The first New Series release to feature music by the great American maverick composer and icono-clast incorporates performances by Margaret Leng Tan and Dennis Russell Davies, musicians who worked closely with Cage toward the end of his life. The programme on this disc, however, spans a much longer period.
“The Seasons” itself, for instance, dates from 1947 when Cage, then 35, was immersing himself in the religious philosophy of both West and East – studying Meister Eckhardt as well as Sri Ramakrishna and Ananada Coomaraswamy and considering the points of contact between the diverse traditions of Christian mysticism, Buddhism and Hinduism (but he was still four years away from his important studies in Zen with D.T. Suzuki). He was also studying Indian music and becoming in-creasingly convinced that the function of music was – as many Indian philosophers had insisted – “to quiet the mind and render it susceptible to divine influence.”
Cage: “As soon as I began to study oriental philosophy, I introduced it into my music. People then were always pretending that a composer had to have something to say. So what I was saying was nothing more than what I had understood about, first of all, the philosophy of India” (Interview with Daniel Charles in “For The Birds”). John Cage however framed his musical exposition rather beauti-fully, prompting one commentator to write (in the late 1980s), “On the evidence of ‘The Seasons’ Cage could have been one of the supreme orchestral colourists of the mid-twentieth century.” In the 1940s, critics compared the work’s textures to those of Ravel’s and Stravinsky’s compositions. The piece was written to accompany a ballet performance by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. The present recording marks the second occasion on which Dennis Russell Davies and the American Composers Orchestra have documented this work. In 1979 they recorded it for a (now unavailable) CRI album which impressed the composer and led to more frequent collaboration between Cage and Dennis Russell Davies.
“Tranquility through austerity” had become Cage’s watchword by the time he composed the “Suite for Toy Piano” in 1948 during his residency at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. His new musical heroes were the master miniaturists Webern and Satie and in his polemical addresses to the students he championed their sense of scale against the “deadening” monumentality of Beethoven. In this he was supported by Lou Harrison. Like Cage a former student Schoenberg’s (both men had also shared a percussion ensemble), Harrison was a generous advocate of the creativity of his fellow composers. He had helped Ives greatly, had supported Cowell in times of distress, and was consistent in his loyalty to Cage. His orchestration of the “Suite for Toy Piano” emphasises the modal feeling, the simplicity and the Eastern sympathies... to the point where the work begins to sound not unlike a Harrison composition.
The “Concerto for Prepared Piano” was begun in the summer of 1950 and completed in February 1951. It has become one of the best-known of Cage’s compositions. Of the details in the instrumental score, Cage biographer David Revill noted, “The piano in this piece has 53 prepared notes which span the available registers, utilizing the usual bolts, screws and rubber stripping, plus for the first time a ‘plastic bridge’ which produces microtonal pitch deviations. There are 22 players in the chamber orchestra, with no parts doubled except the clarinet; among the percussion instruments are a wa-ter gong, a radio, a metal container (such as a waste basket), a wire coil in a pickup, an electric buzzer and a recording of a generator.” Cage: “I made the Concerto for Prepared Piano and Orchestra into a drama – between the piano, which remains romantic, expressive, and the orchestra, which itself follows the principles of oriental philosophy. And the third movement signifies the coming together of things which were opposed to one another in the first movement.”
“Seventy-Four” was written expressly for the American Composers Orchestra and its co-founders Dennis Russell Davies and Francis Thorne, and was completed in 1992, just a few months before Cage’s death. The title of the work alludes to the numbers of players on the American Composers Orchestra’s roster. From very simple means – allocating just 14 notes to each of the players and al-lowing the musicians themselves to determine dynamics and phrasing – powerful music is made. Composer Tod Machover addressed the question of Cage’s unmistakable musical “signature” in a recent interview. “Cage obviously chose very carefully the musical materials that were used... it wasn’t random. There’s a kind of tension between the complete freedom that Cage advocated, and the necessity to shape situations... John Cage knew this and practised it, although he didn’t often say it.”
Margaret Leng Tan was born in Singapore in 1953. At 16 she won a scholarship to study at Juilliard. She had a working relationship with John Cage for the last 11 years of his life. Meeting Cage, she has often noted, consolidated her allegiance to new music. She has since been hailed as “the leading exponent of Cage’s music today” (the New Republic) and “the most convincing interpreter of John Cage’s keyboard music” (The New York Times). Ms Tan performed Cage’s music throughout North America, Europe and Asia and in the PBS “American Masters” films on John Cage and Jasper Johns. The association with Cage also led to her fascination with the toy piano. She made her debut on the instrument in 1993 at New York’s Lincoln Center, playing Cage’s 1948 Suite for Toy Piano. The Detroit News: “Tan scoured thrift shops, finally locating the perfect toy piano in a Lower East Side store for $45.” Margaret Leng Tan: “Since finding this first toy piano, I have acquired several others, including a 37-key Schoenhut toy grand piano... I remain wholeheartedly intrigued by the toy piano’s magical overtones, hypnotic charm, and not least, its off-key poignancy.” Margaret Leng Tan’s ex-traodinary accomplishments on the tiny instrument prompted Cage and other composers to write new music for her.
Associated with ECM for more than 20 years now, Dennis Russell Davies has in the meantime es-tablished a reputation as one of the most adventurous and innovative conductors in the classical mu-sic world. He maintains an active presence on the US scene as regular guest conductor with the major orchestras and opera houses of New York, Chicago and Boston and in Europe is Chief Conductor of the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra and the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra. For ECM he has con-ducted music of Arvo Pärt, Giya Kancheli, Erkki-Sven Tüür, Peteris Vasks, Dmitri Shostakovich, Alfred Schnittke, Paul Hindemith, Benjamin Britten, Krzysztof Penderecki, and W.A. Mozart.
The American Composers Orchestra is the only orchestra devoted exclusively to performing symphonic music by American composers. It has received many awards, including special citations from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. It has won ASCAP’s Adventurous Programme Prize nineteen times and been hailed as “the orchestra that has done the most for new American Music in the United States.”