John Cage: The Seasons (ECM New Series 1696)



John Cage
The Seasons

Margaret Leng Tan prepared piano, toy piano
American Composers Orchestra
Dennis Russell Davies conductor
Recorded January 1997, SUNY Purchase Performing Arts Center Theatre A, New York
Engineer: Gregory Squires
Produced by Manfred Eicher

“The responsibility of the artist consists in perfecting his work so that it may become attractively disinteresting.”
–John Cage

The Seasons brings together not a few major firsts. It is the first ECM appearance for John Cage (reason enough to own this disc) as well as for longtime friend and interpreter, pianist Margaret Leng Tan. It also contains the premier recording of Seventy-Four, Cage’s first orchestral score, played and conducted by the very musicians to whom it was dedicated. The other compositions featured here date from before the composer’s allegiance to “non-intention” and indicate a mind priming itself for enlightened calm.

Seventy-Four (1992) was named for the number of musicians set to perform it and, with the assistance of Lou Harrison and Virgil Thomson in the scoring, was to be one of the composer’s last pieces. The musicians at the orchestra’s outer rim determine time signatures at their own whim, thereby eliciting a markedly different performance every time around its composed center. Its first strains reach our ears almost unexpectedly in a rendering that combines total abreaction with superb “breath” control. Like a wheel that never stops turning, it renews itself with every revolution. In many ways, such a piece showcases what an orchestra is truly capable of, what distinguishes it from other instrumental groupings as the fragile collective that it is. Certain colors stand out, such as those painted by a silvery violin and the fluttering cello toward the piece’s conclusion, both drowned in the overwhelming totality of its sound.

Although the current orchestral version of The Seasons (1947) differs significantly from that for solo piano, we find the same red thread running through its core. This “considered improvisation” was a commission for New York City’s Ballet Society and prompted at least one critic to herald Cage as one of the twentieth century’s greatest orchestral colorists. Working in both painterly and programmatic modes, each of its gestures leaves a delible mark. Winter may fall like a snowflake, but it is also subject to unexpected gales and flash blizzards; Spring is an earthquake enhanced by the delicate trills of its aftershocks; Summer is a shimmering mass of good intentions gone rancid in a blinding glare; and Fall curls up like a cosmic roly-poly into a tight defensive sphere.

Although the prepared piano is one of Cage’s most immediately recognizable innovations, there remains an innocence about its construction, stemming as it does from that incomparable urge to leave one’s creative signature, however fleeting, on the immediate environment. The prepared pianist’s manipulations merely accentuate the indeterminacy of the musical act through an audible catalogue. As a centerpiece of the Concerto for Prepared Piano (1950/51), it is like a box that has been broken and rearranged. The music is a fractal, becoming ever more microscopic toward the edges. Very little marks one movement from another, for the pauses between them are shorter than those integrated into the movements proper, nothing more than inhalations to greater heavenly circulations.

Because Cage’s world is defined so much by chance (or is it the other way around?), the alternate version of Seventy-Four that follows becomes a wholly new utterance, suitably cleansing our palates for the whimsical Suite for Toy Piano (1948), which conjoins not a few contradictory creative processes. On the one hand, we have an instrument that is not normally defined as such, an object that has been subjectively removed from its intended context. The musician must, in a sense, retrain herself when learning its rules, for anyone who has experimented with a toy piano at the “appropriate” age must incorporate an entirely new layer of formal training into what was once an informal desire. It is a delightful inversion of the classical paradigm that manages to hold its own throughout, so that when we hear the same piece suddenly re-imagined for orchestra, it almost seems to lose something of its musicality as it slips into a new aural skin. The fourth movement is particularly beautiful in its transposed form.

There are some who believe that recording Cage is an antithetical project, that committing just one of infinite possibilities to record destroys the beauty of its indeterminacy. And yet, as one who enlarged and ruptured the musical landscape like no other, Cage has found a comfortable home on The Seasons, one that I am sure welcomes any incidental sonic guests that may happen to drop by during the listening.

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