Thursday, October 20, 2005


In the Name of the Holocaust

At this time, I’ll post on my most recent listening from yesterday, and later I will discuss tonight’s choice.  Yesterday I heard two works from the 40’s, for voice and prepared piano, and two from the 80’s that use Cages time-bracket method of composing (more on that in a bit).  I’ll also note that I have posted two lists to the left, one of unrecorded Cage works and one of recordings that I have either not gotten around to buying or cannot find.  Those family and friends who happen to read this site should note that these CD’s make excellent birthday and Christmas gifts, especially those that require annoying things like, say, sending orders to obscure European recording companies (whose websites are conveniently listed on the page).  

Forever and Sunsmell
Cage’s vocal works are always a bit odd because he chooses texts that are either very abstract or in some cases chance-determined.  The lyrics to this 1942 work are by Cummings, and not being very familiar with his work, I can’t say much except that here he uses as nouns some prepositions and other unexpected words.  Cage’s music is divided into two sections, the first being dramatic and forceful: Joan La Barbara’s voice is usually followed or coincided with some powerful drumming, and she sings loudly with some amount of vibrato (fairly unusual for Cage).  I really like how the first section ends, with “children of almost.” La Barbara’s voice twists at the end of the word ‘almost’ as if she is exasperated somehow.  After a brief bit of humming, the second, quieter but also forceful section commences.  It features a softer but more defined rhythm than the first.  The singing is also much softer here, to the point that most of the lyrics are too quiet really make out.  In fact, it seems to get progressively quieter; there is no dramatic ending here.  I think I’d recommend this work for headphone listening.  

Thirty Pieces for Five Orchestras
This is Cage’s first work (dated 1981) to use a system of time brackets.  The basic idea is that performers are given brackets of time in which they are to start and stop playing their proscribed sounds, but they have freedom to choose when to begin playing.  In his later works, Cage usually had performers try to imitate Chinese writing with strokes that seem to wash in out of the air.  This one lacks that requirement, since many sounds pop in suddenly and vanish, or introduce themselves by other means.  

I’m not certain of the degree to which the tones used are chance-determined.  My perception as I listen is that they are not so much: I hear many repetitions of the same tone by the same instrument.  In fact, although there are no soloists, there are times where certain instruments playing the same tone with a fairly clear rhythmic pattern seem to be serving as accompaniment for other instruments.  As a result, I don’t feel the same pressure to think of each sound separately as I felt with Winter Music.  The interactions between different instruments, sometimes seeming to play off each other intentionally or not, were interesting to listen to.  Perhaps most awkward were the silences, which are emphasized strongly by the surrounding music; to be a bit cliché, they were some of the loudest parts of the music.  

Apparently, the orchestras are separated in space, though I am not sure how this is reflected in the recording.  I do know that some instruments seem far louder than the others.  So listeners, be careful with that volume control!  The temptation is to turn it up, but when one of the loud horn blasts or massive bursts of drums comes along, your ears are going to regret it.  As far as individual instruments are concerned, there were lots of entertaining slurs by the string and wind instruments.  In particular, you hear a lot of the winds play a solid tone for awhile, and then suddenly swerve off into silence almost like an old record player’s needle being lifted up.  It’s a neat effect.  Overall, although the work feels disjointed (something like a movie soundtrack collage that keeps teasing towards a climax it never reaches), there were plenty of features to keep me interested throughout.

Cage took a bit of a different track with this number piece from 1988.  Instead of providing instrumentation and letting performers choose tones to play, he chose the tones and let them choose the instrumentation.  I am reminded of Cage’s reference to Bach’s Art of the Fugue as an indeterminate work where the boundaries are given and the performer chooses the colors to fill in a complete picture.  This version was from a CD titled, “Music for Eight” and is performed on (what sounds like) two violins, violoncello, viola, and a wind instrument.  If you will permit me to digress: I have no idea why the Ensemble Avantgarde chose to record Five on a CD titled Music for Eight, especially when Cage’s Eight has not been recorded (for what it’s worth, neither has Eighty).  Anyway, the feel of the work is very similar to Four5, no doubt because this performance uses a wind instrument.  I expect that other performances on other instruments would be recognizable, as the tones played remain the same.  Also, there were a lot of silences in this particular recording.  I didn’t get as strong a sense of naturalness from this work as I have from other number pieces.

In the Name of the Holocaust
This is a confusing work written for prepared piano in 1942.  The powerfully mournful tone and the title would suggest that it is intended as a eulogy for the victims of Germany’s oppression before and death camps during World War II.  The date, however, makes this assumption problematic.  The first true extermination camps did not open until 1941, and I don’t believe they were ever widely known among the American population until after the war’s conclusion, even if the oppression inflicted by the Germans was.  Cage did have a pretense for the word; he uses it as a replacement for “Holy Ghost” in a wordplay allusion to James Joyce.  I am unsure when the word “Holocaust” took on its current historical meaning, but I didn’t think it was until after the war’s conclusion.  Perhaps this work is a bizarre, but very appropriate, coincidence.

Nonetheless, it is striking.  The first movement involves a pattern of what I would call “nauseated” piano music, because it sounds like a sickly distorted piano.  This is punctuated by bell-like tones that seem to be ringing for the dead.  The work is generally slow-moving and mournful, with an occasionally dissonant percussive strike.  The second movement continues the mournful theme, but more forcefully and more loudly.  It features certain swirling piano music at points, and an intense siren-like ringing sound at certain points.  The piece closes with some loud, pounding tone clusters (e.g., smashing of piano keys all at once) in combination with the other sounds that bring to mind the destruction of war.           

What percussion instruments are used in this recording of "Five"? The below rules must be observed, otherwise this is not a recording of "Five" but a recording based on the work "Five". Let us know.

Pitches and dynamics are set, but the instrumentation is free, provided one can play or sing the tones in the proper ranges.
Indeed, I am way off. Looking back through my notes, I can't find any mention percussion. I must have copied something I wrote about the Thirty Pieces accidentally.

My list of instruments was also incorrect, part of a stub I made prior to writing the whole review.

I investigated the specific instrumentation on the liner notes from the CD, after digging them up. It's confusing. What I actually hear does seem to match the track list attribution, and the track list attribution does not match what the liner notes claim about how the work is played.

Specifically, the track notes claim piano, but I hear no piano. The liner notes claim only strings are played, but I am all but certain I hear a wind instrument.

So my 'best guess' is:
2 violins, viola, violincello and unknown wind instrument.

Thanks for the corrections,
Thanks for the update! This seems indeed a legitimate recording of "Five", given your correction.
With regard to forever and sunsmell, is it a solo piece. I have heard other solo vocal works from Cage, but never a choral work. Did Cage ever compose anything for chorus?
Very few things for voices singing the same things simultaneously. Mode Records did release a CD titled "Choral Works I" but a few of the works were really just soloists singing the same things simultaneously. I reviewed one bonafide choral work as a result of this comment though!
Can anybody write the lyrics of "Forever and Sunsmell"? I did a thesis on Cummings and I would like to have a look.
Ta very much
Don't worry if you don't understand Cummings. If you write the lyrics of "Forever and Sunsmell" I can explain what the writer means. I spent many years earning my doctorate on Cummings. Madrid (Spain)
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