John Cage Two2 (Mode)
(Rob Haskins, piano I, Laurel Karlik Sheehan, piano II)

This album may be the album released this year that I listened to the most.  I’m somewhat of an insomniac and takes me a long time to get to sleep every night. So I listen to music when I go to bed and tend toward music that is not aggressive but also is interesting, deep and complex.  Sort of how Brian Eno initially defined ambient music, as music that can fade into the background without demanding your attention, but if you do grant it your attention it is fully engaging. Feldman for me is a favorite night time music, it fits this definition perfectly.  This disc of John Cage’s Two2 has served this function for me many times this, as well as being given a number of full attention listens on my main stereo.

John Cage’s music has become increasingly important to me ever since Vancouver New Music’s John Cage Retrospective, Begin Anywhere (my reports here). I’d of course checked out Cage before that, his music, ideas and thought are the philosophical and conceptual basis for the modern improvised (and composed) music I’m so interested in, but wasn’t really aware of the breadth of his compositions until this festival. The final night of the festival featured several of his late compositions that have collectively come to be known as the Number Pieces. The numbers refers to the fact that they are titled by the number of performers followed by a superscript of the number of the composition with that many performers. So Two2 refers to this being the second composition for two instruments, in this case two pianos.  The number pieces were all composed in between 1987 and his death in1992 and were his primary compositional interests in these last years.  The compositional technique that was the basis for the majority of these pieces was his Time Bracket notation(2.6) , in which the performers are giving time ranges in which to perform the notation pitches.  Two2 however was one of the exceptions to this in that instead of time brackets the performers are instructed to perform each measure of music at their own speed. However they are additionally instructed to not proceed to the next measure until both performers have completed the measure in question(2.10).

“As Cage explains in his performance notes for the work, his decision not to incorporate time brackets owed itself to a remark made by the soviet composer Sofia Gubaidulina, whom he had met in 1988 at the Third International Festival of Contemporary Music in Leningrad: “There is an inner clock.”  This gives the pianists the luxury of playing the piece at the speed that suits them best; in the finest performances, the freedom also allows them to discover surprising new relationships between the sounds — relationships unexpected even to them, no matter how much rehearsal time they spend preparing. ” Rob Haskins(2.10)
 

Another important feature of the number pieces was that they represented a rather late re-examination of harmony by John Cage.  Cage famously decried harmony: “I now saw harmony, for which I had never had any natural feeling, as a device to make music impressive, loud and big, in order to enlarge audiences and increase box-office returns.”. Instead he devoted his compositional efforts to focusing on sounds in and of themselves: “To Cage, listeners so conditioned would never hear sounds as sufficient in themselves–would not, in other words, be able to hear with the kind of open mind that he felt was essential(2.1). ” Though as Haskins points out his relationship with harmony was a bit more complex then is usually thought, it wasn’t until this final phase of his life that he really explored it. The time bracket notation allowed for a different approach to harmony one that was not a “device to make music impressive, loud and big” but instead  “means that there are several sounds . . . being noticed at the same time.” The flexibility of the time brackets, which themselves were create via chance operations meant that the piece varied in performance and these sounds “being noticed at the same time” were always subtly varied. The coincidence of sounds was indeterminate and thus the harmony wouldn’t fall into any recognizable patterns of development.

Two2 with its performer directed time scales also subverts traditional notions of harmony in the same ways: the coincidence of sounds are indeterminate and spaces  between sounds are disruptive. Structurally the piece was based on Renga, which was poetic style developed in China and refined in Japan(3). It is a collaborative form of poetry where each poet contributes a few lines following a proscribed structure. The initial three lines (hokku) became haiku, and follow that structure. The next poet then wrote two connecting lines (waki), following a 7-7 syllaibic structure. The third poet repeats the structure of the hokku and this continues unitl the desired length is written, often 36 stanzas (kasen renga).  In Japan there were many other rules surrounding content (as there is with haiku, which is almost always ignored in western attempts) which were obviously not a part of this piece. See the excellent Renga Wikipedia article for more on this poetic form.

“The essence of renga is in the idea of “change” (変化). Bashō described this as “newness (新み), and as “refraining from stepping back”. The fun is in the change, the new, the different, and the interesting verses of others.”(3)
 

Two2 follows the structure of Kaisen Renga, in that it has 36 five-measure sections (the three hokku lines plus the waki) each of which follows the syllabic constraints in number of musical events(2.9).  One of the primary aspects of Renga that the poets particularly enjoyed was the use of disparate elements in the poetic content, distinct sometimes dramatic change in subject between each of the hokku.  Cage captures some of this with interjections of dissonant seeming sounds an of course the disparities provided by the individual performers following their own time. 

The sounds are almost all soft, of a sedate and constant tempo but with these sudden, but never overly jarring, discontinuities. Maybe the occasional joining of chords will give a bit more volume or a couple of notes just out of step as if in a doubling.  This is perfect music to drift to sleep to – it won’t shock you into wakefulness but for those nights when sleep is far away it is constantly rewarding of your attention. The performance, beautifully captured on this recording, by Rob Haskins (who wrote the liner notes, which are essential reading) and Laurel Karlik Sheehan is impeccable. While no performance will ever be definitive due to the indeterminate nature of the piece, this performance is marvelous and an essential recording from this somewhat under-appreciated period of Cage’s compositions.

Cage’s number pieces, like the late work of Feldman, have an all enveloping almost dreamlike feel to them, yet they are filled with silence, dissonance, indeterminacy, unexpected harmonies and a diverse variety of sounds. It undermines all of the stereotypes of so called avant-garde music bringing all of Cages disruptive ideas to music of incredible richness and beauty. Those that dismiss Cage’s music as mere illustrations of his ideas have clearly not spent sufficient time with his later music, nor really understood his ideas.

Reference:

1) John Cage database
2) Rob Haskins,
The Harmony of Emptiness: John Cage’s Two2 Two2 liner notes
3) Renga at Wikipedia
4) Mode’s Two2 page
5)
  John Cage at Wikipedia
6) Number Pieces at Wikipedia