It's a little amusing to imagine an innocent listener, someone with no previous exposure to the music of John Cage, purchasing this superb 3-disc set, thinking of the entirely erroneous perception he or she would have while still enjoying a marvelous musical experience.
There are only five pieces spread across the three discs and there's no indication given as to who was responsible for the curation (although the liner notes are by Jakob Ullmann and he performs the final piece as well), but all of them lie safely in what might be called the "gentler" area of Cage's music. If anyone needs a soft introduction to his art, this is it. Plus, it's pretty fantastic.
Disc One opens with "Seventy-Four", a 1992 composition (the year Cage died) for orchestra (here, the Sinfonie-orchester Baden-Baden und Freiberg), which consists of single notes played without the aid of a conductor, but using flexible time brackets and "the usual imperfection of tuning perhaps slightly exaggerated so that the music is microtonal" (from the score). What's heard in the 12-minute work is a steady, rich drone with periodic, swelling crescendi. It's almost shockingly tonal, giving the impression of a vast, calmly undulating sea. As with most of Cage's late works, the music appears fully formed, as though a door had opened to a scene already in motion. "103" (1991) is similar in approach an orchestra (the K๖lner Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester) playing single tones within time brackets but lasts for more than an hour and a half, spread between Discs One and Two. One has the mental image of a plowed field bestrewn with small rocks and other naturally occurring items, perhaps the occasional tree or bush. More impressively, though essentially a piece that revolves around stasis, there's so much variation, minute though it may be, within its confines that the listener is endlessly fascinated, much like intently observing a landscape.
The remainder of the second disc is taken up by two pieces, "Postcard from Heaven" (1982) and the oft-performed, "In a Landscape". The former is written for from one to twenty harps and draws inspiration from ragas, with the harpist allowed a certain range of improvisation unusual for Cage but having to fulfill other requirements such as cycling through five pedal configurations. For this recording, harpist Gabriele Emde recorded sixteen parts in the studio and added the seventeenth live in concert. It begins with an odd series of clicking sounds, almost like ratchets of a mechanism being wound up. But soon inevitably, perhaps, given the title and instrumentation we ascend into the ethereal harp-world. There are allusions to koto music and other Eastern string traditions but we're generally in a dreamlike state, replete with mysteriously uttered words, floating on silvery clouds. Emde also plays "In a Landscape", most commonly heard on piano. It's arguably Cage's "prettiest" work, often mentioned as a precursor of New Age music, but its beauty runs deep. Emde's performance is as lovely as any I've heard.
Disc Three is given over to one work: "Some of the Harmonies of Maine" (1978), a piece for organ, played here by Jakob Ullmann. From the description on the johncage.org page: "This work is based on Supply Belcher's tune book The Harmony of Maine (Boston, 1794). Using chance operations, Cage determined whether a note from the original source should stay or be removed, how long it should sound, and how it should be registered." One hears intervals of long-held notes, extremely rich and vibrant, that appear in seeming random order, sometimes a single line, sometimes two or more overlaid. A sense of "hymn" remains despite the alterations as well as a feeling of sheer massiveness, though not an oppressive one. Something like a very slow, alien processional. A wonderful, unusual piece of music.
The whole set is extraordinary, a must-hear for anyone interested in Cage, including the neophyte.
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