These two works from late in John Cage's life were shining examples of his thought process that wanted music to be free of harmony and imposing structure, allowing for a creative and self-disciplined kind of anarchy in music that would act as a model for society. What better way to accomplish this than through an orchestra, in this case, the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra. "Quartets I-VIII" is among Cage's most beautiful works. While there are no restrictions in the score for the number of performers, no more than four can be playing at any one time. None of them are in conscious harmony with one another. The sources of his material are eight early American hymns, all of them known as "shape note hymns." Shape note singing is notated by large drawings on paper for those who didn't read music so they could find the pitch. Harmony was not paid strict attention to; emotions, rather, were to inspire singers and listeners. Cage's lifelong disrespect for musical harmony is held in abeyance here, not because of the hymns -- which have been deconstructed and reconstructed using the I Ching for guidance -- themselves, but because in such a system, over such a large number of pitches and overtones, harmony is bound to occur, perhaps not in specific places, but the chances of it not happening are rare. In the recording, with so much left to the individual, it seems to occur more often that it does not, coming as it does from terribly fragmented material. The result is a shimmering, spare piece of emotional music that reflects the harmony of nature -- human nature. "Sixty Eight" is a curious and very different piece of music with an effect that is similar. The large ensemble must literally work together while thinking as independent people. The work consists of only 15 notes, each of which is to be played at the performer's discretion in a given time frame. Some of the common pitches in the cycle create an inexact kind of unison, which creates overtones and affects not only color but texture, and still subverts the notion of proper harmony. The silences between notes are the spaces where they are held, resonating until the next sound emerges. A wind machine is employed in places as an illustrative device of nature -- the wind blowing the old leaves away, or wiping footprints from the sand. The dynamic range is very slim in "Sixty Eight" as it is in "Quartets I-VIII," but this isn't all they have in common. They both share accidental encounters with harmony, both are quiet pieces to be played slowly, and they both are among the most lyrical works Cage ever composed.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek