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John Cage, "Shock Vol.1"/"Shock Vol.2"/"Shock Vol.3"

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cover imageThese three albums document a historical tour of Japan by John Cage in 1962. Accompanied by David Tudor, they join a number of similarly minded Japanese composers and artists in presenting a fascinating program of Cage’s own music and compositions along with Japanese and other international composers. The result is not so much a culture clash as an allying of forces against tradition. Yet, it seems a little cynical to me to promote these releases as John Cage releases when in fact they offer up a wealth of non-Cage compositions and performances (Tudor seems to be more central to the tour than Cage even!). Be that as it may, these are a powerful collection of recordings of an almost mythic tour.

EM Records / Omega Point

Shock Vol. 1 opens with Toru Takemitsu’s Corona for Pianists, which is very much indebted to Cage’s own indeterminate pieces for piano. Here Tudor performs with Yuji Takahashi, both pianists using extended technique to wrestle sounds from the piano that are outside the usual realm of the pianist. While the results are not as ear-opening as something like the prepared piano or even something like Charlemagne Palestine’s Strumming Music, Takemitsu’s piece at least demonstrates how the ideas of the New York school were not confined to the usual list of experimental composers in the West. In fact, the way that Corona for Pianists stealthily leads into the following piece, Christian Wolff’s Duo for Pianist & Violinist highlights that these global connections were stronger than expected based on my usual reading of contemporary composition (for example Alex Ross’ fantastic book The Rest is Noise still takes a largely western perspective on what was far from just a western phenomenon).

The first Cage piece in the Shock series comes in the form of Variations II, performed here by Tudor and Cage himself. Other recordings of this piece have veered towards the raucous but here the spaces between the sounds predict Cage’s work in later years, particularly those of some of his Number Pieces (see here for a review of The Number Pieces 6). An occasional cough, the hiss of the recording tape and the sound of the performers shuffling around on the stage are as important here as the brutal piano and electronic amplification. The same constant noise found on some other recordings pales in comparison to this masterful use of punctuated activity.


cover imageKarlheinz Stockhausen’s Klavierstück X is the first piece on Shock Vol. 2, a piece initially dedicated to and meant to be performed by Tudor in 1961. Beaten to the premiere by a week by Frederic Rzewski in Palermo. The piece sees Stockhausen’s use of serialism knocked down and re-imagined in a complex, difficult way. It sounds almost like some of Cecil Taylor’s free jazz experiments but with a heavier, cloying sound. While I admire Stockhausen’s electronic works (and his incredibly ambitious ideas like the Helicopter String Quartet from the Licht series of operas), his works for piano have never excited me in the same way. As such, presenting Klavierstück X in the middle of a program of far more interesting piano works only serves to highlights the slightly stifling nature of Stockhausen’s piece; too many parameters and too many instructions that can only hem in a pianist rather than allow them the room to develop.

The rest of Vol. 2 is given over to Cage’s 26'55.988" for 2 Pianists & A String Player. The piece is a combination of two separate works, one for two pianists and another for a string player in which Cage specifies not only preparations for the piano but, in typical Cage style, an undefined X factor which is left to the performers. In the minds of skilled pianists like Tudor and Toshi Ichiyanagi, the piano part of this piece is bubbling with energy (especially in contrast to the Stockhausen piece preceding it). Violinist Kenji Kobayashi takes on the string player’s role but it is the addition of Yoko Ono on vocals that takes this piece to unexpected places. Her time in America engaging with Ichiyanagi in the Fluxus group translates well into her performance and it certainly seems quite left of center, even for Cage. Her sexualized panting is not something I would readily associate with the prepared piano! It is worth noting that at this time, her marriage to Ichiyanagi had fallen apart, perhaps adding a note of tension to this performance (and indeed the Japanese tour as she acted as Cage and Tudor’s interpreter).


cover imageBased on the lighthearted atmosphere emanating from the audience, tension is not something that could be ascribed to the performance of 0’00” which is included on Shock Vol. 3. While the notorious 4’33” was intended to focus the listener on the ambient and incidental sounds around them, its “sequel” instead focuses the listener on the particular non-musical actions of an individual. Described by Cage as:

"…nothing but the continuation of one’s daily work, whatever it is, done with contact microphones, without any notion of concert or theater or the public, but simply continuing one’s daily work, now coming out through loudspeakers. What the piece tries to say is that everything we do is music, or can become music through the use of microphones,"

it is easy to see this piece as being one of the clearest examples of the Cagean philosophy of music. It is also fascinating to consider that performances of 0’00” by necessity have a visual (if not theatrical) element to them but there is no description in the liner notes as to what Cage was doing on stage during this performance. Was he writing music on stage? Organizing his diary? The only indication is a single photo of him lighting his pipe but that could not explain the 18 minute duration of the piece nor the odd bits of laughter from the audience. Instead, we are left only with the music of his actions, divorced from the performance itself.

The rest of this final disc is given back over to the piano with Michael von Biel’s Composition II for 2 Pianos and Ichiyanagi’s Music for Piano #7. Both composers have strong links to Fluxus and both pieces highlight different aspects of the movement. von Biel’s piece is almost percussive as the pianists pounce on the keys sporadically with the inside of the pianos being scraped and caressed from time to time. There is little of the tongue-in-cheek conceptual ideas that I would normally associate with Fluxus (such as La Monte Young’s contemporaneous scores that involved releasing a butterfly into the music hall or feeding a piano with hay) but the deliberate undoing of any logical or traditional musical structure is wonderful. On the other hand, Ichiyanagi takes the oddball madness of Fluxus and runs with it to equally great effect. Music boxes, violent piano stabs and random tape recordings come together to create a sonic circus. Together, the three pieces on Shock Vol. 3 carry the most power as they still have the capacity to inspire awe in the average listener even in this age of overexposure to sound art, noise and improvisation.



Last Updated on Monday, 10 September 2012 03:07  


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