The so-called "number pieces," of which there are around fifty, occupied John Cage during the last years of his life. Generally speaking, the "main" number indicates how many performers are required. The superscript, when present, indicates how many works have been written for this number of performers. In other words, Two6, which was written in 1992, was the sixth number piece written for two performers – in this case, violin and piano.
Apparently this CD marked Christina Fong's debut on disc; there have been other OgreOgress releases with Fong since then, including more Cage. (See my review.) The performer appears on the cover sporting what looks like a nostril piercing but not much else. If this were a disc of Paganini Caprices I'd be appalled, but for Cage's number pieces, Ms. Fong's nudity, neither chaste nor lascivious, is just about right. Cage stripped music of its non-essentials – undressed it, if you will – as much as any composer of his time, and no more so than in his final years. (Cynics may make a crack here about the Emperor's new clothes!)
One6 was written in 1990; One10 comes from 1992, the year of Cage's death. As is often the case with Cage, he gives the performer latitude, so no two performances of these works are likely to be the same. According to my OgreOgress contact and percussionist Glenn Freeman, "This performance is only one realization. For almost all the number pieces, the notes will always be the same and in the same general order of appearance, no matter who realizes the work. The notes will fall at different times and have different durations, based on chance, but the piece is always the same length of time." I suppose the take-home point is that all One6 is any number of possibilities. A statue remains unchanged whether you view it from the front, the back, or the side.
I haven't actually counted them, but there are about fifteen notes in each movement of One6, and the movements range between 13:40 and 17:35. At an average rate of one note per minute, you must be thinking, "Now that's slow music." Not so. Because Cage asks the violinist to draw the entire length of her bow slowly across the string without vibrato (my guess – I haven't seen the score), we are poignantly reminded that there's no such thing as a perfect violin note. Each note is made up of an infinite number of vulnerable mini-notes that die the instant that they are born. Each mini-note has its own pitch, timbre, and dynamic level. Heard this way, a single note becomes almost maddeningly alive, and a minute is hardly enough time to take it all in!
One10 is the troubled sister of One6. The principle is the same, but the notes become even more complex through the use of harmonic overtones and (again, my guess) unconventional bowing. There is less silence in One10. One6 tends to be restful; One10, harsher, and higher in pitch, is an edgier work. One6 is a child's balloon leaking air. One10 is a test of the Emergency Broadcasting System. But only a test.
Fong has a lot of nerve, and you can interpret that as you will. I think she's great. (Irvine Arditti has a version of One10 on Mode Records 100 – I haven't heard it.)
Copyright © 2002, Raymond Tuttle