John Cage (1912-1992)
Music for Three (three versions for horn, violin and piano) (1984)
Music for One (three versions for solo horn, solo violin, solo piano) (1984)
Přemysl Vojta (horn), Ye Wu (violin), Florence Millet (piano)
rec. 2022, WDR Klaus-von-Bismarck-Saal, Cologne, Germany
CAvi-Music AVI8553532 [63]

This intriguing new disc comprises of an iteration (or rather half a dozen iterations) of John Cage’s Music for….’thing’, conceived by the New York School luminary in 1984. Designed for a variable (ie unspecified) ensemble, I hesitate to designate it as a ‘piece’ or ‘work’ given that the permutations for its realisation are infinite.Rather than waste time attempting to paraphrase the ‘rules’ (my word) for its performance, please allow me to head straight to the truly astonishing website (surely worth an indeterminate amount of your time at the very least, especially if you’re an admirer) and to quote the salient points directly from the horse’s mouth, as it were:

“This work consists of 17 parts for voice and instruments without overall score. Its title is to be completed by adding the number of performers, i.e. Music for Five, Music for Twelve, and so forth. Each part consists of “pieces” and “interludes,” notated on two systems and using flexible time-brackets. Some of the “pieces” are made up of single held tones, preceded and followed by silence, and should be played softly; they can also be repeated. Others consist of sequences of tones with various pitches, notated proportionally. Tones in these parts are not to be repeated and have varying dynamics, timbres, and durations. The “Interludes”, lasting 5, 10, or 15 seconds, are to be played freely with respect to dynamics and durations of single notes, and normally with respect to timbre. The work uses microtonal pitches. The piano is played by bowing the strings with fishing line or horse hair…. string parts follow the notation of Freeman Etudes. The players may decide on the number of “pieces” and “interludes” to be performed, resulting in a maximum duration of thirty minutes.”

For the sake of clarity the Freeman Etudes referred to above are an earlier, incomplete sequence of harrowing complexity composed by Cage for the violinist Paul Zukofsky. It’s important also to note the sentence directly preceding this synopsis:

“…Prts (sic) available for Voice, Fl, Ob, Cl, Hrn, Trp, Trm, Perc(4), 2 Pfs, 2 Vns, Va, and Vc”

For the purposes of the recording under consideration, Ye Wu selected the first of the two available parts for violin, whilst Florence Millet similarly chose the first of the two possible piano parts.

Notwithstanding all of this, I would implore curious readers or prospective listeners to worry less about the mechanics of the concept and focus on the captivating sounds which emerge. The motivation behind this enterprising disc is enthusiastically shared in the booklet note by the three outstanding instrumentalists. In essence the repertoire for horn trio is hardly extensive and tailoring Cage’s extraordinary blueprint for their own ends seemed pragmatic, aesthetically satisfying and in common with similar adventures involving Mr Cage, improbably ‘groovy’, a characteristic which I suspect informs some of the moody poses the performers adopt in the cover art. In fact, the trio originally tested the possibilities offered by Music For… by including a five minute ‘sampler’ version on their previous AVI release of modern horn trios (by Abrahamsen, Ligeti, Koechlin and Hermann Schroeder- AVI8553522) so the validity of the phrase ‘World Premiere Recordings” which proudly adorns the cover of this issue seems a bit dubious. But as this is Cage, maybe the idea of a ‘world premiere recording’ can be interpreted more loosely…

The first of the three versions of Music for Three presented here extends to fifteen minutes; it precedes alternative takes of ten and 26 minutes respectively. A three chord piano fanfare heralds a sequence of long notes played by horn and violin of varying degrees of colour, attack, dynamic and expression. The effect is surprisingly haunting and accessible, not least due to Cage’s requirement for the pianist to intermittently produce sustained notes via the application of a bow across the piano strings. This creates an especially eerie, muffled timbre. The violinist Ye Wu seems to revel in her music, which in terms of the effects produced –most obviously double stopping, and portamenti (incorporating the microtonal element) seems the most demanding to play. A brief hiatus at the ten minute point triggers more brittle, dry chords in the piano. At no point does this music actually sound random or incidental; it relies completely upon the judicious, tasteful interpretative choices made by the players. With that in mind, it is perhaps unsurprising that one could easily imagine this music to have been a fully notated horn trio.

Three iterations (one for each player) of Music for One are interpolated amongst the trios. First up, Ye Wu’s 5 minute violin solo seems fully formed, logical and rather beautiful. Silvery phrases are separated by silences of varying length. I didn’t anticipate the lyricism that her reading absolutely exudes. She is recorded in a warmly atmospheric acoustic.

At ten minutes, the second version of Music for Three is the briefest. An elongated tone on the violin and a three note horn motif kick things off here; a long-drawn bowed piano sound fleshes out the texture. The more frequent pauses/silences here make the phrases in this iteration appear more clipped and diffuse in the first half although both violin and horn engage in brief lyrical outbursts. The overall effect is one of compression. The emergent sounds are never turgid though; there is still considerable flow and a compelling narrative. Přemysl Vojta’s superbly projected horn playing dominates the last couple of minutes. Appropriately, it leads into Vojta’s brief but imaginative take on Music for One. After 125 seconds of flawless control and commanding dynamics this little interlude ends abruptly and all too quickly.

The most extensive take on Music for Three follows and falls just short of the half hour maximum duration stipulated by Cage. It begins tentatively, with sustained notes from all three protagonists – the textures open out very gradually. But once the process is underway the arc of this iteration is packed with incident, variety, interaction and colour. Most of the time the instrumentalists play alone, as if engaging in a slow-motion call and response. The extended duration provides space for the listener to truly appreciate the vital importance of the act of listening on the part of the three instrumentalists. The ability of each of them to think so swiftly on their feet is a source of wonder in this final iteration. Playing of such fluency (most notably by Wu and Vojya – Florence Millet’s role in all three versions seems primarily concerned with providing some atmospheric or percussive counterpoint to the long-breathed sounds from violin or horn; towards the end of this version her bowing contributions are far more to the fore) might reasonably trigger the question – “to what degree is such music composed or improvised?”.  In other words, by following Cage’s specifications, are Vojta, Millet and Wu actually composing the music themselves as well as playing it?  This long version of Music for Three seems the most compelling and involving to my ears. Each sonic event, gesture and silence seems to fit its context perfectly, the flow of events seems inevitable, and ultimately Ye Wu’s claim in the booklet that “…horn, piano and violin, with their differing timbres, offer the perfect line-up for this music” seems to be triumphantly vindicated.

Florence Millet signs the album off with a gnomic piano reading of Music for One. It relies in the main upon the bowing strategies referred to above. It constitutes an ideal conclusion to what proved in my case to be a most enjoyable hour of intensive listening. The musicianship throughout is exceptional whilst the AVI engineers have succeeded spectacularly in making music which might easily seem forbidding or even academic to many potential listeners come vividly and even movingly to life. The information in the booklet is just enough; most of it is conveyed via interviews with the three talented players. It all adds up to a hearty recommendation from me, and not just to those who already expect the unexpected from Cage.

Richard Hanlon

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