John Cage (1912-1992)
Hymns and Variations (1979)
Latvian Radio Choir/Sigvards Kļava
rec. 2007/20, St Johns Church & Sig.Ma Studio, Riga, Latvia
Ondine ODE1402-2 
Strictly speaking, John Cage wrote only two complete compositions specifically for choir – works which are known and have survived, that is. These are Hymns and Variations (1979) and Four2 (1990) – both included on this inspiring CD from Ondine with the justly renown Latvian Radio Choir under its dynamic and forward-thinking conductor, Sigvards Kļava, who has led the choir (which was founded in 1940) since 1992.
The other works, Five (1988) and Four6 (1992), have been included here because they are so clearly suited to the kind of imaginative and precisely-controlled choral interpretation which accord with Cage’s vision, especially given his tolerance of – indeed his promotion of active latitude in – open-ended interpretative decisions. Choirs, of course, traditionally make much of their impact on the listener through the use of harmony, yet because Cage had a notoriously – shall we say? – ‘ambivalent’ or ‘equivocal’ attitude to harmony (for its own sake), the composer set himself quite a task when deciding to explore the production of sound through unaccompanied voices.
What emerged was an emphasis on sound production which is not strictly vocalise (there are consonants aplenty throughout), nor improvised ‘nonsense’ words, nor yet jumbled, re-arranged phonemes which are recognizable at a pinch, neither self-conscious inventions of ‘words’. Somehow, Cage – in no small part by leaving much of the articulation to the performers – arrived at sounds that are plausible and oddly communicative. To make this work without drawing attention to the fact that this music does not contain evidently representative language, yet pleases the ear, needs a first-class choir unafraid to experiment and explore, yet one which can do so building on a decades-long thorough appreciation of the widest of repertoires.
Listen to the four (two short, two long) works on this CD and you will hear the beauty and unalloyed force of notes in sequence in ways analogous to the solo piano music of Morton Feldman. Just as Feldman has a magical, almost supernatural, ability to hold our attention – at times for hours, so Cage’s melodic inventiveness quickly becomes captivating.
Cage was nearly 70 before he approached Hymns and Variations [tracks 2-13]. He did so in a typically innovative way. He took two existing choral works: four-part pieces by the early American composer, William Billings, and composed five variations ‘from’ each of Old North and Heath in the Billings’ ‘New England Psalm Singer’ of 1770. It may only be once you know this that you are able to put your finger on the cadences familiar to you, say, from the soundtracks to films dealing with eighteenth and nineteenth century America by the likes of Ken Burns, but such wisps of allusions are not pushed too far. They remain echoes. That is because there is a simplicity and conviction to the evolution of the lines of notes and sounds as Cage envisaged them.
It might take a little more delving to listen again to the choir here, achieving so successfully the reduction from what would otherwise be the harmony that Cage so vigorously protested. The choice of notes, if not their duration (see below), is intentional and subtle – and remarkably persuasive, once you know why Cage wrote as he did.
In fact, Five [tr.1], composed almost ten years after Hymns and Variations, focuses on pitch as much as anything. Each of the five parts has a determined range of (often higher) pitches. Any voice which can encompass the range of pitches can articulate them in performance. Again, though, neither harmony nor beauty of texture is aimed for – so make sure not to listen to this music as you would Ligeti compositions like Lux Aeterna or Clocks and Clouds; Cage is not setting these pieces, he is insisting on a purposeful transformation.
At over thirty minutes, Four6 [tr.15] (one of Cage’s ‘number pieces’, whose titles indicate the number of performers involved) is the longest piece here and could be thought of as taking Cage’s focus on timing – hence on duration and texture – still further. It builds on Four2 [tr.14], which was intended for performance by older school students, hence the justification for including the longer work on this CD. Kļava, presumably, senses, perhaps, a slow and inevitable (if anything in Cage’s life was inevitable) progression towards a presentation of sounds with which Cage was satisfied.
