About this Recording
8.559773 - CAGE, J.: Flute Works (Complete), Vol. 1 (Zenz)

John Cage (1912–1992)
Complete Works for Flute • 1


A composer whose innovative work and unorthodox ideas have profoundly affected Western music during the latter half of the twentieth century, John Cage was born on 5 September 1912 in Los Angeles and died on 12 August 1992 in New York City. Son of an inventor, he attended Pomona College then travelled around Europe. Returning to the United States in 1931, he studied music with Richard Buhlig, Arnold Schoenberg, Adolph Weiss, and Henry Cowell. While teaching in Seattle during 1938–40, he also organized percussion ensembles to perform his compositions. He also experimented with dance, his collaborations with the choreographer and dancer Merce Cunningham sparked a lengthy and creative partnership.

Cage’s early pieces were written in a variant of the 12-note method espoused by his teacher Schoenberg, but in 1939 he began to experiment with often unorthodox instruments such as the prepared piano (a piano modified by placing objects between the strings to produce new and unexpected sound effects). He also experimented with tape recorders, record players and radios in his effort to move outside the bounds of existing Western music and its concepts of meaningful sound. The concert he gave at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in 1943 marked the first significant step in his emergence as a leader of American new music.

Cage subsequently turned to Zen Buddhism and other Eastern philosophies, concluding that all musical activities could be seen as part of a single natural process. He came to regard all sounds as potentially musical, and encouraged audiences to take note of all sonic phenomena, rather than those elements selected by the composer. To this end he cultivated the principle of indeterminism in his music. He used devices to ensure randomness and eliminate any element of personal taste on the part of the performer, along with sequences of events determined by random means such as consultation with the Chinese I Ching. In his later works he extended these freedoms across other media, such that one performance of a specific piece cannot be judged in the context of another—thus establishing uniqueness by eschewing individuation.

Cage left a vast output which, almost by definition, is often difficult to classify generically. Among his best known works are 4’33’’ (1952), in which the performer(s) remains utterly silent onstage for that amount of time; Imaginary Landscape No. 4 (1951) for 12 randomly tuned radios, 24 performers and conductor; Sonatas and Interludes (1946–48) for prepared piano; Fontana Mix (1958), based on a series of programmed transparent cards that, when superimposed, yield a graph for the random selection of electronic sounds; Cheap Imitation (1969), an ‘impression’ of the music of Erik Satie; and Roaratorio (1979), a mixed-media composition utilizing thousands of words selected from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. He published several books, including Silence: Lectures and Writings (1961) and M: Writings ’67–’72 (1973). His influence extended to such composers as Earle Brown, Lejaren Hiller, Morton Feldman, and Christian Wolff, and his work has been recognized as seminal in the development of traditions ranging from minimalist and electronic music to performance art.

This recording is the first of two [the second is on Naxos 8.559774] that includes all Cage’s works for flute, even if the idea of writing ‘for’ a specific instrument needs to be taken advisedly.

Cage wrote Ryoanji in 1984, and named it after the rock garden in Kyoto. Around this time, oboist James Ostryniec asked Cage to write a piece for him, which resulted in a series. These solos are accompanied by a percussion or similar orchestral part. Each one is a series of eight songs (with the exception of that for voice, which has nine). A song is created on two pages, each with two rectangular systems. In each Cage traces parts of the perimeters of the given stones, these to be played as glissandi within the given pitch ranges. In some places contours overlap; in which case, one or more tape recordings are used, with which the soloist plays as a duet or trio. The percussion part is a complex of two unspecified sounds, played in unison. The soloist represents the stones of the garden, the accompaniment the sand surrounding them.

The present version starts with irregular taps on percussion, against which solo flute unfolds an undulating and eastern-tinged melody line permeated by microtonal inflection. It continues at length, and is joined unobtrusively by the pre-recorded flutes as the texture becomes more diverse and intricate. Gradually this latter thins out, as solo and pre-recorded flutes pursue an oblique dialogue in which gaps between musical phrases often assume equal importance with the phrases. The ending, on percussion alone, is at one with the spirit of this piece as a whole.

