About this Recording
8.559774 - CAGE, J.: Flute Works (Complete), Vol. 2 (Zenz)

John Cage (1912–1992)
Complete Works for Flute • 2


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 5th September 1912 in Los Angeles and died on 12th 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 sparking 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 second of two [the first is on Naxos 8.559773] that includes all Cage’s works for flute, even if the idea of writing ‘for’ a specific instrument needs to be taken advisedly.

Solo for Flute, Alto Flute and Piccolo is derived from pages 133–144 of the Concert for Piano and Orchestra (1958). That work comprises 63 pages to be performed, whole or in part and in any sequence, involving 84 types of composition. There is no score, but rather a collection of highly detailed parts. Any performance may include all of the instruments, while the work may also be played as a solo, duet, trio, etc. Notation uses a system wherein space is relative to time. The amount of time is determined by the musician then altered during performance, by the conductor, whose role is to act as a chronometer on the podium whose arms simulate the movement of the hands of a clock. The composing means involved chance operations, as well as the use of the imperfections found in the paper upon which the music was written.

The present piece commences with tensile gestures that, along with the three instruments specified, also includes interjections for voice and numerous percussive sounds. Gradually the writing extends to longer and more expressive phrases, with a willingness to exploit the registral and dynamic extremes of each instrument. Multiphonic writing is also deployed extensively, though these passages also denote a tendency for the music to head into more inward emotions as the piece gradually heads into a pervasive if far from tranquil silence.

Solo with Obbligato Accompaniment of Two Voices in Canon, and Six Short Inventions on the Subject of the Solo (1933–34) is among Cage’s earliest pieces. Each of the voices is limited to a specific two-octave range, with the composer striving to maintain an extreme distance between repetitions of tones. Once all 25 notes have appeared, another presentation begins, and so on, through the entire piece. The ‘Solo’ (longer than all the ‘Inventions’ combined) proceeds as a graceful if lengthy melodic line on alto flute, with a caressing accompaniment for vibraphone and piano. The ensuing ‘Inventions’ are a discreet sequence of variations in which the initial theme is not so much systematically developed or evolved as reevaluated from a number of varying perspectives, with the music’s initial poise maintained throughout.

Composition for Three Voices (1934) is a chromatic composition that deals with maintaining extreme distances between the repetitions of tones over the ranges of all three instruments. It unfolds as a free fantasia, the polyphony wending its intricate way toward a ruminative close.

Sonata for Two Voices (1933) is another chromatic composition dealing with similar issues. Each voice is heard within a specific two-octave range, while the 25 notes are played without repetition. Once all have been heard, another presentation begins, and so on, across the piece. The opening ‘Sonata’ is a lively and not a little obstreperous piece with extensive imitative writing, while the central ‘Fugato’ focusses upon a plaintive melodic line that gently runs its course, before the final ‘Rondo’ likewise features a refrain the more prominent for its brevity.

The title Hymnkus (1986) combines two words—Hymn and Haikus. Hymn is reflected in the parts, which are made up of repeated verses, while Haikus is significant as each of the verses consists of 17 events. These events are played (or sung) 4, 5, or 6 times, with varying tempi. There are 14 parts, but no overall score. These parts may be played either as solos or in any combination, yet the music belies such freedom by the very focus of its form and expression.

The work opens with a pensive discourse for the ensemble, in which isolated phrases on alto flute are complemented by equally dislocated responses from the vibraphones and pianos. At length the discourse grows more animated and the exchanges more continuous, with the pairs of ‘accompanying’ instruments coalescing into perceptible rhythmic patterns such as form a cohesive backdrop for the alto flute’s pensive musings. Activity slows discreetly towards the mid-point, with the flute’s phrases becoming more inward and the percussive backdrop more evenly spaced, and this continues through to the later stages. What remains consistent is the sense of music in a state of continual and unpredictable change, as though the sound sources were venturing through a kaleidoscopic process whose ending is at once definite yet arbitrary.

Richard Whitehouse

This recording of collected works by John Cage involving the flute is a world première. The works included on CD 1 & CD 2 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 offering 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 make 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, most performances result in an “once-only” interpretation, as it happens in the present recorded versions of Solo for Flute, Alto Flute and Piccolo and Hymnkus.

In Solo for Flute, Alto Flute and Piccolo Cage’s instructions for the indeterminate notations are accelerated and intensified—furthermore they have served as a source for almost every composition Cage written between 1958 and 1961.

The detailed instructions provide a wide range of possibilities in freely defining different playing styles, timbres, dynamics, as well as the duration of sound and silence, and the use of free elements and unusual effects. For this recording six out of twelve pages have been chosen; they present an astonishing variety of playing techniques which succeed one another rapidly, alternating between piccolo, flute and alto flute: variable vibrato and non-vibrato playing, tonguing variations and flutter tonguing, trills and tremolos, microtonal alterations and glissandi, key noises, extended dynamic range, multiphonics, whistling, singing, and free interval sounds—for the latter I chose the percussive sounds of pebbles which I collected from the Greek Aegean Sea.

Solo with Obbligato Accompaniment of Two Voices in Canon, and Six Short Inventions on the Subject of the Solo (1933–34) is written for any three or more instruments encompassing the range g to gII. The second part, without the solo, was rearranged by Cage in 1958 with the assistance of David Tudor as Six Short Inventions for small ensemble. In this arrangement for alto flute, vibraphone and piano, tempo indications and dynamic marks have been transcribed from Cage’s instrumentation.

Composition for Three Voices (1934) is written for any three or more instruments, each voice is limited to a specific two-octave range: I dI–dIII; II a–aII; III d–dII. It has been determined here as a trio for flute, alto flute and bass flute. The ranges of each 25 notes overlap, there is no specific ordering of the notes and the voices proceed more or less independently. Though it is more a study in counterpoint, completely focused on pitch and rhythm, the motives are full of awkward wide leaps and the rhythmic complexity is bewildering.

Sonata for Two Voices (1933) is written for any two or more instruments encompassing the ranges: I cI–cIII; II c–cII, the two voices have one octave in common. The melodic content of the piece, its varied rhythmic and intervallic gestures are captured here as a dialogue between flute and bass flute.

In Hymnkus all voices share a common chromatic range from g to d1 (a perfect fifth) and the amplitude range p–mf, arranged for alto flute, two pianos and two vibraphones. The lengths of the given repetitions of each “17 tone-event” verse are: slow (1 min.), medium (45 secs.), or fast (30 secs.). Each change in length signifies a change in speed of every verse’s component, and even though the relative proportions remain the same, the character of the playing is affected. The varying repetitions among the instrumental parts differ, thus the instruments do not necessarily move to subsequent verses at the same time. A sense of time-flow with irregular texture arises, resulting in a beautiful poetic echoing.

The arrangements of Solo with Obbligato Accompaniment of Two Voices in Canon, and Six Short Inventions on the Subject of the Solo, Composition for Three Voices, Sonata for Two Voices and Hymnkus, all effectively new works, are world première recordings.

Last but not least, 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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