Four6 is also, in some ways, the most lively, energetic, varied and sonorously rich and dense work on this CD. As noted above, Cage didn’t specify the actual performers (players or singers) who should take part in Four6 so in some ways Kļava’s decision to ask his choir to take it up is a bold one. It works, though, if for no other reason than that Cage instructed the musicians involved themselves to select (twelve) sounds which can be extended (in duration) such that the overlaps and textures which we hear so effectively from the Latvian ensemble here are entirely consistent with the composer’s intention and expectations. There is nothing either forced or jarring.
Indeed, Four6 might make a good starting point, rather than listening to it last if you play the CD’s tracks in the default order. Consider starting here, particularly if you are in any way puzzled or dubious about the relationship between the musico-technical and the ideological underpinnings of Cage’s work.
Cage notated the pieces in characteristically direct, if unorthodox, ways. He indicated that the notes of Five have ‘brackets’ of time within which the tones are to be ‘brushed’, rather than ‘switched’, on and off. The sounds of Four2 (the letters of the name, ‘Oregon’ – the American state – associate timings with register (SATB) allowing for subdivisions which result in overlap… so harmony almost becomes a function of tempo not pitch.
For Hymns and Variations, Cage supplied a guide to pronunciation according to the International Phonetic Alphabet. Four6 derives its impetus from a nexus of time and such fixed sonic characteristics as dynamics, structure and its overtones. The performance has the singers ‘play’ with these at will, but what they emphatically do not do is passively accept a random ‘bag’ of sounds, then slavishly or mechanically combine them, mistakenly thinking that this is what Cage’s chance music implies.
John Cage Choral Works is as polished and effective a set of choral performances as any more familiar choral works from Haydn and Mozart onwards. In other words, the Latvian Radio Choir achieves integrity and clarity of purpose – as if music has always sounded just as Cage’s insistence on ‘harmonic amnesia’ intended.
Almost needless to say, only a choir and conductor with a deep experience and understanding of how voices work – particularly when articulating sounds with this degree of detachment from apparent meaning – can make a success of this music. The Latvian Radio Choir has the confidence, the authority – and, yes, the freedom of spirit – to hold our attention throughout the hour or so of this music. Their vocal production runs the gamut from pure vocalise to onomatopoeic “quacking”, “whooping”, “whistling” and “chopping” etc. sounds in Four6 [tr.15].
When we hear singers (the choir consists of two dozen members) of a certain register in the forefront, we understand that they are nevertheless singing collaboratively and that they ‘emerge’ from a collegial whole. Each ‘solo’ sounder seems to be borrowing their notes, tones, articulations, projections from a living pool meticulously chosen by Cage. This is different from the way in which Feldman’s music works. It’s hard to think, though, that Cage would not have approved of this commanding ensemble’s achievement.
The acoustics of the recordings are both spacious and resonant. Music like this needs utter clarity and lack of ‘atmospheric’ embellishment. It also needs a perceptible, almost ‘graspable’ sentiment of the performance – musicians on an occasion, conscious of performing. The miking, use of space and allotment of vocal emphases which these two locations provide, serve such music as this – which demands attention and perhaps almost immediate reflection – very well.
The slim booklet consists of a brief but informative three-page essay by James Pritchett, whose ‘The Music of John Cage’ (ISBN 13: 978-0521565448) is a classic. It puts this (arguably unjustly neglected) corner of Cage’s output in context. An equally brief outline of the Latvian Radio Choir and its rightly lauded conductor takes up just two pages. If anything could make you want to seek out more from these outstanding musicians, it might well be this collection. There is an all-important page (but again really somewhat abbreviated) of performance notes; Cage’s music also distinguishes itself by its composer’s taut relationship between the unconventional and what should be anticipated – if you know how to look for it… the primacy of (the) sound, again. Still under-appreciated thirty years after his death, Cage deserves the bold exposure which this release offers. It may well surprise you; lap it up.
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