A "modern" heading — that I chose to use here many years ago — can certainly seem out of place when it comes to Cage, as Cage almost comes to define the nascent postmodern (or at least some senses of the postmodern) in music. After all, he moved beyond a focus on "musical argument" (or technical exhibition of musical phenomena & even natural impressionism...) into notions of "stilling the mind...." And such notions can seem especially relevant in the contemporary era — noting further that Cage isn't really "contemporary" anymore, as he's become a historical figure... — featuring its near-constant noise & harassment... especially the ubiquitous "messaging" of marketing & propaganda. Cage is more about instantiation than messaging, though, and that's basically where I enter this project.
Cage is actually a relatively well-known composer. Or rather, I should say that Cage is a well-known figure associated with late 20th century music, not that his own music is known much at all — aside from 4'33" (which most people who cite probably haven't actually heard in concert either). His notions around silence in general have been remarkably influential, though, both in the "technique" of commercial (& associated) musics & in the "art" of e.g. contemporary improvisation. Indeed, I'd long found myself agreeing with much of what Cage had to say on silence, etc. (I've long heard various "cultured" people make quips about Cage too, people both inside & outside of music.... He's been a cultural reference.) So he's long had my respect as a musical philosopher, but I wasn't listening to his music — until his basic level of influence started welling up in my impressions of more recent music, adding to the basic fact that I really do want some help stilling my mind these days.... And I'd even had an acquaintance with Cage & his music previously, having attended one of his 80th birthday celebrations (with the composer present) & being complimented on my insights (which were modest at best, correcting obviously inaccurate impressions): From there, I'd kept an interest in the Arditti Quartet recordings of Music for Four & Four (from c.1990) for a while... but once those pieces kind of ran their course for me (i.e. in my context of the time...), I didn't pursue hearing the later Number Pieces. That was a mistake — or maybe suggests that I simply wasn't ready to hear them yet. And now that I am & have, I've also taken the leap from thinking of Cage as a valued musical philosopher & general influence into thinking of Cage as one of the most useful composers for my 21st century musical life....
In fact, I've come to think of Cage as a great composer, and not just as a garden variety "great composer" (if there is such a thing), but as one of the towering figures of his generation — itself an epochal generation — & of American music in general. (Cage was apparently not of indigenous descent at all, but traced his heritage to colonial North Carolina — & then to Los Angeles — absorbing something of a broad North American vibe along the way, however these things come to happen....) Of course, he's also not the only great artist of the period — especially in the US — whose public reception was ambivalent (at best). Cage is challenging: I don't mean that his music is especially challenging to hear (that is, if one can simply listen without bringing a bunch of baggage...), but that he challenges the listener more generally, whether via preconceptions of music, the situation, etc. (Cage questioned pretty much everything associated with music & its presentation during his career.) And any sort of paradigm shift is going to appear as a provocative stance.... Cage basically asks, "What is music for?" Why are we listening? (I.e. what of musical use, of artistic use? This is a big part of the epochal postmodern shift for me....) And also for me, the usually "open" quality of a Cage listening experience is increasingly welcome, including for collecting my own thoughts. (I've often been listening to Cage while reading lately too....) Or as "party music" for quieter types.... I've also come back to Cage specifically via contemporary improvisation, where I've been prioritizing small group interactions (in the jazz tradition...), and so I've particularly enjoyed his small ensemble pieces — although the Number Pieces do include masterpieces for solo instruments all the way through to large orchestras.... (I like to hear different musicians' parts combine or not. One might call this "harmony" — although it's not traditional Western harmony, for which Cage famously had little use.) I also enjoy microtonal music, and the use of microtonal material in many of the late Number Pieces differentiates Cage from e.g. Feldman, whose own music might be said to operate within a similar paradigm of stillness. (A microtonal practice can also take one farther from an immersion in the atmosphere of commercial music....) And of course Feldman is another composer (& colleague) who seemed to develop his own most characteristic style & works right to the end of his career: In many ways, that's a natural outcome, or at least I tend to find myself most (often) interested in a composer's final developments, so perhaps that shouldn't be emphasized here, as Cage's musical reputation was secure before he even started the Number Pieces....
