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John Cage: The Works For Percussion, Vol. 1 [video]

Release Date: 04/19/2011 
Label:  Mode   Catalog #: 229   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  John Cage
Performer:  Percussion Group CincinnatiJoey Van HasselMatt HawkinsMark Katsaounis,   ... 
Conductor:  James Culley
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

CAGE Credo In Us. Imaginary Landscape Nos. 1-5 Percussion Group Cincinnati MODE 229 (60:58)

In 1928, the Happiness Boys (Billy Jones and Ernie Hare), an extremely popular music-and-comedy team, recorded a radio satire titled Twisting the Dials . Using live in-studio vocals and sound effects (including a slide whistle), some recorded music, and perhaps a bit of actual radio manipulation, they created the kind of Read more unpredictable, unrelated, fragmented collision of programming one would expect from randomly twisting the dials on a radio—but of course, their activities were scripted and composed. Twenty-three years later at Columbia University, John Cage conducted 24 players in a performance of his Imaginary Landscape No. 4, in which the volume and tuning dials of 12 radios were twisted according to a score he had devised using the I Ching —resulting in a mixture and progression of sounds he could not have previously determined. Was Cage familiar with the earlier comedy routine? It’s entirely possible. He had previously sanctioned the use of radios in an equally indeterminate fashion in his Credo In Us (1942), but in both cases his motivation was not to simply achieve the surreal juxtapositions offered in the comedy sketch; it was as much a technological as aesthetic revolutionary act. Listening to the two totally different (naturally) versions of Imaginary Landscape No. 4 included on this disc, with scraps of music, voices, and sonic debris fading in and out (some more fortuitous than others; when the Beatles’ Let It Be briefly emerges it sounds almost staged), the experience becomes a commentary on individual perception—our ability, or unwillingness, to concentrate—and societal concerns revealed by our choice of music, the reported news of shootings and sports, and everyday soap opera-style banter.

But, as the underlying theme of this program reminds us, Cage was also involved in finding new sound sources, as he had been doing since the late 1930s with his music for percussion ensembles and the prepared piano, itself a one-man percussion orchestra, accompanying choreography by Bonnie Bird and Merce Cunningham. The 1939 Imaginary Landscape No. 1 was an especially audacious example of using the available technology to create unorthodox timbres and textures, with muted piano and percussion instruments, as well as a pair of variable-speed turntables playing frequency-test recordings, whose swooping glissandi, ironically or not, are not unlike the Happiness Boys’ slide whistle. Within a few years, Cage added other “electronic” effects to his “imaginary” palette—buzzers, an oscillator, amplified phonograph needles on metal coils, and finally radios or musical phonograph records, all to confound the listener’s expectations. Most of these devices are now obsolete and/or have been replaced by exceedingly sophisticated computer and sampling technology, which is why Percussion Group Cincinnati has chosen to use “period” (c.1940) instruments whenever possible, in order to approach, if not precisely match, Cage’s original intentions. (Even in comparison with, for example, the use of Baroque period instruments, the idea is not as silly as it may seem. I had a discussion with new music flutist/performance artist Eberhard Blum and percussion legend Jan Williams on precisely this subject in 1995, during the recording of these same pieces for the hat Hut label. Following the same line of logic with “period” materials and the original model of piano Cage used, Mode’s 1996 release of the Sonatas and Interludes by pianist Philipp Vandré is one of the best on disc.)

Nevertheless, it is still a bit of a shock to hear the rising orchestral opening notes of the Shostakovich Fifth Symphony finale beginning one of these two versions of Credo In Us (the title is a pun on both interpersonal relationships and the U.S. foreign policy of the time), and the rest of the movement (or, in the second version, echoes of Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Wagner, and Suppé) later interspersed among mathematically precise percussive clatter, jazzy piano syncopated phrasing, chiming patterns resembling gamelan, and the amplified surface noise of the records. Here, and throughout the increasingly complex Landscapes , the Cincinnatians provide crisp, articulate, well-strategized accounts of this historic but still surprising music. My one quibble has to do with the balance between the electronics and the acoustic instruments; especially in Imaginary Landscape No. 3 (1942), an evocation of the horrors of war from a time when the composer still felt that music could convey specific emotions, the electronics should jolt and soar and shock, where here they are mixed into the ensemble on an equal, almost unassuming, level. But this alone should not unduly distract one from this thoughtful, conscientious, and yes, entertaining program.

FANFARE: Art Lange
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Works on This Recording

Credo in US by John Cage
Performer:  Percussion Group Cincinnati ()
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1942; USA 
Imaginary Landscape no 5 by John Cage
Performer:  Percussion Group Cincinnati ()
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1952; USA 
Imaginary Landscape no 4 "March no 2" by John Cage
Performer:  Percussion Group Cincinnati ()
Conductor:  James Culley
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1951; USA 
Imaginary Landscape no 1 by John Cage
Performer:  Percussion Group Cincinnati (), Joey Van Hassel (Percussion)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1939; USA 
Imaginary Landscape no 2 "March no 1" by John Cage
Performer:  Percussion Group Cincinnati ()
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1942; USA 
Imaginary Landscape no 3 for 6 Percussionists by John Cage
Performer:  Percussion Group Cincinnati (), Matt Hawkins (Percussion), Mark Katsaounis (Percussion),
Jacent Mraz (Percussion)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1942; USA 

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