"If this word 'music' is sacred and reserved for eighteenth and nineteenth century instruments, we can substitute a more meaningful term: organisation of sound."
John Cage - The Seasons
(American Composers Orchestra; Margaret Leng Tan, piano and toy piano; Dennis Russell Davies, conductor)
Here's a collection of John Cage that highlights the composer's diverse offerings--from pounding to playful. "Seventy Four" reminds one of Morton Feldman's atmospheric symphonic work; "The Seasons" is a gorgeous one-act ballet Cage composed in 1947; and "Concerto for Prepared Piano and Chamber Orchestra" from a few years later is simply riveting. "Suite for Toy Piano"--performed by toy piano virtuoso Margaret Leng Tan--is paired with Lou Harrison's orchestrated version, making for a fascinating comparison. A great disc for New Music lovers.
Litany for the Whale
(Alan Bennett, Paul Elliott, et al; Theatre of Voices; Paul Hillier, conductor)
John Cage's vocal music helped free the voice from strictly narrative-- and strictly tonal--roles. Reaching as far back as 1942, and as far forward as 1990, this anthology of Cage's vocal works brilliantly shows the full range of shapes the composer wanted for musical voice. The title piece is the most recent and relies heavily on two voices shifting pitches in a rich, polyphony-tinged flow. So much here is vital Cage: from his adaptation of phrases from Finnegan's Wake to Riley reading the "36 Mesostics re and not re Marcel Duchamp," to the outlandish, electronics-infused Aria originally written for Kathy Berberian. Paul Hillier performs these works with his Theatre of Voices ensemble, drawing richly on their early music chops and textural acuity. (review by Andrew Bartlett)
Sonatas and Interludes, etc
While John Cage never wrote anything you'd call Classical Top 40, his music up to 1950 is far more accessible than the random and chance-influenced pieces he created later on. These mysterious, wispy pieces sound as though they were written for a small ensemble of ghostly percussion instruments, although they are played by a single performer playing a piano with various gadgets attached to the strings. You need the clear sound of this recent digital recording to appreciate the music, and Karis keeps everything moving without overstressing the rhythms. (review by Leslie Gerber)
The 25-Year Retrospective Concert of the Music of John Cage
(Anahid Ajemian, Joan Brockway, et al; Manhattan Percussion Ensemble, Instrumental Ensemble; Paul Price and Merce Cunningham, conductors)
Hard to believe that as early as 1958 there was a 25-year retrospective concert of John Cage's music. But this 3-CD set documents both the concert and its meaning for the history of New Music. Organized by no less than Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Emile de Antonio, the event sparked heated controversy--some of it documented in the crowd's reaction to Cage's early tape- music piece, Williams Mix. The expansive booklet accompanying the CDs includes loads of prescient commentary, much of it from Cage himself. Most telling is the simple formulation: "New Music. New Listening. Just an attention to the activity of sounds." Cage's earliest-prepared piano sonatas are abbreviated with clangorous, percussive results, and the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra sprawls noisily in myriad directions. The sound is broad and warm for a 40-year-old live recording, and this is a cornerstone document of post-World War II art. (review by Andrew Bartlett)