And particularly writing today from within the borders of Silicon Valley, it's worth noting that Cage's reputation was that of a "disruptor" (to borrow a term, albeit a term I've come to despise...): His father was already an inventor, and so Cage had the mentality of tinkering & writing patents — something that served him well in preparing technical descriptions (differing from the usual "scores" of the time...) of his work. So e.g. the prepared piano became an "invention of genius" & remains widely influential, especially in contemporary improvisation.... Cage thus took nothing for granted in looking to make his mark on music, disrupting whatever he could — eventually to the point of constructing confrontational multimedia "happenings" (that reflect so much of 1960s radicalism worldwide...). And such happenings did come to dominate Cage's output for a time, but he'd returned to writing music in more traditional fashion (if it can be called that!) long before embarking on the Number Pieces.... (One might even characterize this interval as divorcing Cage completely from his American middle class roots, even as shifting his own personal presence into the domain of the performative....) An interdisciplinary orientation & interest in multimedia continued, however, as Cage came to paint more later in his life (i.e. during the interval in which he composed the Number Pieces), as well as continued to write music to accompany contemporary dance, one of the basic fonts of his output as a whole.... (He even came to create a film & film score as part of the late Number Pieces, One11 & 103....) One might further suggest that such a multimedia orientation broadened (or reflected) Cage's orientation toward "sound" per se, i.e. beyond merely "music" in its historically contextualized format. Moreover though, his work in the visual arts aligned him with broad artistic trends toward starkness, particularly an affective sort of starkness, i.e. provoking interrogation of minimal means for achieving a particular affect. (One can also see an exploration of the gestural in Cage's late watercolors....) Some of his earlier "audacity" still appears in the Number Piece sequence too, e.g. in the "shock" piece One3 (or maybe even when scoring a lecture as One12...), but by this point, the works mostly entail the usual listening posture & can be heard as musical per se. In other words, per the opening here, the Number Pieces become "more about instantiation than messaging," i.e. are practical music instead of — or beyond — philosophy. (I suppose that one could also figure e.g. the annihilation of earworms as "negative instantiation....") The Number Pieces do continue to project a sense of impersonal distance, though, as e.g. Rob Haskins suggests that Cage's version of "love" involves preserving space around a loved one — such that his music discourages extremes of expression, becoming almost disembodied (& asexual?), i.e. downplaying performer engagement per se: There's e.g. no sense that the audience is feeling emotions along with the musicians — rather, affect is projected collectively & at a distance. (Haskins doesn't adopt an affect-based orientation in his discussion, however.) So while Cage's late music is not always sparse or quiet, it does e.g. interrogate notions of subjectivity & otherwise suggests a sort of mild-mannered anarchy. (One might further suggest that it's neither hard nor soft, but rather neutral in its articulation. It just is. And that Cage's music can be criticized as humorless seems out of place to me alongside his clear history as a "musical joker...." Even the notion that "meditative music" is hyper-serious doesn't hold up, given Cage's explicit Zen influence....) Perhaps one way to summarize is that Cage's late music provokes a different feeling of musical togetherness. And perhaps it's also utopian, i.e. illustrates prospective interactions, forging a world in which at least the composer wanted to live.... But in this, Cage's music also isn't protest music (a choice for which he's been criticized...), i.e. doesn't instantiate anger, but rather instantiates a desired (peaceful, social) outcome.
So this isn't fighting music, but might well help one to recuperate from an ongoing fight... i.e. it's life music, embodying Cage's philosophies rather than arguing for them. The Number Pieces also had a long genesis: They might seem obvious (at least to a degree) in retrospect, particularly with so much post-Cage music operating around similar parameters..., but involved both considerable technical development (i.e. of flexible temporal articulation), as well as continued refinements of "material" per se (e.g. to encompass microtones, but also various other musical concerns of the era). As that summation just suggested, though, it can also be a little too easy to describe the Number Pieces in hylomorphic terms, i.e. as material "filling" forms: Cage's time brackets — i.e. the notation by which he provided an interval during which a musician should make a sound or sounds — are temporal only, i.e. "the material" still includes what would've been considered to be formal elements (i.e. "harmony," basic tonal organization, etc.) as well. One might thus state that the "material" of the late Number Pieces becomes more formally sophisticated.... And except for a few early Number Pieces, which include the possibility of omitting or reordering material, time brackets also involve playing the sounds in order — with the overall ordering of the piece possibly coming out differently between individual parts, but not within them. There're still various elements of chance involved, though, both in terms of laying out the specific time bracket boundaries, as well as in choosing material to fill them: Cage's "inventor" background also seems particularly relevant here, as he came to develop "gamuts" for various instruments, i.e. sets of all the figures or combinations they could play. (Cage was thus very practical in significant ways.) And Cage sometimes limited the "gamut" for particular pieces, i.e. didn't always involve all instrumental possibilities, but this sort of mapping of possibilities was an important backdrop to producing his later music, coming to yield basic impressions of a series of broad variations. (One might sometimes characterize these gamuts as a series of affective figures... then to be deployed randomly, i.e. as decontextualized emotion.) In this, it seems that for the Number Pieces, Cage basically started with a span of time to fill: Sometimes these spans even evoke something larger, i.e. as a sort of musical window of (e.g. Scelsian) emergence... as the frequent start & stop feel to the music can contribute to such an impression.... And I should emphasize that I'm not emphasizing the Number Pieces based on any predetermined decision to focus on the Number Pieces: Rather, they became important to me & my life through the course of a recent listening project — & indeed seem to involve (musical) outcomes for which Cage had always been striving. (Comments from Cage, e.g. that he was "finally writing beautiful music," buoy such an impression.) But while they do increasingly dominate the compositional output of Cage's last few years, they're never his exclusive focus: 1990, 1991, 1992... all of these years include a piece or more for radio or tape (while the early Number Pieces coexist chronologically with music in a variety of formats...). So I don't want to overstate, particularly relative to various aspects of Cage's earlier output, but it's specifically the Number Pieces (& a few associated works, to be mentioned below...) that do embody the full (or at least one...) maturity of Cage's musical concepts for me....
