The bounty of John Cage's centennial

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The centennial of John Cage (his actual birthday falls on September 5) has generated an unprecedented wealth of international concerts and recordings of the composer's music in 2012, and this Thursday through Saturday Northwestern University is adding to the slush pile with the John Cage Festival, a two-day symposium and handful of concerts, including the So Percussion performance on Saturday that I wrote about in this week's Reader. The school's library has an ongoing exhibition called "Sound & Silence: John Cage Composing Himself," consisting of Cage's correspondence, scores, and audiovisual commentary from some of his former colleagues at Northwestern; the NU library possesses one of the most important collections of Cage's work in the world. The show opened on September 5 and runs through December 21.

While it seems like we couldn't go a week or two without running across a performance of a Cage piece this year—which one rarely had the chance to experience during an entire calendar year before 2012—it seems like there have also been just as many recordings of his work, both new and archival. This past spring, composer Nomi Epstein organized a terrific Cage festival that focused on multiple aspects of the composer's work. It kicked off with a performance of Sonatas & Interludes (1946-'48), one of Cage's most satisfying and enduring works, by Eliza Garth. It's a masterpiece for prepared piano—with specific instructions on how to insert various bolts, screws, erasers, and pieces of plastic inside of the instrument—that also marked the end of an aesthetic period for the composer, after which he largely broke free of fully plotted scores and mathematical form.

There might be some others, but I've heard three terrific renderings of the work released this year, and it's been fascinating to listen to them one after the other. There's no way the various materials used to prepare the piano will be identical, so each key strike produces a different sonority, sustain, and ambience, and each musician brings a different touch. I love the 2002 reading by the composer James Tenney (who died in 2006) released this year, for the first time, by Hat Art. It was a 1951 encounter with Sonatas & Interludes, played by the composer himself in Denver, Colorado, that pushed Tenney toward a career in music—his version of the piece is played at a much brisker pace than normal, and compared with the other two recordings I mention below his take is much more metallic, metronomic, and pingy, in the best possible ways. It feels downright electric, with the pianist really ripping into the music with percussive gusto (Cage's use of prepared piano was partly undertaken to write music for dance pieces, which allowed him both percussive and melodic latitude). Below you can listen to Tenney's version of "Sonata 12."

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The French-Swiss pianist Cédric Pescia gives the work its conventional tempo on a new recording released by Aeon, with a softer, less clanging touch. Pescia normally works with more traditional repertoire—extensively recording solo music by the likes of Bach, Schumann, and Beethoven—but he didn't treat this Cage piece lightly. According to the liner notes, he played Sonatas & Interludes extensively over a three-year period prior to making the recordings, where he not only made decisions about his approach and materials, but also which piano would be best suited for the piece (he chose a Steinway "B"). While he was "reasonably free" with Cage's instructions, he also toned down the "unprepared notes" for fear that they stuck out too much. It's a much more contemplative, muted performance than Tenney's, with a strong Asian feel, and it proves the malleability of the work, easily enduring divergent interpretations.

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Finally there's the performance by Nurit Tilles, a veteran member of the Steve Reich Ensemble, captured in the extravagant vinyl box set released by the John Cage Trust, which spreads the music over three audiophile-grade 45-rpm records, placed within a hefty, glossy cardboard box and alongside a 40-page book. Both the packaging and the book are loaded with beautiful photos of the various objects used in the piano preparation and reproductions of Cage's original instructions, and there are some excellent notes by Mark Szwed. Only 433 (get it?) copies were made and the price tag is a hefty $145—it's obviously not for everyone. But if you can afford it the recording is gorgeous, and the performance falls in between the Tenney and the Pescia, in terms of clang, aggression, and tempo. While I wouldn't say it's the sort of landmark interpretation that such ostentatious packaging would typically demand, the Cage Trust clearly wanted to fete the work in a big way. On that score they succeeded.

Lastly, in other Cage news, the third and latest issue of the excellent online experimental-music journal Sound American, edited by trumpeter Nate Wooley for the invaluable streaming-music service DRAM, is devoted exclusively to the composer. Particular attention is paid to Cage's late number pieces, which are often given short shrift. There are a slew of solo versions of various number pieces by folks like David Grubbs, Andrea Parkins, C. Spencer Yeh, Nick Hennies, Machinefabriek, Audrey Chen, and Chicago's own Katherine Young (whose "solo" piece also features Jenna Lyle) among others, as well as writings by members of the Jack Quartet and the BSC. There's an enthusiasm and passion in the writing that's infectious and has the potential to win over those most skeptical of Cage's work.

Today’s playlist:

The Last Hurrah!!, Spiritual Non-Believers (Rune Grammofon)
Oskar Schönning, Belgrade Tapes (Schönning)
Various artists, A Fine Time! The South Side of Soul Street (Sundazed)
Mark Hanslip & Javier Carmona, Dosados (Babel)
Ismael Rivera con Kako y Su Orquesta, Lo Ultimo en la Avenida (Tico/Fania)

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