John Cage - The Works for Violin 5 (Mode)
At this point, John Cage's popular reputation is pretty well cemented as the guy who called 4 1/2 minutes of silence "music." It's a shame because, of course, Cage contributed much more, but perhaps it's a testament to his genius that he has any sort of reputation at all. The only thing worse than being talked about, of course, is not being talked about. Cage did make silence into music, and continues to receive attention as a result.
Peel away another layer of the cognescenti onion and you get the reputation of a man who ultimately was more a conceptualist than a composer. Even his teacher, Arnold Schoenberg, once said that Cage was not a composer but an "inventor of genius." That view, too, is both correct and short-sighted. The chief argument against Cage as noncomposer is his remarkable, beautiful Sonatas and Interludes, composed between 1946 and 1948.
The sixteen sonatas and four interludes comprised Cage's first composition for prepared piano, conceived in Seattle when the composer, who at the time was working primarily with percussion ensembles, arrived at a theater for a concert and discovered there was no room for a group. Cage outfitted the theater's piano with erasers and weather stripping and had a percussion orchestra at his fingertips.
It was a rather genius invention, but his subsequent experiments with muted and altered piano strings ultimately led to a composition of sheer beauty. Fifty years ago, that beauty may well have been lost on many who couldn't get past the unusual sounds created by Cage's preparations. It certainly eclipsed the music for some listeners. But with the lengths to which piano preparation has been taken by Sylvie Courvoisier, Jacques Demmiere, Denman Maroney and others, the sounds here are gorgeously simple, and Herbert Henck plays them with delicacy and drama. It's a wonderful reading that doesn't aspire to classicism or emphasis of the invented venacular. His performance is simply about the pieces.
The disc is paired with a second cd of Henck's own prepared piano improvisations, which contain more by way of romantic flourish and, unfortunately, pale against the Cage recital. The double-tracked recording adds nothing to the instrument's voice, and if they don't distract from the program they do, in any event, add to the price.
The two solo violin works presented on Mode's 27th disc of Cage music are of the sort that arm his naysayers; that is, they are more concept than composition. Chorals, from 1978, uses Cage's chance operations to alter the pitches of Erik Satie's Douze petits chorals. Cage placed a transparency over the original score, putting the same physical arrangement of written notes onto a larger staff so that the distance between notes was decreased and microtones introduced. One, composed in 1990, gives the performer a series of notes to be played within a set amount of time. Both pieces have such sustained tones and so much empty space around them that they are virtually indistinguishable. There's something suspenseful, even beautiful, about the results, similar to the way in which the work of his contemporary Morton Feldman works can be gradual yet gripping. Irvine Arditti's playing is beautiful, and the music evocative, but the material itself is almost pallid.
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