I've also done very little reading for this project: As alluded above, I read Haskins' John Cage (2012) — & while it yielded some broad (biographical) insight, it didn't really inflect how I wanted to hear or discuss this late music. I didn't read much in the way of album liner notes either, as I was largely forced to download various otherwise unavailable items, but after initially recoiling at such an adjustment, I also came to embrace it: I've generally been listening to contemporary improvisation with little or no textual preparation, so it's come to seem normal to me. (I conduct my investigations in sound, and then turn to words myself only later....) Indeed, I've generally been guided in this project by what I've wanted to hear at any particular moment... involving a sense of musical economy, i.e. of "spending" some particular interval of time (& with some number of musicians): Cage's music thus suggests a kind of environment or ecology — & so prefigures ambient music (perhaps ironically, given Cage's life-long emphasis on live performance...) — in its kind of broad affective immersion. (And these works do generally cohere "as works," i.e. as pieces to be perceived again in different interpretations: Although e.g. timing is flexible, their affective content is basically consistent.) Moreover, an emphasis on affect does correctly evoke a sort of pre- or pan-individual for Cage, i.e. a pre-emotional context that can & will be instantiated by its particular (often cultural) situation: Ego is thus placed to the side in creation of the music (to be re-encountered, perhaps, via the listener's own ego...), thus forging "impersonal" expectations for projection from the performers. In other words, the perspective of the listener does not (or should not) track the personal perspective of any particular performer (or composer), in that any sort of locus of continuity emerges (to consciousness) only impersonally — & via a sort of perceptual smoothness (of which silence per se is an interrogation...). There's also the basic question of improvisation, particularly as I keep relating Cage's music to such later practice: Cage famously disliked improvisation, but for practical reasons: His experience was that musicians either played familiar music or took it as an opportunity to mock him. These days, improvisation has cultivated strands that studiously do neither, and so can be aligned with Cage's musical vision: And of course there's still an improvisational quality to the way that he constructed e.g. time brackets through chance operations.... (Cage apparently wanted to guard against his own intuition as well.) Moreover, there's a definite nexus with virtuosity in some of Cage's music, i.e. of individual musicians being asked to go beyond their (technical) comfort zones. (One might thus figure virtuosity as a more human concern infiltrating Cage's music via engaging with performers.... But "extension" is also an affective stance.) Such a lingering nexus can also yield a sense of rhetoric or drama, at least in some of the earlier Number Pieces.... Finally, the sense that these late masterpieces come to form their own worlds, i.e. temporal spans in which to dwell for a while, also means that I've generally preferred the longer pieces: It's an issue elsewhere too (e.g. with Scelsi's many short, late pieces), but even as I've been quite impressed at times (e.g. with Five5), it's been challenging to find a place in my life for the shorter pieces.... In any case, perhaps such observations merely trigger different questions regarding what can trigger "musical feelings of greatness" & indeed how the latter can intersect with everyday listening habits....
And this (listening) project did actually begin back in January 2020, i.e. prior to quarantine: Whether I'd've made it as far as this extended discussion, rather than just some renewed listening for myself, absent the virus, is then unknown. I did have the "extra time," though, and ended up expanding the project considerably, even after I'd committed to a public write-up in August, going on to revisit other c.1990 influences & preparing new (similarly inspired) discussions of Scelsi & Xenakis.... (I made changes to my traditional recordings-oriented format there too, but here I've also decided to compile more strictly factual information: This introduction will thus be followed not only by an extended discussion of each Number Piece, but with sections for chronologies, durations, etc. There's also a section suggesting new recorded interpretations....) And as I'd said here originally, the prompt for this page was basically a (recent) realization that beyond Cage's conceptual & technical innovations, I'd been finding much of his late music to be worthwhile (even invaluable...) to hear in my daily life these days, i.e. in a utilitarian sense as music. Toward that end I then consulted information from e.g. the John Cage Trust, and started with a listening focus on Mode Records & its extensive Cage Edition, soon moving farther afield (i.e. so as to encompass all available recordings).... And in most cases, I did end up auditioning all known recordings. I'm going to stick with a (different for me) piece-based approach below, however, with recording details mainly via appendix.... And as regards the chronology, do note that the Number Pieces were composed over five years, with the last couple of years being especially prolific, i.e. after a slower start that retained more in the way of previous musical concerns. The different years thus almost come to suggest different periods, but also become more intensive in their development — indeed show huge changes from early to late in the series. (Note e.g. that Cage had already used the superscript notation to indicate related pieces in a series, but only as ^2 to that point. In fact, the first ^3 comes only with the "non-musical" One3, i.e. well into the Number Piece chronology, the next being Four3....) And pretty much everything has been recorded as well, to be noted below: Is there anything to be said about later versus earlier interpretations (in general), though? As opposed to some composers' music, there don't appear to be issues with technique in the early interpretations, and indeed those performers often had more personal acquaintance with Cage, so there isn't a clear reason to prefer later interpretations — while there might be reasons to prefer the early ones. In practice, though, I've found several of the more recent releases to be noteworthy (to be mentioned below...). And of course, Cage himself famously disdained recordings for much of his life — shifting his attitude only later (e.g. with Four4) — but at least here in the 21st century, recordings actually seem to project his ideas especially well.... (Still, though, I did largely forego the experience of hearing this music in a collective setting, and that would surely make a difference.)
