American music lost some of its zest when John Cage died in 1992. The country's most famous musical experimenter had astonished, mystified and angered several generations of listeners with his unorthodox sounds and ideas.
Behind the irritation felt by many was the suspicion - reinforced by the smiling face almost invariably seen in photographs - that he was pulling our leg.His most famous composition was 4'33", which could be performed by any instrument or combination of instruments. It didn't matter, because all the players did was sit silently onstage for four minutes and 33 seconds. The only things audible were audience sounds and any outside noise that might filter in.
A variant, performed by Cage himself, had him slicing vegetables, mixing them in a blender and drinking the brew - all the resulting sounds being amplified for the enjoyment of the audience.
Behind this tomfoolery, his supporters said, was a serious purpose: He was greatly expanding the possibilities for musical expression. There's no question that he was a major influence on the European, as well as American, avant-garde.
Two new recordings, in a series that will encompass the complete music of Cage, show different aspects of his musical personality.
JOHN CAGE "The Piano Works 3" Stephen Drury (Mode Records mode 63, * * 1/2)
This record would make an excellent introduction to the music of John Cage - if for no other reason than to show that his bark was often worse than his bite. The music is almost conventional, at least by Cageian standards.
"The Seasons" consists of nine movements played by standard piano. No, Cage didn't think there were nine seasons; the four usual seasons are interleaved with five preludes, one of which ends the work. Some of this music is downright pretty - "Spring," the third prelude and "Summer" fall in that category. "Fall" is what seems to be a funeral march, played with heavy accents.
ASLSP was written as the required piece for a piano competition. Cage must have had a few good laughs while composing it. Aware that competitions draw would-be virtuosos who love to play difficult music fast and loudly, he composed an excruciatingly slow piece ("ASLSP" stands for "As slow as possible") making no technical demands. There are many pauses, some of them so long that the listener may be tricked into thinking the piece is over. The music is pointillistic and quite nice. An audience would probably applaud - prematurely during the pauses.
"Cheap Imitation" is a neat compositional trick, though it is tedious to listen to. Its origin: The dancer Merce Cunningham had choreographed Erik Satie's "Socrate" for a program. The publisher suddenly withdrew permission for the performance, leaving Cunningham with choreography but no music. So Cage wrote "Cheap Imitation" in precise rhythmic imitation of "Socrate," allowing the choreography to be used unaltered. The work is long (more than 35 minutes) and pleasant in small amounts, but many listeners will tire of it before the end.
JOHN CAGE "The Piano Concertos" Ensemble Modern and Callithumpian Consort, David Tudor and Stephen Drury (Mode Records mode 57//, * * 1/2)
With the introductory disc preparing the way, the listener can proceed to this one, which presents the kind of music more usually associated with John Cage.
A personal anecdote is instructive. While listening to this CD through earphones, so as to avoid annoying the neighbors, I heard a faint whistling sound that varied slightly in pitch. I assumed this to be something played by one of the percussionists, maybe some sort of wind machine. It persisted rather annoyingly, and only when the music stopped and the whistling continued did I realize I had left the fire on under a teakettle on the stove.
Cage would probably have liked that. He often used conventional instruments in unconventional ways as well as making ad hoc use of nonmusical objects of all kinds.
The three works on this disc - Concerto for Prepared Piano and Orchestra, Concert for Piano and Orchestra (note that Cage called it a "concert" and not a "concerto") and Fourteen for piano solo and ensemble - have highly unorthodox sounds, some of them reminiscent of the music of Edgard Varese.
In addition to all the whinings, whistles and grunts in the orchestra, the piano in each case is "prepared," which means that objects are stuck between the strings to alter the sound. The piano strings are also bowed by the player - a sound Cage particularly liked. Listeners new to this may not even realize they're hearing a piano.
It was all very revolutionary and offensive at one time, but decades of this music and other music like it, and performances by groups such as Dallas' Voices of Change, have taken the edge off. Some people even like it.
These can never be called definitive performances, incidentally. Cage gave so much freedom to the performers and left so much to chance that no two performances are ever alike.
To those with a spirit of musical adventure, it's interesting stuff. And it whets the appetite for the ultimate Cage recording, of 4'33".