JOHN CAGE: Etudes Boreales; Harmonies; “10’40.3” – Friedrich Gauwerky, cello/Mark Knoop, piano – Wergo Records WER 6718 (Distr. by Harmonia mundi), 59:46 ****:

This new disc of music by John Cage, whom many consider the twentieth century’s greatest (or most notorious?) iconoclast is well worth exploring. The “Etudes Boreales”, and its companion piece, the “Etudes Australes”, were composed in 1978 and are a prime example of Cage’s use of indeterminancy as a core creative technique. Cage selected the notes to use as the pitch template for this piece by overlaying a transparent piece of lined staff paper (on vellum in those days) onto a star chart of the constellations of the sky of the northern hemisphere. In this case this star chart used was the famous stellae boreales by Czech astronomer Antonin Becvar. Cage then applied his well known technique of employing the ancient Chinese “I Ching” charts to select the pitches to be used in the piece and their play order; as – since Cage pointed out – there are far more stars on a single section of the star charts than can be reasonable ordered on a page of music.

Regardless, the performance of the “Etudes” as well as any of the 27 “Harmonies” for cello and piano (numbers ‘XXII-XXVII’ except ‘XXV’ heard on this recording) can be a daunting task. In fact, the first projected performers for the “Etudes Boreales”, Jack and Jeanne Kirstein, canceled on the composer, telling him that the work was unplayable! The “Harmonies” are actually based on some early nineteenth century original American melodies (and the pitches within) which Cage had previously used in his bicentennial orchestral work, “Apartment House – 1776”, premiered by the Chicago Symphony and are very virtuosic in their own way. The cellist, in particular, is called upon to almost “grab” out of nothingness the very highest and softest of harmonics in the “Harmonies”, play in and out of true pitch and react to the piano and vice versa. Similarily, the “10’40.3” (not 40”!) comes from the longer “26’1.1499”, also composed through chance techniques relative to the texture of the paper it was written on. The performers are quite up to the task. Both Gauwerky and Knoop are clearly dedicated to giving an accurate and artistic representation of Cage’s vision, wherein the effects are subtle, very small scale and must be listened to and performed carefully. In so doing the overall sound can be sublime – as in this case.

I had the pleasure of attending the first performance of John Cage’s “Apartment House – 1776” in 1976 and have read most of his books on his personal and musical ideologies. As an undergraduate, I even communicated with him while doing some research into his art and found him to be consistently responsive, kind and thoughtful. Who knows where his place in music history will be. This disc is an excellent introduction to both Cage’s techniques and the best possible rendition of the aural experience. The performances are top notch and the recording is sensitive to the very subtle nature of these works; consistently soft but present throughout. Wergo has a long history of commitment to, and understanding of, contemporary music. In addition to the quality of performance and sound design, the disc packaging and booklet are attractive and very thorough. I am now going to re-read his collection of acrostic poetry, “I-VI” and listen to my old recording of the “Etudes Australes”.

— Daniel Coombs