Stylistically, while e.g. prepared piano pieces are some of Cage's best known earlier music, their general sense of rhythmic color is absent from the Number Pieces, meaning that the latter are usually smoother & (of course) more flexible in their temporal articulation: Cage's emphasis on music for dance thus shifts in music without beats, but doesn't disappear.... A notion of staged happenings seems to fade as well, i.e. as the Number Pieces come to seem more suitable for listening alone at home, but perhaps the former merely fades into notions of passing everyday time, i.e. via the ubiquity of recorded media.... Cage's extensive prior exploration of percussion music is forced to move onward too, i.e. without the possibility of an extended groove (as "percussion" also becomes the most indeterminate aspect of various ensemble pieces, specific individual sounds being selected by the performers).... There's also Cage's prior emphasis on piano, but that's retained for many pieces: E.g. One5 is his final solo piano work, and notable on that basis (without really suggesting prospective future developments...). And other works involve various (then new) modifications, e.g. bowing the piano strings (such that the instrument becomes largely unidentifiable as such...). There's little in the way of music for voice, though (only a rather staid chorus for Four2, or the open-ended ensemble possibilities of Five...), despite that Cage wrote Solos for Voice 93-96 (1988) near the beginning of this period. (I find this outcome to be strange. Perhaps voice just didn't seem impersonal enough for these sorts of incisive ecological tapestries?) There're solo string works, though, and that's particularly where Cage seems to want to explore virtuosity.... (E.g. his senses of fragility & extension seem at times to follow Scelsi.) And the Number Pieces do feature an extensive series of duos as well (a format that generally seems to work better for me in composed music than in improvisation...).
But before turning to a series of individual remarks, let me conduct a very brief survey of highlights from my perspective today: In terms of my daily use, the "summits" among the Number Pieces (coming to around 7 hours of music in total) are then One8, Two4, Two5, Four4, [Four6], Five3, Eight, Ten, Thirteen, Fourteen & the orchestral Sixty-Eight — listed here in the same order as presented below. (I've bracketed Four6 because its material depends upon performer choice, but it's generally been quite appealing in practice....) In keeping with prior remarks, most of those pieces are also at least half an hour long, the central piano concerto Fourteen being the only exception (at twenty minutes), while those lasting an hour or more are Four4 & Eight.... The most "dense" among them in terms of listening activity level are then Thirteen, Ten & Eight, while the least dense are Four4, Two5 & Five3. (In this, Eight is Cage's final dance score masterpiece. And the late orchestral works, per discussion below, are probably the most promising pool for looking to add works to such a "favorites" list, i.e. pending better recorded interpretations....) And then beyond those eleven works (i.e. that I do want to hail unreservedly), let me also introduce the following specific genre-based consolidations or prospective ideas of note: Two2, Four & Seven belong to the earliest layers of Number Pieces, and basically present summaries in styles that Cage wouldn't continue to pursue (with the latter, perhaps, also anticipating the later mixed chamber pieces...). One5 for solo piano, as already noted, is then in the middle of the Number Piece series. And One10, Five5 & 103 present continuing provocations later in the series (the latter, accompanying the film One11, being without precedent), i.e. as pieces that seem to promise more....1 April 2021
This section then consists of discussions of each Number Piece, including mentions of interpretations where needed or relevant. (It also dates to the beginning of this project, i.e. prior to the introduction above. And that also means that these paragraphs have been revised multiple times, sometimes leading to transient language inconsistencies, alas....) The ordering is straightforward, beginning with the smallest forces & then earliest works for those forces: The listing & order is taken directly from Wikipedia (as of August 2020).
One (1987; piano)
This is the second Number Piece rather than the first, but does also return to a solo piano genre that Cage had employed extensively throughout his career. I didn't begin this project with much of an interest in contemporary piano music — as, after all, Cage's innovations around preparing the piano, although highly influential in contemporary music, belong to an earlier layer of his work — but soon had to recalibrate myself to the lingering centrality of piano in c.1990 music. In any case, these weren't the first pieces I sought to hear, and One in particular hasn't made much impression: It seems more rhetorical than most of the Number Pieces, with a sense that much more music is happening that we simply aren't hearing (as opposed to silence per se). It can thus seem like a tease, or an exercise in cleverness, which does (perhaps) describe a vein of Cage's work. Much of the technical emphasis then seems to be on independence of the two hands, in a style (time brackets) that Cage was only just developing.
One2 (1989; pianist)
The Number Pieces from 1989 seem to take up some previous compositional concerns, in particular employing techniques developed with the first Number Pieces so as to complete some projects that had presumably been on Cage's mind. Or so I assume with this piece for one performer, but employing as many as four pianos, moving around on stage. I'm also unsure of the full extent of the piece, as the dedicatee (Margaret Leng Tan) has recorded "only" a truncated version of the piece (using 3 pianos, so ignoring some of the material) lasting under twenty minutes for Mode, but 40' might be the full length if all material is used (or at least that's the length of Sabine Liebner's recorded performance — & she's recorded all of the solo piano music listed here, often particularly sparsely & indeed pensively, coming to seem episodic in One2). The physical movement of the performer creates a real sense of space here, as well as a dynamism around the music, making for potentially a dramatic & immersive experience. The different pianos also employ different varieties of extended sonority, making for some timbral-spatial variety too. One2 is thus different from other Number Pieces, but also has some real appeal. (Note further that, according to Cage in an interview, One2 follows Two2 chronologically....) I still hear freshness & excitement in this music (that also seems to be canonically Cageian, especially in the Mode performance, emphasizing a sense of surprise or discovery...) while also acknowledging one of Cage's most extroverted late pieces.
This piece is noted as being in a series with 4'33" & 0'00", and doesn't have musical notation. It's basically rigging a concert hall for electronic feedback, the one "gimmick" Number Piece. And I haven't heard this piece either... at least not as explicitly attributed to Cage!
