Sound” produced and written by Allen Miller that is quite good.

The reason I say this is the same as what I and others believe about the ‘essential’ John Cage and his place in music history—he was a true rebel and a very intelligent man who greatly influenced how a whole generation of composers and performers thought about music and about the nature of sound as art. The music itself is, generally, and typically very slow moving, sparse, ’Zen-like’ (of course) but more than a bit tedious for the average listener and concert goer.

I have many recordings, videos and even scores of Cage’s music; additionally, I performed some of it over the years (but not recently)  I genuinely like his Etudes Australis for prepared piano; in fact all his  works for prepared piano. I like some of his larger works such as the ballet/dance work The Seasons and I remain one of the few people I’ve ever spoken to who actually admired his American Bicentennial contribution, Renga with Apartment House 1776. Much of his huge output (well over one hundred pieces of varying scope and duration) is simply a unique but tough listen.

Percussionist Bonnie Whiting is clearly a talented performer and true devotee of Cage’s music as this generous and interesting video performance will show. Each of the works here does entail some very improvisatory percussion playing (as in all Cage, the scores to these works are notated precisely in places and are simply gestures and suggestions  in others) Whiting’s performance like the works themselves is really not a percussion recital; expect no virtuosic display with these pieces (although I’m sure that Bonnie could more than handle anything in the “showy” percussion realm of contemporary music.)

If you do not know Cage’s music well, you will find this video interesting at best, but perhaps  tedious at worst. One may even find little to no aural difference in the pieces herein. For me, I rather enjoyed the mammoth 51’15.657” for speaking percussionist although just over fifty-one minutes is a bit much even for someone like me who is very familiar with the Cage oeuvre. By the way, the “51 and 15.657” of the title is also the specified duration but Cage did this a lot. He had a weird but infectious sense of humor and—for him—performers who try to end their improvisations at exactly the ‘.657’ seconds are missing the point. The ‘texts’ to these works are generally in the score and are often acrostics, which Cage was very fond of (inspired often by James Joyce.)

The how and why John Cage wrote these works and virtually everything he did is more often than not more interesting than sitting through one of his very long, amorphous and free-flowing performances. Whiting’s performances are genuine and clearly dedicated and the interview with Allen Otte is quite interesting. So, I can’t honestly say that this release should be one’s first introduction to the life and work of John Cage because I really do not think it exists as such. For the true Cage devotee, though, or someone who likes having good quality examples of his art this collection is quite a worthy addition.

—Daniel Coombs

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