Tuesday, November 22, 2005



Thanks to an earlier rise than expected tomorrow (dentists always set out to make my life difficult), we’ll stick with skeletal reviews and a rant.  One of the key things I do when I come home to Alabama is to canvas the city in search of cheap music.  I hi the jackpot in a local Coconuts, where some person had abandoned a bounty of unexpected finds, including an awesome set of renaissance dance music on a French label for $2.99, as well as the most unexpected of all, a CD by Thomas Adès, which hilariously had an explicit lyrics label on it (perhaps the only classical-section album to receive such a distinction).  I don’t know much about Adès, except that a) he is really young and b) he’s on Allmusic’s “top 500 composers.”

That was a longwinded way to get to my main point: Cage is placed in the top 50 by the Allmusic editors, which was surprising to me—he was the only “contemporary era” composer to get such a distinction.  I’m not sure if it’s because they really like him that much, or if they had to choose someone from that period and picked Cage.

A Dip in the Lake: 10 Quicksteps
I didn’t quite realize how long this version of the music was!  Thus I will break it into a few different listens, similar to the various Etudes collections.  This version was downloaded off of the Internet and features actual recordings from Chicago.  The experience is interesting, if slightly hard to follow—specifically, I don’t know what, if anything, makes each collection of sounds a “quickstep.”  Anyway, each one is about a minute long and consists of snippets of sound from a location, sometimes played continuously and sometimes repeated.  A lot are natural sounds—wind, rain, etc. and a lot are man made including radios, cars, boats and the like.  As with one of the earlier listens, it’s interesting that the nature sounds and the manmade sounds all become equally ambient in this work.  One curious fact I noted was a lack of other humans lending their voices to the sound!  Only a few times did I hear anyone.  Maybe they went to the locations at unpopular times, or these quicksteps just happened to all be rather unpopulated areas.  

Three Dances for Two Prepared Pianos
This is a complex work with elaborate and interesting preparations from 1945.  Each dance has a distinctive character.  The first is highly metallic and features a pretty wide array of different sounds.  The rhythms seems olid and more or less continuous; they are not as fragmented and rapidly changing as I have come to expect from percussive Cage music.  In my mind, the first dance is clearly the highlight.  The second feels more deliberate and maybe almost march-like in its pace, but because it’s a bit slower the rhythms become harder to follow.  It ends with a brief climax.  The third dance is more hectic than either of the other two.  Most pleasurable are the unexpected “blobs” (what I wrote in my notes) of unprepared tones that show up to my surprise.  Some of it feels very random and almost like static...towards the end, I even felt as if I was being pelted by music!  

First a note—I sometimes see this work written as one-zero-one, or as one-o-one, where ‘o’ is the capital letter (i.e., O) rather than a zero.  I’m unsure if this is significant or a wacky typo.  Anyway, this is a large orchestral work with time-bracketed parts.  There is no conductor, and the Mode recording I have sounds pretty much like what I’d hoped the 103 recording would sound like!  It begins with a loud brass explosion.  Most impressively, I can hear all the percussion sounds and the piano completely clearly.  It sounds like there is something in the orchestra besides strings!  Otherwise, the music is much as I have come to expect from a number piece, although there are louder sections here than I am used to, and a wider variety of attacks on different instruments (notably the piano, which sounds a bit more like it does in the Music for Piano series).  Overall, it’s an effective refutation to the 103 recording.  

I know the AMG editor. John Cage has soooooooo many recordings compared to other recent composers. He is a major player based on this fact alone.
Out of curiosity, I also looked at the workslists of various people from Cage's generation (even if the allmusic lists are not totally complete), Some examples:

Harrison: 395
Cage 307:
Stockhausen: 190
Feldman: 163
Xenakis: 147
Boulez: 57
Partch: 51

I was rather surprised to see that Cage wrote so much! This is only composers AMG calls "contemporary" though; other 20th century composers like Barber are represented, but in the "Modern" section.
It should be 101, not 1O1!
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