One4 (1990; percussion)
The Number Pieces from 1990 seem to start out by offering Cage's latest musical thoughts on some traditional formats, and percussion music had been one of his most voluminous outputs. This is also one of the shorter Number Pieces, and so one has less time time for acquainting oneself with its own particular world (within one hearing, at least). Maybe it would be more at home in a solo percussion recital of various music, for instance, whereas I've mostly been listening to Cage's music by itself.... There's also the issue that the time bracket technique doesn't allow even medium-term rhythmic continuity, so percussion is not doing its usual thing, but rather is employed coloristically. I've enjoyed the relatively recent Mode performance by D'Arcy Philip Gray, though, even if One4 still does seem like something of a miniature with limited utility: The rhythmic transitions there around subtle rolling capture my attention, and do interrogate the passage of time, both in & through silence. Indeed, Gray seems to maintain a tautness through extended periods of inactivity. In that sense, One4 can be figured as a percussion etude (of the broadest sort). If it can reliably leave one basking in silence, such an outcome would present its own utility....
One5 (1990; piano)
This is Cage's final solo piano piece, and so already notable on that basis. Like One4 it also seems to seek something of a summation, and should probably be heard as "paired" with Fourteen as well — as both composed at the same time, and as figuring or summarizing Cage's late thoughts around piano genres (the latter being a "concerto"). One5 is then more spacious than One, not only longer, but in closer contact with silence: Much of the piece appears to involve holding keys down to allow for dissipating resonance.... (It thus requires a sort of close listening that the parallel concerto format would obscure.) This is a rather ephemeral piece, mostly brief chords decaying into a quivering silence, but has an affective charm as well (as did so many of Cage's early piano works). The emphasis on "decay" also seems apt not only in hailing the pending conclusion to Cage's own musical output, but in terms of moving away from piano as well — a musical trend in which Cage participated both in terms of conceiving music incommensurable with piano & by continuing to tinker with the piano itself. (I might also compare e.g. Tenney's late piano Prelude as adopting a similar style of attack & extended decay....) There's thus something of a sense both of fragility & farewell — in addition to an exploration of extension in piano articulation per se. I've most enjoyed the rendition by Martine Joste, the first recording, appearing on Mode with the Satie-filled pieces Four3 & Two6. It feels momentous, even when waiting on decaying chords.... A sort of acoustic tension can thus be maintained in One5 as attacks come to follow the disappearance of resonances. (As a result, the ending tends to be more noticeable than it is for the many Number Pieces incorporating periods of actual silence.) And for a sparser & perhaps more pensive approach, the more recent reading by Guy Vandromme is also worthwhile: It, once again, strives for a momentuous approach to every sound....
One6 (1990; violin)
Another 1990 solo composition, this piece can be seen as something of a summation as well, in particular when it comes to violin technique in the wake of the Freeman Etudes (which had only just been completed for Irving Arditti, after a hiatus). However, One6 doesn't approach violin technique "in general" (as in so many of Cage's instrumental "gamuts," i.e. full collections of idiomatic sounds for the instrument), but rather focuses on whispery (harmonic) sounds in extended continuity.... This major work (at least by length) thus comes off rather ephemerally, but not around silence per se; instead, one hears the wobbling effort to hold tones over long periods along with those microtonal-harmonic implications. In that sense then, this piece marks a new emphasis for Cage, and issues of continuity would continue to animate many Number Pieces (as well as much post-Cage composition to this day). It reminds me of some of Scelsi's late violin music as well — & in fact, the more I listen, the more I hear a tangible Scelsian influence in these Late Number Pieces, especially those for solo strings. (Here, the sudden emphasis on single pitches is clearly related.) In that sense, One6 — despite its length — seems actually to be relatively preliminary in developing a style that would soon be revisited & extended for One10 (& articulated chordally for cello in One8). This sort of "distant" wobbling tone would also come to animate a wide variety of post-Cage timbral improvisation, meaning that One6 comes to feel rather one-dimensional in comparison.
This is the first performer's part of Four6. Although it was also composed originally in 1990, it seems to have been folded into the latter piece (from 1992), and isn't listed independently by the Cage Trust. (It's still being recorded independently though, sometimes, usually along with Four6.) Per the discussion of the 1990 solo pieces, One7 also involves a confrontation with continuity: Although it's been performed on a sound decaying instrument such as piano (e.g. by Sabine Liebner, as paired with Four6), and is scored for any instrument, the inspiration was apparently Pauline Oliveros's accordion. I prefer the fuller sound of the quartet version myself, but the "continuity" between One6 & One7 should be noted as well. (Ulrich Krieger on saxophone presents a similar tone of delicate extension, for instance, but given the unspecified instrumentation, there isn't a "gamut" concept accompanying One7, or at least not in the same way. In other words, physical challenges for the performer aren't necessarily implied, nor are preexisting technical limits explored compositionally. Surely Cage's history in the solo works does suggest that the performer present themselves with such challenges though....) In any case, One7 is basically the generic solo item among the Number Pieces, and so attractive to musicians playing instruments not otherwise appearing....
One8 (1991; cello)
Considering the timings & similarity in their titles, this piece was surely composed together with the "symphonic" 108 — so as to turn that piece (optionally) into a cello concerto. It's thus much more extroverted than the earlier solo violin monument (One6), but does include periods of silence. Otherwise, cello technique often involves bowing multiple strings at once (with the help of a special, curved bow) & can be loudly chordal. (It can sound like a sort of grainy alarm at times, for instance.) As opposed to the more ephemeral solo Number Pieces, One8 can be abrasive at times, but I've really warmed up to the power of this piece (especially from the dedicatee Michael Bach on Mode — while as seems to be more typical of German interpretations of Cage, Julius Berger's is rather more austere, even tending toward ethereal, perhaps almost anticipating One13...) over time. (Also, I've not actually heard One8 together with 108 either, except in the overdubbed series by Ogre Ogress Productions, but the two pieces were premiered together. That anonymous, organ-esque reading of One8 is also available on Ogre Ogress, paired with an alternate completion of One13.) This ends up being perhaps Cage's most striking solo Number Piece in terms of the novelty of the basic sound (well, discounting One3, that is): That it ends up refiguring such sonic intrusions as foghorns & klaxons actually only adds to its everyday power.
