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John Cage: Voice & Piano; Trombone & Piano; Violin & Piano

Schleiermacher / Cage / Seidel / Svoboda
Release Date: 11/13/2012 
Label:  Md&g (Dabringhaus & Grimm)   Catalog #: 6131765   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  John Cage
Performer:  Steffen SchleiermacherAnna ClementiMichael SvobodaAndreas Seidel
Number of Discs: 3 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

Reviews of some of the original recordings that make up this set:

With respected recordings of John Cage’s complete solo piano repertoire under his belt, Steffen Schleiermacher has already embarked on a series of chamber music recordings including the works for trombone and piano. Earlier works and some of his last number compositions are evidently under the spell of Erik Satie. This forms a thread between the two, though the differences clearly show the vast creative distances Cage had travelled in forty years. This disc represents Cage’s complete work for violin and piano.

Six Melodies has an attractive almost folk-music feel in the violin part. The six movements are more like a set of
Read more variations on a restricted range of notes and gestures. Thinking of the freer forms which Cage later explored, it might seem strange to hear him setting such strict tonal boundaries, but the booklet notes point out the dedication to Josef Albers and his wife Anni, the former of whose paintings obsessed with coloured squares of one kind or another, so the possibility of Cage’s seeking a similar set of ‘frames’ is not so very unlikely. The precision within which he worked is in any case a factor which continually arose when preparing performances during his lifetime, as I know from personal experience: “you’re doing it all wrong” is a quote for some reason I’ve been reluctant to add to my CV. Bearing in mind the exactitude of duration pieces like 4:33 or those later number pieces, you’ll find as clear a set of frames as ever there was with Cage.

In terms of chronology, Six Melodies is preceded by the compact Nocturne for Violin and Piano. Schleiermacher describes this piece as having an “impressionistically tinged” feel; possibly Van Gogh’s Café Terrace at Night, but only representing a magnified fragment of the deep sky, the music from inside heard in the distance, and sometimes barely perceived. This piece comes from the period in which Cage was discovering Erik Satie, to the extent of organising a festival dedicated to and defending the French composer. The ‘homage’ aspect of pieces from this period cannot be ignored. This is not an imitation of Satie, but it does hold some of that Greek Mythological stillness and objective freedom from direct emotional associations which suffuses many of that composer’s works.

It was forty years or so before John Cage was to return to the violin and piano combination, though in Two4 even Steffen Schleiermacher admits that this option is likely to have been something of a pragmatic compromise given the scarcity of sh? players in comparison to pianists. I’ve encountered Two 4 on the OgreOgress label in a fine performance by Tamami Tono (sh?) and Christina Fong (violins), and as one might expect, the piece sounds entirely different from the strike/sustain/decay quality of a piano note. The sound of the sh?, a reed organ blown by the mouth, is quite penetrating, but the atmosphere created remains contemplative. It’s a bit like a Japanese stone garden, the notes being stones of different qualities, and their effects rippling outwards like raked gravel. In the present recording we do have the contemplative, but in a less ethnically associative way, more generalised. I am a little dubious about the performance as well though this might just be my comparing disparate recordings. Each version will be different and there is no such thing as a ‘definitive’ performance, the score representing complete independence for both musicians. Silence should play an important part in this as well, but the duo here confront us with a ‘discovery’ of silence a third of the way into the piece. Here they stop for a whole minute’s break at 11.00, and seem more inclined to create longer silences later on. I’m not sure how much chance is built into this recording, but I am uneasy about the sense of balance and proportion in this regard - it’s like a musician realising they are getting through too much material too soon when the piece is set to last exactly 30 minutes. I am sure this is not the case with such consummate professionals, but the impression is there, and that - albeit marginally - bothers me.

