Recorded in performance at Town Hall, New York in 1958, this three-CD set (which would fit on two) is an excellent introduction to the quirky music of John Cage. The music ranges in style from the meditative Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano, to the randomized electronic sound potpourri of Williams Mix, down to the I Ching-inspired clang of Music for Carillon #1.
Contrary to expectation, not all the music is shockingly avant guard. Some is a surprisingly logical mixture of scored and random elements, like The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs, hauntingly sung by contralto Arlene Carmen, with lyrics from James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake. A percussionist accompanies this lovely through-composed piece, erratically striking a closed grand piano with his knuckles. Carmen also sings the hypnotic vocalise She is Asleep, accompanied by Cage on the high keys of a prepared piano.
The Concert for Piano and Orchestra is an amusing chaotic piece, with the musicians playing their instruments in different keys with, according to Cage, "specific freedoms given to each player." To paraphrase Gutman in The Maltese Falcon, you never know what you're going to hear next, except that it will be something extraordinary. If you listen closely, you can even hear jeers and disruptive applause from disgruntled listeners. This brings up a further point: Not all of the music is fun to listen to. Sometimes Cage doesn't know when to stop. The five-minute Music for Carillon made its point after the first two. Imaginary Landscape #1 is painfully high-pitched and too repetitive, a real seat-squirmer. Knowing Cage, perhaps this is its purpose. The Sonatas and Interludes on the second disc are real gems. The sounds produced by the prepared piano are otherworldly and contemplative. Their improvisational nature, their gentle muted tones, strategic pauses, and the apparent lack of direction contribute to the oddly soothing effect. There is something disconcerting about playing aleatory music the same way each time on a CD player. Perhaps the ideal medium has yet to be invented: a machine that randomizes the figures within each piece, playing them differently each time. John Cage would have approved.
Copyright © 1996, Peter Bates