One9 (1991; shō)
This is the longest Number Piece (& can be paired with a performer on conch shells to make Two3), deriving from Cage's fortuitous meeting with Mayumi Miyata & the Japanese shō (basically a wooden mouth organ). The piece comes off as quite a tour de force, and so as an unprecedented examination of the instrument (specifically via its "gamut" of sound combinations), but also hasn't been recorded in a fully satisfying version: Although Miyata recorded the other Cage shō works (i.e. Two4 & 109b), the most extensive readings of One9 to this point are actually by accordionists — or else are embedded in a couple of idiosyncratic productions of Two3 (on Ogre Ogress & Wergo). Needless to say, changing the instruments changes their technical resources, and so Cage's gamut concept will be skewed by e.g. accordion versions (i.e. the resulting set of sound combinations will be relatively arbitrary). So is this piece destined to be a curiosity? A concert performance must require incredible stamina (& swapping out instruments 9 times).... Still, it does appear to have a following among accordionists, with e.g. the Buchholz version from Wandelweiser demonstrating remarkable clarity of conception along with an array of subtle voicings. It doesn't come off in the same way to me, though....
One10 (1992; violin)
Also recorded expertly by Irvine Arditti, this piece is clearly a later followup to One6 — and is if anything more sinewy & ethereal, here around harmonics & in a single movement. (This Number Piece also, unusually, has no dedication.) I've likewise found the piece to be strangely compelling, and this does continue to be an innovative style for Cage, in sonic terms alone. (It suggests e.g. something of the "distant radio" format that continues to appear in contemporary improvisation....) It's interesting that Cage returned to the solo violin format, again in an extended linear guise, particularly when one contrasts with other late (i.e. 1992) Number Pieces.... Both this piece & One6 are also made to be performed alongside a specific melting ice sculpture (that will then randomly make sounds as pieces fall), but I haven't heard them that way.... (In this, they'd be akin to the relation between One9 & Two3, with the latter's additional tones being sparse & semi-random as well. And presumably One6 & One10 don't consequently have Two-series versions because the sculpture is employed passively & so doesn't involve an actual performer.) Scelsi's late solo violin music becomes a clear reference point here — with Cage increasingly injecting his own characteristic sense of impersonal distance. One10 can thus come to have the feel of a calling from something beyond, and ends up being another sort of apex in Cage's late work (despite being rather different from adjacent Number Pieces, particularly in the evolution of its constituent material).
This piece is a film, and I'm not really sure why it appears in a list of musical works, but it's numbered with the rest of them, so.... (It's also paired with the orchestral 103, a film score.) I'm not a film buff either, but I've watched this a few times on Mode DVD: It's a black & white shot of an empty set with frequent lighting changes happening by chance operation. In other words, it's the trappings of film directing, with no acting or narrative content or indeed any stage content at all. I actually found it to be affective.
One12 (1992; speaker)
I haven't taken this piece seriously as a separate work, as notes suggest that it's a performing version (for speaker, Cage himself) of One7. Perhaps that's a mistake on my part? (There are vocal & "lecture" performances by Cage released on CD under the titles One7 & One12 respectively.... Presumably he also did the corresponding "first" part when performing in the premiere of Four6...?)
One13 (1992; cello)
This piece was completed posthumously by cellist Michael Bach (& so as a followup to One8), and I really have no idea how much Cage was involved. That it uses previously taped cellos (so as to maintain continuity & chords) is certainly different from the other Number Pieces (although not from Ryoanji, which ends up being the inspiration). There's also a recording (also by Bach, from Open Minds), and I've found it to be rather appealing: The taped parts apparently allow for more ethereal lines, i.e. more like the violin works, while still accommodating some simultaneity.... (The liner notes to the recorded interpretation also compare One13 in more detail to Ryoanji, with which it shares a notion of an octet pitch set as well. There are also what appear to be Scelsian remarks about simultaneous unison tones....) This isn't a piece I'd spent much time with until later in this project, but it does seem to involve a meaningful development of prior ideas, and ends up being rather satisfying. (And pace the degree to which Cage actually fleshed out this project, the numerical correspondence with Thirteen might be meaningful as well.) Further, I've subsequently noticed the version on Ogre Ogress, in which the "cello harmonics" material is placed into the time bracket structure of One7 (rather than the Ryoanji format used by Bach...): The result ends up seeming rather more linear & quite stark. In any case, Bach's conception of One13 adds to the body of Number Pieces, and does so in a provocative way — sounding very Cageian while maintaining a sense of continuing exploration.
Two (1987; flute & piano)
This is the first Number Piece, and presumably it was the contrast between the long flute tones & the decaying piano chords that inspired the title. Two is still relatively shorter than the later, major Number Pieces, but ends up being quite effective. (After all, it worked well enough to Cage's ear to become a model for application to other compositional demands & ideas....) There's a sort of brightness to the piece that works well with the basic contrast. (There's almost an impish sense to this music, something for which Cage was also sometimes known, perhaps even suggesting a romantic duo....) And I'm particularly fond of the album from Katrin Zenz (which is appealing for Ryoanji & Music for Two, two works that partly anticipate the Number Pieces, as well), but there are other options.
