Tuesday, January 02, 2007


Postcard from Heaven

Today I wrap up a few recordings that were left undone from last year—namely Eight and the items from “A Cage of Saxophones II.” Reportedly there will be another disc of saxophone music, but this seems surprising to me because I’m not sure what is left to perform for that instrument!  Also in this update is a review of ArpaViva’s first release, Postcard from Heaven, a work for harps that I had looked forward to hearing for a long time.
I also have the Cage movie One11 to review once I manage to go through it all.  I invited my mom to join me, but after a description of its content (changing patterns of light for 90 minutes) she refused and commented, “That sounds even worse that the one where he sits at a piano and doesn’t play anything for three minutes.”  Sigh.
     I now also have updated versions of the two unrecorded and unowned works lists, as well as a new index page featuring recent reviews and recording links.  I think the only 2006 releases I have yet to review at this point are two German releases—Telephones and Birds and Sounds of Venice which I have thus far been unable to buy.  Keep an eye out for them.
     In other news, I finally defended my Master’s thesis and am now once more hunting for a job, and in the meantime living at home.  I’m not sure what to do with these pages aside from continue the reviews as new releases emerge.   I had thoughts originally of compiling them into a more browse-able form.  One possibility is to use the idea of the “CageMap” and create a series of web pages of discussions of individual works, with each page linking to works of a similar nature; then, the index of pages and their links would be something like the CageMap I had initially envisioned.
Solo with Obbligato Accompaniment of Two Voices in Canon and Six Short Inventions on the Subject of the Solo
This piece from 1934 features one of Cage’s most longwinded titles, outdone only by But What About the Noise....  From the date, it’s clear it was written early in his career and shares many of the characteristics of the early music.  Specifically, it is plodding and pretty dull.  This performance is on saxophones, and in many of these early works I wonder if the instruments are left unspecified on purpose, or if the music was written primarily as an abstract exercise without much intention of performance.  The latter thought I reject because Cage always said his goal was performance, but these might predate that decision.
The music is melodic, of a sort, in that there are no sharp leaps from place to place, but very dissonant.  To my ear there is little sense of cooperation among the instruments, and frankly the “solo” section seems like an unending stair-step pattern that refuses to attract my attention.  The inventions have some degree of character.  The second is very brief and lively, while the third has a wistful, emotionally evocative character not normal in Cage’s music, as does the fifth to some degree.

Composition for Three Voices
     Musical titles do not come much more vague than this item from 1934.  According to johncage.info’s sources, this is another abstract piece which focuses on keeping rows of notes as far apart as possible.  The use of three voices doesn’t add too much to the music, and it was evidently hard to choose three instruments which would not inhibit one another in performance, and there doesn’t seem to be much intentional interplay between them.  I would describe it as boring mid-century atonal chamber music.  This was performed on the unusual combination of saxophone, accordion and cello.

Eight it a winds-only piece from 1991 for trumpet, clarinet, flute, trombone, horn, clarinet and tuba.  The exclusive use of winds makes it interesting, and gives it the same “sunlight” feel that I have noted in other wind-heavy number pieces; it seems as if this could be used as music in a desert scene in a movie, or anything featuring a glaring sun.  It follows the conventions I am used to in number pieces—short but rare bursts of single instruments, long but quiet tones from one or more.  I find it interesting that the short bursts seem to occur in groups in Eight, almost as if one instrument is responding to another, though it would not amaze me if this is an illusion.  Also of interest are a few occurrences of non-isolated tones in which instruments play multiple instances of the same tone in succession.  Still, beyond that, this is not a very distinctive number piece.
     My reaction to the music itself has been positive overall.  I like dense number pieces, but paradoxically I also have thing for silence.  In this case, there are no long stretches without sound, but plenty of long stretches with multiple instruments interacting in slowly evolving patterns.  Wind instruments are especially interesting in such long stretches because I am amazed at the players’ ability to keep on going.  It’s also fun to hear how subtle changes in breath (or in a few cases what I am guessing was loss of breath) can effect the music.  In the end, Eight is an enjoyable listen, but it doesn’t really go beyond its many similar relatives in Cage’s late works.

A Postcard for Heaven
     Being a fan of the harp, I have been eager to hear a recording of this 1982 piece for harp for a long time.  Victoria Jordanova gives an excellent performance in its only recording (so far).  I am a little skeptical of some aspects of this performance, though.  Cage specified that the strings should be vibrated using a particular electronic device, but such devices apparently don’t work as required and the same effect was produced using other means.  Also, there is an option for vocal performance by the harpist, but in this recording the voices are provided by someone else.  There is also overdubbing of different sections—a reasonable strategy in Cage’s work, but one which seems to me to be used a bit too often.    
     Anyway, those concerns are pretty minor, and what is important is the sound, which I find very attractive.  After listening to the number pieces, I have always felt that the ethereal nature of the harp would make for a great instrument to use in that style.  This obviously predates the number pieces, but in its slow-moving, almost lonely texture it seems to have something in common with the ones for a few instruments.  In particular, I like the fact that I paired it with Eight in this review.  It can be distinguished from other number pieces by its use of repeated musical phrases in what seems to be an echoing pattern.  The vocal parts are simply slight “ahhh” sounds superimposed over the harp performance, and sound angelic, although I think they could be removed with no ill effects (they are optional in the score).  This music is quite beautiful and emphasize the facility with which Cage makes use of different resources to great effect.  It’s bizarre that no one had tackled it in the form of a recording until now.  

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