John Cage

John Cage

Atlas Eclipticalis & Winter Music/103

Asphodel

John Cage has become an institution. But when you change the way that people actually listen to music, it’s not surprising. Cage said that all sound is music, and so, justified his (arguably) most famous composition, “4’33.” The silence in the concert hall forced people to listen to the air conditioning, their neighbor’s hacking cough, or the sound of their own heartbeat. But I can’t add much to the immense body of theory and knowledge that surrounds Cage and his music, I can just call them as I see (hear) them.

Atlas Eclipticalis was derived from a star map. I am told that the score itself is beautiful, but, having not seen it, I’ll leave that to aestheticians of another sort. Petr Kotik and the Orchestra of the SEM Ensemble interpret these pieces. David Tudor, who has worked extensively with Cage, plays piano throughout the disc. I’d say he lends his own unique touch to the proceedings, but I have no idea what his touch is. The pieces selected are interesting because they are Cage’s first and last orchestral pieces. When it comes to Cage, I find myself repeatedly coming back to the number pieces, his last works because of their integrity and acknowledgement of the fact that the player has a spirit, which can bring much more to the music than individual quirks and nuances. This performance of “103” is really nice; sort of spare, but with just enough loveliness to bathe in.

There’s a slight controversy surrounding this release. “103” is intended to be played without a composer. Each musician was assigned time brackets in which they were to play a single attack of indeterminate length, thereby only determining sonic density. The musicians were to have a large digital clock as a reference to their playing. Conductor Petr Kotik, having had bad experiences with rogue players in the past, decided that he would set the entry points of the musicians and let them choose when they would end their attack. This flies in the face of Cage’s anti-authoritarianism, but secures a “good” performance of the piece. Regardless of whether or not this realization of “103” is conceptually sound, the music in itself is beautiful.

While “103” sounds very flowing, “Atlas Eclipticalis” is somewhat jarring in the fact that the sounds tend to sit on their own, without much respect for those around them. They’re like little events spread onto a large field.

Asphodel’s got very wide distribution, so this is one of the easier to find pieces by Cage. I saw it in a major retail chain, so this is an excellent chance to check out one of the bastions of New Music.

Asphodel, 763 Brannan Street, San Francisco, CA 94103; http://www.asphodel.com

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