Two2 (1989; 2 pianos)
This piece doesn't use time brackets, and so doesn't "really" belong in this series — but then each of the Number Pieces from 1989 is unusual in some way. In this case, there's a series of exchanges between the two pianists based on concepts of renga, each giving succinct phrases over the course of a series of 36 variations. The duration of this piece is thus indeterminate, and I've generally favored the Mode reading with Rob Haskins, which is more than twice as long as some earlier performances (including that by the dedicatees), but still much shorter than the quite leisurely 2-hour interpretation on Another Timbre — a label responsible for some of the more appealing new Cage interpretations appearing in the 2010s. Although not much like the other Number Pieces, Two2 does create its own musical world, and so makes for an enjoyable extended piece that I've generally found to be rather productive of further thought. There's nothing too "out there" in this music either — "just" a lengthy exchange of figures between two pianos in a consistent pattern of phrase lengths. (Unlike other Number Pieces, there's thus not any particular sense of filling a span of time, but rather a lengthy sequence of more conventional musical exchanges. The latter also means that I find myself evaluating performances more in the way they're phrased at any particular moment, i.e. more conventionally, than by the general affective space that they end up projecting: Two2 continues to seem like a series of variations.) The sequence of combinations is presumably determined by chance, but the music is then enjoyable in straightforward fashion, as a detailed series of piano studies or musings that do engage the mind. (Despite its seemingly different inspiration, perhaps it comes closest of any Number Piece to the extended rhetorical vibe of Feldman's late music....) The more I hear this music in general, the less like the other Number Pieces Two2 seems (not just technically, but affectively), but with its clever voicings & leisurely lingering resonances, it's a worthwhile experience on its own. Indeed, it's another kind of summit in Cage's oeuvre.
Two3 (1991; shō & conch shells)
This piece consists of the shō solo piece One9 supplemented by a musician tipping water-filled conch sells to create little burbles from time to time. These tend to be a subtle addition (although they're very apparent in e.g. the overdubbed Ogre Ogress production, presumably because separately mic'd), and are indeterminate in when they sound (i.e. the player can try to initiate a sound but it won't always happen). In other words, the conch sounds (cf. Cage's earlier piece Inlets) end up adding a welcome sense of mystery, but aren't crucial to impressions of the piece. And besides the full but idiosyncratic Ogre Ogress reading, there's a more recent set on Wergo pairing accordion with sheng (a Chinese instrument similar to the Japanese shō): Their explanation for why they've done this, as well as for why they've recorded most but not all of Two3, is not terribly coherent to me, but the result does come off sounding "more like" a shō recital than do pure accordion versions.... (The performers on the Wergo set also split conch duties, meaning that their number remains at two....)
Two4 (1991; violin & shō or
This piece is clearly a mature masterpiece among the Number Pieces, pairing Cage's timely fascination with the shō with his late (but then persistent) exploration of solo violin. (Obviously I prefer the shō version, and tend to believe that the alternate piano part was written so as to make the piece more practical, rather than for musical reasons, although that version is enjoyable too.) Two4 ends up being more striking to my ears than the solo violin or shō pieces too, the combination working to magical effect — especially with the sorts of timbres (e.g. no vibrato) that Cage preferred from violin — as well as the "movements" concepts that are juxtaposed between the two instruments in order to vary the interaction through the piece. The Arditti & Miyata (who has recorded the piece with the Ives Ensemble as well) performance is, of course, canonically wonderful. (There are others for a variety of instruments, including e.g. cello & accordion....) Despite (or because of?) its evident power, this piece has also been difficult to dissect affectively, but rests on a sort of dueling continuity, the violin outpacing shō (& very much in contrast with piano, in that version more reminiscent of Two) in this area, as the latter provides a more shifting (& colorful) chordal gamut while also being active most of the time. (In some sense, there's simply an alternation of held tones or chords, with pace & "rhythm" between them varying capriciously.... And it's exactly such alternation that comes to yield shifting affectivity.) And the Arditti & Miyata reading in particular continues to be strongly affective, making for a Number Piece that's tended to bewitch unsuspecting listeners as well, i.e. as a sort of listening experience that slowly & subtly transforms one's mental space, sometimes before one really notices.
Two5 (1991; trombone & piano)
This piece for trombone & piano pairs with Five3 for trombone & string quartet, and both are major late Number Pieces. The piano tends to be sparser & more percussive than the more sustain-oriented lines of the string quartet, but both evoke a similar extended mood around trombone. Especially in the reading by the dedicatees, Dahinden & Kleeb, there's a tangible vibe of Buddhist meditation, and perhaps even evocations of a Tibetan scene. (That's another great Cage album overall, including a couple of his very affective early piano works.) This music does contain long silences, but Two5 has continued to be quite affective & evocative for me (& the dedicatees do continue to make improvised albums as well, including one released in 2020). This might be the starkest piece here, at least in some stretches, but the trombone can be forceful at other moments, and the whole thing just works: In some sense, it continues the paradigm of contrast opened by Two, and certainly continues the trend of piano appearing (as at least one partner) in most of the Two series, but does so at a particularly lofty plateau of inspiration & execution. (A rather different plateau in this series is, of course, Two6.) Particularly as a relatively recent interpretation of a late Number Piece, and by two performers with long histories with Cage's music, the Svoboda & Schleiermacher version should be noted as well (including for its relatively lively, paired rendering of Music for Two...). This is another incredibly effective Number Piece, the success of which seems almost magical.