Two 6 is Cage’s final listed composition, and brings us back to the Erik Satie theme - literally, since the bass line of Vexations is built into the piano part. Like Two 4, the musicians are provided abstract time schedules - empty spaces in fact, which have to be filled by the performers. If you know Vexations you will hear the familiar pattern in the piano almost immediately, though elongated and stretched to create a quasi-abstract note row, the counterpoint to this theme also used to throw in more complexity. As with the pianist, the violinist also has the choice of silence, as well as microtonal passages - the ‘out-of-tune’ notes, and double-stopping single sonorities derived from any of eight pitches being selected by chance operations. The sparseness of this music in a way makes it more ‘difficult’ than Two 4, which offers more variety in the multiple voices or chords in the piano part. The sustained notes of the violin in Two 6 are also a step further into a world of abstraction which will require something of a leap for many listeners. Anyone approaching these number pieces would do well to connect them to the philosophies which brought Cage to these compositional conclusions. “Wherever we are what we hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating.” In other words, don’t expect a conventional concert work, and don’t expect to experience it in anything like the same way as a conventional western piece for violin and piano. Listen without expectations but with a receptive ear and an open mind, as if eavesdropping on a whispered conversation. The ‘zen’ state is pretty much the only one to have in the presence of Cage’s number pieces, otherwise you might find yourself starting to become testy and irritable.

As usual with MDG we are given a fine recording, and in these musicians’ hands I do feel we are provided the best of guides in these pieces, despite my semi-reservations about the ‘scherzo’ beginning of Two 4. For a one-stop place to gather John Cage’s output for violin and piano I can’t think of a better location than this. For the really exotic experience of Two 4 with sh? I would however suggest the OgreOgress recording, though this is a DVD audio disc and not a normal CD.

-- Dominy Clements, MusicWeb International



Steffen Schleiermacher’s complete edition of the piano compositions of John Cage has been examined on these pages, and generally very well received. This set launched his career as a recording artist, and MDG sees this new release as a complement to his discography with what amounts to Cage’s complete work for piano and trombone.

Teamed with American trombonist Mike Svoboda, both musicians have written their own response to Cage and the works on this disc. It turns out that only Two5 is explicitly written for trombone, Variations I being for “any number of players and any sound producing means”, and Music for Two is only part of a work which can be performed with larger forces.

As with many of Cage’s late ‘number’ works, Two5 is a vast field of silences, sparse intervals, lonely and isolated notes. There is precision in the timings for each section – something which is reflected in the almost identical duration of the only other recorded version of this piece I could find, that on James Fulkerson’s album for the Etcetera label. There are also precise instructions for a variety of microintervals, but the ultimate effect is, and should be “absent minded, without regularity or presence.” The meditative 40 minute span contains elements of disorientation, such as the note being ‘bent’ subtly by the trombonist, which can sound strange enough in isolation, but against the piano can have a dramatic ‘out of tune’ effect. The span of tones used by the piano is restricted to a little over two octaves in the middle register. This might seem strange, but if you relate this to the range of an average human voice then it does make the piano part something less alien in terms of character. If you know Cage’s late ‘number’ pieces then you will have some frame of reference for appreciating this music as a slowly rotating kaleidoscope in which the notes gently drop at seemingly random moments against a black velvet background of silence.

The opening foghorn blast of the compact Variations I comes as a shock after Two5. This is one of those scores where the music is notated in terms of shapes, lines and dots, and in which the interpretation should change with each performance – based of course on a great deal of meticulous preparation. This duo’s approach is replete with avant-garde effects – vocal and Aeolian sounds through the trombone, with mutes also playing an important role in terms of sonority and colour. The piano strings are struck in a variety of ways, those with the keys of the piano being in a minority. In all, this sounds like a potent improvisation, which I can imagine was the effect Cage would have wanted though my confidence in this was entirely destroyed when we students were told by the composer that we were “doing it all wrong” with a similar score way back in the early 1980s. Even without Cage himself to cast his magic I very much have the sense of this being a strong performance, but it would be intriguing to have more than one performance, so that a more 3D sense of the parameters and variations in this kind of piece might be communicated.

