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Monday, January 09, 2006
more number pieces by john cage from ogreogress productions
John Cage: ONEviolin (One6, One10) Christina Fong, violin

Between 1987 (the year of Feldman's untimely death from pancreatic carcinoma) and 1992, John Cage wrote 48 known pieces that have become known as his "Number" pieces. The reason for the monicker is apparent by the works' titles; each piece is a number describing the number of instruments involved. When there are multiple works for the same number of instruments, a superscript is applied (as in one6) to distinguish one from the other.

I've been listening to a "number" of Cage's Number works over the past year, and have generally found them among his most compelling works. Overall, my favorite examples tend to be those involving multiple musicians, as with four (usually performed by string quartet). Part of that has to do with the nature of the Number pieces; notes are specified along with the duration in minutes and seconds of each note. However, each musician has the choice of when to begin playing within each time bracket. For example, a note could start anytime between 20" and 40" and end between 30" and 50" (so it lasts for ten seconds but there is some wiggle-room as to when the performer starts playing). When dealing with multiple instruments, as in four, the effect is incredible, with parts of a chord passing from one instrument to the next (reminiscent of Four Organs by Steve Reich, but very different nonetheless).

My preference for multiple performer versions of the Number pieces notwithstanding, I've come to also like several of the solo Number pieces, including One8 for solo cello. In that case, the use of a special bow enables the cellist to play multiple stops in a sustained fashion, which may explain part of my affection for the piece.

OgreOgress Productions has championed the late music of John Cage in a very consistent fashion, and the album one6 and one10 is no different. Interestingly, and very effectively, it was recorded in a church and a Buddhist temple, which I think contributes to its focused, meditative character.

one6 is scored for solo violin, and as best I can tell from listening (I dont have any of the scores), consists of single notes rather than chords. Harmonics and regular tones are used along with stretches of abject silence, and unlike the other Number pieces I've heard for strings, this one can get a bit loud at times.

Like one8, this represents one of the more challenging Number pieces to listen to. You have to really like sustained single tones. But it can be very rewarding, like much of La Monte Young's early works and Lucier's Music on a Long Thin Wire. It proves that there is beauty in but a single note. And ugliness as well; some of the notes are purposely loud and played abrasively, striking me as an intentional contrast to the more sedate, quiet tones.

One10 is a bit more gentle, generally very quiet, and employs harmonics more frequently than its partner on this CD. There are also simultaneous tones, often double harmonics, that are very difficult to play well. For around 25 minutes it's a virtuoso example of a static universe that paradoxically goes somewhere despite the stasis.

The performance is, to my ears at least, first-rate, endowed with a deep understanding of Cage's music and a respect for what he may have been trying to achieve. Overall, his Number pieces tend to strike me as among his most truly beautiful pieces, similar in effect to the third movement of his String Quartet in Four Parts. To play for a lengthy period in a hushed fashion while crafting harmonic double stops is incredibly hard to do on any stringed instrument, not least of all the violin, and I can't think of a better, more nuanced performance.

John Cage: Four4 / Glenn Freeman, percussion
Another OgreOgress album, Four4 is written for four percussionists, is Cage's final work for percussion, and is a tour de force, lasting over an hour. I assume that Glenn Freeman is playing all four parts via multitracking, but do not know for certain. Many of the percussion sounds are extremely quiet, bordering on inaudibility. But like any good percussion piece, a lot of it is also very loud. Very loud. The percussion instruments use sustained notes through rolling, shaking, etc. There is some tuned percussion as
well, enabling sustained tones that are reminiscent of other Number pieces. Like the other pieces in the series, time brackets are used. But the choice of percussion instruments, as far as I am aware, is also indeterminate. That gives a good deal of freedom to the performer(s), and the choices of instruments in this recording is very creative, although to my ears largely involves some form of drum. It is also challenging to listen to, but I suspect would be enhanced by the ability to watch a performance through an extended CD or accompanying video on DVD, since the moving from one percussion instrument to another could be theatrical in and of itself. Glenn Freeman's performance is probably as good as it gets. I hesitate to use the word "definitive" since I don't think that is a particularly Cage-like word.


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