The three works recorded here, two of them ("Fourteen" and "Ten") being first recordings, all come from the last decade of John Cage's life. "Ryoanji" has been recorded in its large ensemble format over an entire disc, but not quite like this version. The three pieces all employ microtonal music as their primary means of elucidating the musical text "Ten" is scored for flute, oboe, clarinet, trombone, percussion, two violins, viola, and violincello. As in "Ryoanji," the woodwinds, string quartet, and trombone play microtones. This work differs in that distinct pitches are used; they were determined by using a visual form of notation for the work. There are arrows pointing upwards or downwards that precede the notes in three different oppositions, low, middle, or high. Cage was able, by use of this method, to distinguish six different pitch levels between two conventional semitones -- no less than 84 pitches per octave. Except for the piano and the percussion, the payers all lay an overlapping range of a minor sixth each, which covers 64 microtones in all. Of the remaining parts, the percussionist uses ten preselected (by the performer) sounds and three categories of sounds from the piano, which are plucked notes from the inside, chords, and then sounds from the physical instrument itself, its construction. How does it add up? As a meditative study in tonality and its fluctuations, it's haunting and beautiful, with few seams but a number of surprises from the percussionist, pianist, and trombonist who explode when playing a note of short duration. In this version of "Ryoanji," the ensemble, comprised of only three players this time, is a bit slower and everything is played in the lower range. The duration of all notes, whether short or long, are left to the performer, and only the percussion is a constant. It is also played faster on this recording, never allowing for the passage of time to be noted or ignored. The microtonality expressed by the flute in playing the notes to the longest end of the prescribed range and the contrasted, deeper octaves of the trombone playing the shortest possible tones in what is allowed by the compositions few dictates. All of it is a glissandi that sounds like the events in nature happening upon one another rather than musical events transpiring according to plan. Finally, "Fourteen," composed in 1990 for the same number of players, Cage employed his "time brackets" system, which are chance distributed sequences of time periods -- different for each part of the score -- within which a sound or numerous sounds can take place. This is a kind of wounding of silence. The time brackets allow the musicians to vary the durations of their sounds from extremely long to extremely short. To encourage an equally beneficent kind of musical anarchy, Cage prescribed in his instructions certain ways in which instruments were to be played, such as the piano being bowed or having a bundle of horsehair pulled through its strings, and percussion being rubbed or bowed so as to disguise its relative sound and create a greater possibility in the durational range for color and texture. The overall density of the work is determined by five times of time brackets of different lengths, the substitution of silence for sounds, the substitution of various time brackets for silence itself and the variation of the number of sounds that occur during each time bracket. This creates a virtual kaleidoscope of sonic and tonal possibilities as well as spatial redistribution in the way sounds relate to one another freely, as single instruments or in groups. This trio of pieces reveals that at the end of his life, Cage was entering an entirely new phase of compositional development, as restless as ever, trying to get to the root of what may be unhearable.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek
Ten, for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, percussion, piano, 2 violins, viola & cello
Ryoanji, for voice, flute, oboe, trombone, contrabass, percussion, chamber orchestra & 2nd voice ad lib