How John Cage, the big disruptor, had the last laugh – by writing great music | Jean Cage


In the summer of 1990, John Cage lectured at the International New Music Gathering in Darmstadt, Germany, and effectively admitted defeat. The then 76-year-old American composer announced that his philosophical ideas of freedom and collaboration, concepts embedded in his avant-garde musical compositions since the 1950s, had failed to influence reality. The world had become worse, not better. It was “a life spent … banging my head against a wall,” he said. There was, however, one consolation. “I no longer consider it necessary to find alternatives to harmony,” he said. “After all these years, I’m finally writing great music.”

Cage was referring to his Number Pieces, roughly 40 late works named after the number of performers involved (from 1 to 101) in which individual musicians could choose when and how long to play (in designated time slots) resulting in in often calm and meditative pieces. , a marked contrast to the previous compositions, often abrasive, on which he had built his reputation for 40 years.

The Number Pieces were performed many times after Cage’s death, but often as a kind of theatrical play by musicians who still viewed Cage as a enfant terrible. “Musicians often interpret the opening of Cage’s scores as meaning ‘anything goes,” explains Simon Reynell, owner of the classical music label. “They wouldn’t follow his instructions or they would introduce theatrical elements that treated the music like a joke.”

Apartment House Photography: Alicja Wróblewska / Black Shadow studio

Reynell’s label Another Timbre has just released a four-CD box set containing 13 Number Pieces for medium-sized ensembles, performed by the British avant-garde ensemble of Anton Lukoszevieze Apartment House, which take their name from one of Cage’s last compositions.

“Most of these songs haven’t been recorded for over 15 years,” says head clarinetist Heather Roche. “They have become neglected.

In consultation with Reynell, Apartment House agreed that there would be no emotional or theatrical styles in their renditions of Cage.

“No sudden fortissimo notes, no vibrato! said Roche, laughing. “We’ve made the conscious decision to play on the quieter end of what Cage suggests, adding a certain fragility to the sound that invites you inside. It’s a bit like “create a comfortable space on your couch and sit down with us”.

A comfy space on the sofa seems like an unlikely listening space for a label that started out as an outlet for avant-garde improvisation 15 years ago, but, says Reynell, that makes perfect sense. given the evolution of his attitude towards contemporary classical music.

“I grew up in the ’70s listening to cutting edge improvisation,” says Reynell, “Free tonality, distorting the note. But in the 90s, I got fed up. Morton Feldman, late music by Luigi Nono and British artists such as Laurence Crane drew me to softer experimental music, with an emphasis on calm and minimalist improvisation.

“The new music scene of the 80s was very macho,” Crane says, “definitely in the UK. Someone like me working with common chords and clean textures had to accept that we had less access to funding or top performance. Most people saw “new music” as traditional modernism, rapidly evolving, ephemeral, glittery, and goal-oriented. Not to mention any names, a number of London publishing houses leaned towards male composers writing in this style and what I found annoying at the time was the uneven distribution of resources, with some stylistic positions being heavily weighted. favored over others.

Crane says today’s scene is much more inclusive and diverse. “This uniformity has eroded,” he says, “and the Internet has had a big role to play in allowing composers to publish their music for free to publishers. Another Timbre was born from this stylistic opening [and] has been instrumental in establishing some sort of new program. There is no doubt that CDs of Reynell’s music by composers such as Jurg Frey, Martin Arnold and Linda Catlin Smith have been crucial in presenting this music to a wider audience and to young composers.

Based in Toronto since the early 1980s, Canadian composer Linda catlin smith, who released five CDs of her music on Another Timbre, says she was “born too late” for Elliott Carter’s ultra-modernism and Steve Reich’s minimalism.

“I reacted against all this active, intense and dramatic music,” she explains, “With Cage’s Number Pieces and with Feldman, I felt pulled into a world where I could hear everything that was going on.

It’s a philosophy that she extends to her own slow and graceful spectral music, and recordings of it by Apartment House for Another Timbre.

“Apartment House, understand it,” she said. “When I hear them playing my music, I feel like I’ve learned something. The play may have been written by me, but the performance is written by the players. It is a deep collaboration. And there’s an audience there that’s really huge. We live in an era of great plurality. I think people just want to be included; they are looking for a space inside the music.

“It expands the way we think about our lives, our music and our sound”: Shiva Feshareki.
“It expands the way we think about our lives, our music and our sound”: Shiva Feshareki. Photography: no credit

“It’s definitely a conversation around diversity and inclusiveness,” agrees Anglo-Iranian composer and sound artist Shiva Feshareki. “Over the past 10 years, listeners have embraced composers such as Feldman, Pauline Oliveros, who were returning to the basics of listening-oriented sound, but also people such as Cage and Éliane Radigue who were influenced by traditions. oriental, where the music isn’t impeccably controlled by one person on a score. It’s almost as if the ego has been taken away.

“Cage wanted to take away the ego with his Number Pieces”, agrees the Swiss clarinetist and composer Jurg Frey which is associated with the elusive and fragile music of the Wandelweiser Group, also published by Another Timbre. “Thirty years ago people thought the important thing about Number Pieces was that they weren’t personal. Now we can hear it another way. It is a question of melody but also of space. In the past, the melody would say to the listener, “Hey, listen over here! But I don’t want all listeners to think or feel the same. This is Cage’s legacy. Leading melody but not in a didactic way. Leave room for the musicians and the listener.

“It’s about accessing a depth of sound that cannot be achieved by normal modes of harmony, structure and form,” explains Feshareki, who sees a connection between Cage’s approach and the composers of interest. current such as Kali malone, Sarah davachi and Catherine barbieri to have in meditative compositions deeper, long and using a right intonation. “It’s therapeutic. It connects people on new levels. It expands the way we think about our lives, our music, and our sound. “

“It’s funny,” Crane says, “Simon Reynell has no interest in pop and rock but Another Timbre is now being played on [BBC stations] 6 Music and Radio 3 alongside these young composers. Programs such as Monster Zone, Late joining, Unclassified, play his music. Same Iggy Pop now plays contemporary classical music [on his 6 Music show]. “

Reynell, however, is unsure of these notions of high-level attention. “On the one hand,” he said, “I would love for a lot of people to rediscover the Number Pieces. There is a warmth and sweetness about them that are typical of Cage. On the flip side, there is something about Cage that will always remain the maverick. I think he would feel funny if he wasn’t the stranger anymore.

The Number Pieces four-CD box set is now available at Another stamp.

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