John Cage: As it is (ECM New Series 2268)

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John Cage
As it is

Alexei Lubimov piano, prepared piano
Natalia Pschenitschnikova voice
Recorded December 2011, Radio Studio DRS, Zürich
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher

“turning from the tremendous lie of sleep
i watch the roses of the day grow deep.”
–e. e. cummings

The music of John Cage has an intimate, if sporadic, history on ECM, where its deepest proponents have been pianists Herbert Henck and Alexei Lubimov. The latter joins soprano Natalia Pschenitschnikova for this collection of early works. Both performers were fearless advocates of Cage in their native Russia at a time when Western music registered peripherally, if at all, on the Soviet radar. Since meeting Cage during the 1988 International Contemporary Music Festival in Leningrad, they have championed his music with a vitality that translates pristinely in the present recording. Here is the portrait of a jovial man who took pleasure in the edible, the empty, in the unpretentious.

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The solo piano Dream opens the program with a meditation in the vein of Cage’s In a landscape, only with a more circumscribed palette. It is a painting in miniature, a raking of stones, an attunement to the way things are. It is at once an organic and calculated introduction into a universe dictated not only by chance but also by the hands of musicians, producers, and engineers. One can locate this triangulation elsewhere in Lubimov’s pianism, which infuses the occasional prepared piano piece with bells, pulses, and, somehow, solitude. Both The Unavailable Memory of and Music for Marcel Duchamp are quintessential examples of what the instrument can do, and Lubimov does a fine job showing that it is not a piano augmented but its own entity. Multifarious and adaptive, the music it produces is a dance without bodies.

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While the solo repertoire included on this disc moves with the quality of cinematic tracking shots, accepting whatever comes into frame, the introduction of voice slashes the screen so slowly that by the time backlight seeps through, it’s already too late to repair. Cage would surely have welcomed the glow. James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake provides the texts for The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs, which Pschenitschnikova navigates as though on the verge of tears. As Lubimov hits the piano in microscopic footsteps, words cease to matter and extend tendrils far beyond their semantic shelters. Unlike Cathy Berberian, who gave the piece her lusciously operatic flair, Pschenitschnikova strips her voice bare and finds fresh physicality in its nakedness. Even when singing wordlessly, as in A Flower or She is Asleep, her powers of illustration are no less potent. And when she does elicit meaning from lips and tongue, it is already fragmented. The poetry of e. e. cummings lends itself permeably to Cage’s aesthetic proclivities, and the performers adapt themselves in kind. Pschenitschnikova sings at the back of the room in Experiences No. 2, for example, to beautifully unsettling effect. The programmatic Five Songs (also setting cummings) show the playfulness that was integral to Cage’s character. With such titles as “little four paws” and “Tumbling hair,” they make much of the little things in life that grasp the scarcest rungs of memory. (The final “wheeEEE” of “hist whist” conjures up cummings’s goat-footed balloon man.) Even the Rubik’s cube of Gertrude Stein (Three Songs) becomes transformed in Pschenitschnikova’s affected interpretation. As does Nowth upon nacht, which mines Joyce in a string of single notes and the slam of a piano lid. It’s a gem in the Cage catalogue, one all the more difficult to perform for its brevity and compactness of expression. It hasn’t sounded this vibrant since Joan La Barbara recorded it for New Albion in 1990.

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Always comforting about Cage’s music is its attention to inhalation, the storehouse of emotion from which issues his cellular melodies. We can hear this in the Two Pieces for Piano, which together form roots and stem. Like the Dream in variation, which ends the program by redrawing the circle until it becomes a sphere, they wait behind closed eyes for life to begin.

(To hear samples of As it is, click here.)

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