CAGE: “John Cage 100” – 100th Birthday Retrospective of works of John Cage – Various performers [Playlist follows] – Wergo WER 69512 (5 CDs) About 5 hours [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ***:
The late great surrealist cartoonist B. Kliban once drew a hand holding a frying pan that bent at a 90 degree angle. He captioned it “Infuriating rubber pan.” This is the work of John Cage: unpredictable, surreal, wry, and often infuriating. A piece from this five-volume retrospective contains my favorite John Cage title: Variations II, for any number of players and any sound-producing means. In this case, violinist Malcolm Goldstein has arranged it for violin and glass harmonica (an instrument made famous by Mozart). What Cage was aiming at is anyone’s guess, but the piece succeeds at sounding otherworldly, mysterious, vaguely disquieting, and directionless. Is it likable? Yes, in a neo-dada sort of way. The other pieces on this disc also feature Goldstein’s violin. Eight Whiskas is a surprise, a solo violin piece with an uncharacteristic harmonic structure and a sweet undercurrent.
John Cage coined the term “prepared piano” and made the technique famous, but he didn’t invent it. (Pianos started getting “prepared” around the turn of the nineteenth century.) I find Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano (1948) delightful jangly clangy miniatures. Nearly baroque in scope, they are the most accessible music in this set. [And my personal favorite of his music…Ed.]
Most inaccessible prize goes to the disc containing James Joyce, Marcel Duchamp, Erik Satie: An Alphabet, a radio play first broadcast in 1979. There is no music here, just a tedious read-through with “John Cage and friends” with poor audio, overly abstruse concepts, and zero dramatic impact. Cage’s flat delivery is particularly off-putting. Still, this is a required listening for academics writing Cage theses.
Another mysterious inclusion is two versions of Etudes Boreales, one for cello and piano and one for “percussionist using a piano.” Why? The piece itself is only of passing interest, a random experiment fueled by Cage’s obsession with the infuriatingly complex I Ching. Yet this CD also contains four of his Harmonies, short pieces of aborted consonance that always make me smile. Cage’s mockery knew no bounds, and here he sets up listeners with dulcet perfect chords that suddenly . . . never develop. Right between two of these works, he drops the discordant 10’ 43.3” (which is actually 10’ 50”), a jumpy concatenation of furtive cello figures and grunts. Another piece is labeled Ryoanji for Voice and Percussion, yet contains no human voice! Six years after Cage’s death, violinist Malcolm Goldstein transcribed it for violin, and very convincingly so, his instrument groaning and keening with arch glissandos. It seems Cage’s sense of humor has survived him.
Cage’s Concert for Piano and Orchestra may also grab your ear, because until the first kettledrum retort, it sounds like an orchestral warm-up. You keep expecting musical rivers to gush and bubble into a tributary, but of course they never do. It doesn’t mean the piece lacks interest, just that with Cage you are dwelling in a musical universe where the rules seldom apply. Thematic treads unravel, the kettledrum barges in like an uninvited guest, and the piano hides behind the curtain most of the time. The CD’s companion piece, Atlas Elipticalis, is pretty much the same aleatory stuff, although I disagree with annotator Eric Salzman when he claims it’s a “walk through a meadow where birds may sing and trees may fall and mushrooms grow.” Rather, Cage’s music is a place where birds and mushrooms may fall, but trees can sing.
CD 1: WER 60156-50 Sonatas & Interludes
CD 2: WER 6216-2 Concert for Piano and Orchestra / Atlas Eclipticalis
CD 3: WER 6310-2 An Alphabet (CD 1)
CD 4: WER 6636-2 Variations II, Eight Whiskus, Music for Two, Ryoanji
CD 5: WER 6718-2 Etudes Boreales, Harmonies, 10’40.3”
A veritable wealth of Prokofiev, in the hands of Kutik