One 6/One 10
These three discs represent the first recordings (at the time of their release) of several of Cage’s later works, the so-called “number pieces”. The pieces were conceived by Cage as an analogy to the sort of anarchistic society he held as an ideal, one where individuals’ actions wouldn’t be coerced by a governing authority, but one in which the dichotomy between individual and common good would be obliterated, where social interaction would be cooperative based on generally agreed upon norms, in this case, as Cage put it, “what time it is”. So, Cage developed the idea of “time brackets”, durations within which a given performer would be required to begin and end a sequence. It’s sort of like recognizing that a job has to be done but being totally at liberty to decide exactly how to do it.
The first disc listed above, in some ways the most satisfying of the three, interweaves two works for percussion ensemble and two for large string ensembles (both achieved here through overdubbing). A feature in common to all of the pieces on the three discs is the utilization of extended tones. With the percussion works, this generally means lengthy washes of cymbals, cascades of small bells and a prominent use of ringing, flex-a-tone kinds of sounds. “Three 2”, performed by Glenn Freeman in three increasingly short portions, typifies this approach. For all its surface attractiveness, it’s a difficult thing to get a good grasp on, the sequences of percussion passing by in seemingly random stages; I had a little bit of an impression of watching particularly mellifluous cars driving slowly by, different models or colors represented by different instruments. “Twenty-Three”, for massed violins, violas and celli (Christina Fong on the first two, Karen Krummel on the latter), is a gorgeous lattice of densely layered drones occupying a very small note range but varying widely in intensity of attack. Here, as in the other string pieces on this and the second disc, Tony Conrad’s music inevitably comes to mind, but there’s nothing that remotely smacks of science experiment here (not that that’s a bad thing about some of Conrad’s work). More, there’s a surprising (for Cage) amount of palpable, human striving and emotion. In fact, I sometimes found myself hearing it as an ungodly but luscious melding of Conrad and Gavin Bryars. It also contains something of a brief coda after the 21-minute mark, a slight but lovely mood shift away from the urgency express previously, more toward an uneasy acceptance. The short “Six” (which, unlike the other pieces whose durations in minutes are indicated by their titles—read “Three 2” as “three squared”) lasts but three minutes and, not dissimilarly to the first track, consists of a series of bowed cymbals, jingle bell shakes and tympani rolls, sliding segmentally across one’s field of hearing. It a rather strong work though, with an odd, alien kind of power, as though one is observing some baffling procession of unknown purpose. “Twenty-Six” is something of a counterpart to “Twenty-Three” save that all the parts are for violin and, perhaps simply due to Fong’s persona, the emotional intensity is ratcheted up a notch or two. Again, I find myself drawing comparisons to music that one doesn’t normally associate with Cage, in this case to some of Penderecki’s writing for string orchestras from the 60s; there’s something of a similar raw, naked vibrancy. It’s a marvelous, searing performance, capping a very fine recording that should be far more widely heard than it’s likely to be.
The second disc contains “One 6” and “One 10,” performed by Fong on violin. “One 6” is a fairly harsh work, largely consisting of single, minutely varying lines held for 20-30 seconds interspersed with silent periods of similar length. In addition to Conrad, I was reminded by their austerity, of some of Lucier’s more rarefied compositions although, again, these performances are less disinterested in emotive qualities. The three movements are pitched slightly differently with a lower, grainier attack in the first contrasting with a higher, more liquid approach in the second. The third, longest movement combines aspects of both and also ups the intensity level. “One 10” is structurally similar but pitched higher still, injecting an airy, sometimes flute-like quality. One feature that holds here (and in the following disc) is that the stretches of silence are not “live” time where the performer just stops playing but are portions of dead air. This can be a little off-putting as the listener clearly loses the room ambience although, I suppose it can be argued, it thrusts you into the sound world you’re actually occupying with extra force. The astringency of these pieces sets them off against the relative lushness of “Twenty-Three” and “Twenty-Six” but provides its own unique kind of reward insofar as making you hyper-aware of your surroundings.
“Four 4” was Cage’s last work for percussion and is here presented in a massive, 72-minute performance by Freeman. Like the two pieces from the first disc, the sounds employed are of long duration: rolls, runs of bells, brushes or strokings of cymbals, etc. The major difference is the relatively extreme lengths of the silences between portions, sometimes extending for several minutes. In a sense, this is a very difficult recording to enjoy and appreciate but, I think, that’s in large part because of the demands Cage’s music places on the listener, something that, all these years after “4:33”, can still be a tough row to hoe. There’s a tension between the music played (and one’s natural instinct to listen to it for various “musical” qualities) and it’s character as an element in a sound field that equally co-exists with silence, not so much as “music” but as space occupier. In other words, it doesn’t really matter how deftly Freeman handles a given sequence (he does so, certainly), but how that sequence fits with what came before and what comes after and how much the listener distinguishes between the two, if at all. The first time I listened to “Four 4”, my wife was down the hall playing some Satie piano music at a fairly high volume, enough that it encroached on this music during quieter moments and filled the listening space during the silent stretches. For a little while, I was annoyed but soon realized how entirely appropriate this was. Whereas, by now, most of us can deal with “4:33”, I think coping with extensions of that idea, where the same notions are in effect but the space is less pristine, can cause problems. Good problems, to be sure.
These are all fine, difficult releases, performing the valuable service of continuing to challenge ideas about how one perceives music, how one perceives perception.
~ Brian Olewnick