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John CAGE (1912-1992)
Voice and Piano.
Four Walls. A Flower. Experiences II. She is asleep. The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs. Nowth upon Nacht.

Anna Clementi (voice); Steffen Schleiermacher (piano).
Recorded in Fürstliche Reitbahn Bad Arolsen on November 20th-22nd, 2000. [DDD]

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Dabringhaus und Grimm’s series of Cage piano music is an outstanding addition to the catalogue, and this disc of music for voice merely reiterates the hypnotic beauty and seemingly endless invention of this composer’s music. The excellent vocalist (voice ranges do not mean much in reference to this music) is Anna Clementi, the daughter of composer Aldo Clementi (who incidentally was an acquaintance of Cage).

Whereas Cage’s piano music takes up a multiplicity of discs, the works for voice and piano can be accommodated on one. And a fascinating disc it is, too. Here is a record that invites (or even necessitates) repeated listening for the pieces to slowly yield their secrets to the listener.

Four Walls, which takes up just under an hour of the total playing time, was written for a choreography for Merce Cunningham. It was premiered in August 1944, but seems to have been pretty much neglected since. Satie-influenced in its emphasis on repetition of certain chords and sequences, it limits itself to the white keys of the piano, voice and piano are not even heard together: the vocal contribution is limited to a solo ‘Interlude’ of under three minutes’ duration to a text by Cunningham (texts are unfortunately not included), so the emphasis is laid most definitely at Schleiermacher’s door. As always, this pianist plays with the utmost sensitivity. He is clearly steeped in this music and it is from this that his ability to communicate stems. Much of Four Walls is deceptively simple and Schleiermacher has the ability to make this element speak volumes: he plays single lines absolutely compellingly. No less impressive, and intimately related to this, is the fact that silences (as always an integral part of Cage’s musical lexicon) are grippingly held. Cage’s gripping use of registral extremes (nowhere more excitingly heard than in the final Scene XII) is most telling. Throughout one can hear the care Schleiermacher put in to this performance. He exudes total concentration; the voicing and weighting of his chords is consistently fascinating; his repetition of Cage’s obsessively repeated units is hypnotic.

Anna Clementi has much more to do in the remaining pieces on the disc. A Flower (1950, wordless) and The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs (1942, text James Joyce, from Finnigan’s Wake) are both written for ‘Voice and Closed Piano’: the pianist’s role is to drum precisely-notated rhythms out on the piano-lid (quite simple in the former piece, more complex in the latter). The effect is of voice accompanied by muted bongos, whose rhythms comment upon but never overtly contradict the vocal patterns. A Flower includes some witty ‘quacking’ noises from the vocalist, but its main effect is almost of a vocal imitation of a shakuhachi, the disembodied meanderings of the vocal line almost impossibly beautiful.

Clementi despatches the solo Experiences II (1944-48, text e. e. cummings) with an artless simplicity that gives it a true folk-music quality, the only difference being the (typically Cageian) long silences between verses. She is asleep (1943, for voice and prepared piano) is part of an unfinished composition. The pianist’s part is based on only four notes (the piece lasts 6.54), but Cage’s manipulation of these pitches and the voice (including vocal effects) is gripping.

What many people interpret as typical Cage is seen in the overt gesturalism of Nowth upon Nacht (1984, text James Joyce, in memoriam Cathy Berberian). The pianist’s role is to slam the piano-lid three times. The first inaugurates the piece, followed by half shouted-half screamed declamation of Joyce’s text. Perhaps Anna Clementi’s response is not quite as visceral as Cage intended it, but it’s close. Indeed, throughout Anna Clementi’s contribution is as sensitive as it is wide-ranging. She can capture the artless simplicity of the folk-song like pieces as easily as the more demanding, demonstrative ones.

Schleiermacher’s devotion to this repertoire is obvious. His technique seems to know no bounds (see also my review of his disc of music of the Darmstadt School, also on Dabringhaus and Grimm), and he has immersed himself in Cage’s world so much that this music comes out as second nature.

This Dabringhaus und Grimm issue would actually serve as a perfect one-disc introduction to the world of John Cage, and hopefully will direct listeners in the direction of the rest of their ongoing Cage project. Unhesitatingly recommended.

Colin Clarke

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