Two (1987) is the first in Cage’s ‘number’ series. Its two parts each has 10 time-brackets, the eighth of which is fixed and the others flexible. The piano part is notated on two staves—one played in the given order, and the notes being played in any relation to the sounds in the other staff. The flute part consists of predominantly soft and low tones. Each time-bracket here has only one tone, with a total of three different pitches heard over the total duration of the work. Detached and often deliberate piano chords presage the arrival of the flute, whose understated writing still provides a formal continuity that might otherwise be lacking given the unequal spacing and unpredictable resonance of the piano chords. Tonally the piece has a fair degree of dissonance, though the prevailing mood of edgy rumination holds good through to the end.

Among Cage’s earliest works, Three Pieces for Flute Duet (1935) consists of studies in two-part chromatic writing. The first is a brief canonic dance, the second unfolds a more complex dialogue between instruments, while the third focusses on unresolved harmonic dissonance.

Music for Two is one of the Music for … series (1984/87). Each work consists of 17 parts for voice and instruments without an overall score. Each of these parts consists of ‘pieces’ and ‘interludes’, notated on two systems with flexible time-brackets. Some of these ‘pieces’ are made up of single held tones, preceded and followed by silence, and should be played softly. Others consist of series of tones with various pitches, notated proportionally. The ‘interludes’, which last 5, 10 or 15 seconds apiece, are to be played freely with respect to dynamics and durations of single notes; also normally with respect to timbre. The piano part is played by bowing the strings with a fishing line or horse hair. The players may decide on the number of ‘pieces’ and ‘interludes’ to be performed, resulting in a maximum duration of 30 minutes.

Music for Two begins with piano resonance, against which the flute sets up a tenuous dialogue which is soon interrupted by plangent chords in the upper register. Following a more inward passage, again centred on piano resonance, the dialogue becomes more animated as forceful piano chords are countered by multi-phonic writing on the flute. This duly evens out into a more remote yet inwardly intense interaction where both instruments assume the foreground in what is a constant process of incremental change. Just beyond the half-way point, a further series of forceful chords on piano leads into what is the nearest thing to an equal exchange of ideas, but this gradually becomes increasingly sparse when the flute ascends towards the top of its compass while the piano largely withdraws until its stark chordal sequences at the close.

Richard Whitehouse

This recording of collected works by John Cage involving the flute is a world première. The works included on CD 1 / 8.559773 and CD 2 / 8.559774 span a period of over 50 years, ranging from pieces composed for flute duet, flute and percussion, flute and piano (CD 1) to pieces for solo flutes, flute duet, flute trio, alto flute, piano, vibraphone, and alto flute, two pianos, two vibraphones (CD 2), not originally specified for the flute but for variable instrumentation, thus providing a new musical diversity for the flute repertoire.

The beauty and expressiveness of Cage’s music lies in intimate situations, serving a specific spiritual purpose, which should “sober and quiet the mind thus rendering it susceptible to divine influences,” as Cage says himself.

To discover the most appropriate way to embody the complex structural idea of each piece I had to undertake a truly unusual effort: each piece indicates a set of numerous instructions, which imply at the same time freedom and the aesthetic of chance, and where a mosaic of choices has to be determined, even though these allow total freedom regarding the attitude of playing. I explored on the flute a multitude of sounds, treating them all as “equally useful”, completely independent from one another, free of memory and taste, free of musical judgment other than being attractive. This combined a creative and challenging engagement, with the discipline and responsibility of a highly demanding technical task as a performer.

Therefore, each performance results in an “once-only” interpretation, as it happens in the present recorded versions of Ryoanji, Two and Music for Two.

Music for Two, written for any combination of the 17 different instrumental “parts without score” provided by John Cage (by which he means that each performer plays his music independently), has here been determined as a new piece for flute and piano.

Moreover, the selection of the works on the present recording—as well as the choice and combination of instruments—results from my personal research and appreciation: the ones chosen seemed the most musically apposite.

I would like to address my special thanks to Greek composer Anargyros Deniosos, who contributed to an important extent to the overall concept of the production.

Katrin Zenz

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