The same goes for Music for Two, which is however notated in a more traditional way. This comes across in how the music is played – one senses the lines and phrases coming from a score rather than from a semi-spontaneous discovery which just happens to have been recorded. This is not to say that the music lacks spark and energy, and the startling contrasts and interactions between the instruments make for stimulating listening. There are some subtle effects, such as what sounds like a small handheld electric fan being allowed to create sustained notes on the piano strings. Michael Svoboda has a wealth of modern music credits, including being the trombone sound for Frank Zappa’s ‘Yellow Shark’ project with Ensemble Modern and a collaboration with Karlheinz Stockhausen, performing as soloist in part of the opera cycle LICHT. This security and depth of technical inventiveness and expertise comes across throughout this disc, and I especially love his intense vibrato-laden passion – only occasionally allowed to let rip, but nonetheless a fulsome experience each time. This piece gives the overall impression of having some kind of extreme serialist atonality as part of its structural basis, but Cage’s exploratory spirit is always ever-present, and elements of surprise and surrealist charm are never far away.

Two5 appears as recorded by James Fulkerson for the Etcetera label, coupled with Ryoanji and a version of Solo for sliding trombone, but a brief online search shows that few of the works on this disc have been readily available until now. The recording has all of the immediacy and clarity one would expect from MDG, and the texture and shapes in Cage’s music leap out from you speakers in full Technicolor. This is pretty much a disc for modern music aficionados, but those who appreciate Christian Lindberg’s pioneering trombone work via the BIS label can extend their depth of experience with this disc, both in terms of performance and programme.

-- Dominy Clements, MusicWeb International

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Works on This Recording

1.
Four Walls by John Cage
Performer:  Steffen Schleiermacher (Piano), Anna Clementi (Soprano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1944; USA 
Language: English 
2.
A Flower by John Cage
Performer:  Anna Clementi (Soprano), Steffen Schleiermacher (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1950; USA 
Language: English 
3.
The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs by John Cage
Performer:  Steffen Schleiermacher (Piano), Anna Clementi (Soprano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1942; USA 
Language: English 
4.
Nowth upon Nacht by John Cage
Performer:  Anna Clementi (Soprano), Steffen Schleiermacher (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1984; USA 
Language: English 
5.
Experiences 2 by John Cage
Performer:  Anna Clementi (Soprano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1948; USA 
Language: English 
6.
She is Asleep: Duet by John Cage
Performer:  Anna Clementi (Soprano), Steffen Schleiermacher (Prepared Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1943; USA 
Language: English 
7.
Two 5 for Trombone and Piano by John Cage
Performer:  Steffen Schleiermacher (Piano), Michael Svoboda (Trombone)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1991; USA 
Length: 40 Minutes 24 Secs. 
8.
Music for... by John Cage
Performer:  Michael Svoboda (Trombone), Steffen Schleiermacher (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1984-1988; USA 
Length: 29 Minutes 27 Secs. 
9.
Variations I, for any number of players and means by John Cage
Performer:  Steffen Schleiermacher (Piano), Michael Svoboda (Trombone)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1958; USA 
Length: 2 Minutes 51 Secs. 
10.
Melodies (6) for Violin and Keyboard by John Cage
Performer:  Andreas Seidel (Violin), Steffen Schleiermacher (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1950; USA 
Date of Recording: 10/01/2008 
Venue:  Ehemaliges Ackerhaus der Abtei Marienmün 
Length: 12 Minutes 7 Secs. 
11.
Two 4 for Violin and Piano/Sho by John Cage
Performer:  Steffen Schleiermacher (Piano), Andreas Seidel (Violin)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1991; USA 
Date of Recording: 10/01/2008 
Venue:  Ehemaliges Ackerhaus der Abtei Marienmün 
Length: 30 Minutes 15 Secs. 
12.
Nocturne for Violin and Piano by John Cage
Performer:  Steffen Schleiermacher (Piano), Andreas Seidel (Violin)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1947; USA 
Date of Recording: 10/01/2008 
Venue:  Ehemaliges Ackerhaus der Abtei Marienmün 
Length: 4 Minutes 18 Secs. 
13.
Two 6 for Violin and Piano by John Cage
Performer:  Steffen Schleiermacher (Piano), Andreas Seidel (Violin)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1992; USA 
Date of Recording: 10/01/2008 
Venue:  Ehemaliges Ackerhaus der Abtei Marienmün 
Length: 20 Minutes 3 Secs. 

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