Two6 (1992; violin & piano)
Reprising the violin-piano duo (i.e. of Two4), this piece is one of Cage's final chamber pieces (as more of the last Number Pieces end up being for orchestra). It also involves (along with Four3) a return to using Satie for material, here buoyed by other choices of material left to the performers, including microtonal passages for violin (or else simple scales) & various options for silence. As such, the "material" portion of this piece is determined at a further remove than other Number Pieces — where (in most cases) the material is already inserted by Cage. Time brackets were supplied by Cage, though, so the piece becomes in some sense an empty shell to be filled by performer choices prior to the performance per se. (This is not unlike percussion instructions in many of these pieces, where specific sounds are selected in advance by the musicians & then articulated when instructed by Cage's musical form.) Presumably it could thus sound "more different" than most of the Number Pieces, but what I've heard mostly tends to emphasize the Satie material. (Perhaps this is also a nonlinear rethinking of the sort of modular concepts employed previously in Three & Four, & indeed might further be figured as reconfiguring the earlier modularity of Music for ____ into a choice of material prior to performance, rather than having sectional divisions remaining in the temporal flow for the listener.... The somewhat shorter length can actually seem to reflect such nonlinearity.) So in some ways, this is the most sophisticated Number Piece, at least among those for small forces, with more tangible connections to 20th century composition in general, but I've also not enjoyed the Satie material as much as some of Cage's other ideas for musical content (& especially his microtonal inquiries). This piece has been popular with musicians, though, and has long had quality interpretations on disc. (Evidently it's also possible to perform versions with only the simplest of materials, thus also making it suitable for musicians of varying technical abilities....) Mode has released Two6 twice so far, in a quite worthwhile reading by the dedicatees on The Number Pieces 1 & then in the Arditti series (along with One10 & some other short pieces to make up Mode's 100th release) — the latter a gripping performance in which the violin part is relatively more distinctive, giving the piece a different (& for me, richer, more vertiginous) feel (albeit with the pianist often seeming more like an accompanist to the violin than an equal partner...). Although seemingly modest, Two6 can thus come to project a paradoxical sense of lushness (& capture?) via & within quietude (& so in turn of the individual pitted against tradition?). It can also project a strong melancholy — such that it tends to leave me feeling unsatisfied (or "unready")....
Three (1989; recorders)
This is another 1989 Number Piece, and so suggests summation. In this case, though, Cage hadn't previously written for recorders, and it's unclear why he chose to do so now, particularly in an extended piece. Like Four then, Three involves a modular design with different sections that can be omitted or played in different orders, at least within a pair of framing pieces that remain in place. The changing pitch registers & sometimes piercing tones of this piece can also be distinctive, and I've wanted to like it since I noticed it early in this survey of Number Pieces.... But it never quite comes together for me (although it's available on Mode in what should be at least a semi-definitive performance from the dedicatees). I've also wondered to myself, if Four suggests a timbre-matched apex of classical counterpoint, is a trio of musicians on recorders supposed to evoke early music in a similar broad sense? If so, there's little more specific about that association or in Cage's oeuvre, although he did turn to early American hymns on several occasions.... Still, there's also something about this enigmatic piece.... (And Cage apparently didn't continue the "modular" concept with different sections to play or not into subsequent Number Pieces.)
Three2 (1991; percussion)
This is another short percussion piece, but this time from a later period in the Number Pieces (1991, although obviously this entire sequence of pieces was composed in under five years). It hasn't made much of an impression on me, though. Perhaps it just needs a more dedicated performance, as it seems almost like an afterthought wherever it's appeared on record.... (The dedicatee was associated with Merce Cunningham, but hasn't recorded the piece from what I can tell....)
Four (1989; string quartet)
This is actually the first Number Piece I heard, going back to shortly after it was composed. (The Arditti Quartet have also recorded it twice, the first rendition being on Mode from early in that series, recorded back in 1989, i.e. the year it was composed. The Montaigne recording is from 1991/92.) I was still investigating Cage's music at that time, although a lot of the more elaborate or unusual pieces weren't available on record, and actually settled on Four as a favorite. That evaporated over time, though, and I didn't go on to investigate more of the Number Pieces until more recently.... Four is obviously an important work in Cage's output, and one (like the other works from 1989) where the time bracket concept seems to be fortuitous for music Cage had been wanting to create. In this case, though, the piece also follows on other string quartet works, most recently Music for Four (but also Thirty Pieces for String Quartet, also from the 1980s). Still, per Three, the modular construction comes off a little awkwardly, and later Number Pieces tend to be more compelling without that approach (which would appear to be retained at least in part from Music for ____, suggesting that Four is really the point at which the Number Piece project superseded that one...): In that sense, it's relatively clear to me that my waning enthusiasm for Four was justified at the time, although I've been renewing my appreciation. In particular, the slow organ-esque opening projects a distinctive solemnity... a mood that can also be difficult to sustain or elaborate over an entire thirty minutes. (The later Bozzini Quartet rendition is worth hearing: It's rather more lively & even pretty in its sound, which can be a mixed blessing in this repertory, but does work rather well for this piece — in terms of beautifying its sometimes over-smooth & layered passing. This is also one of the most recently recorded performances of a major Number Piece, and displays a real interpretive poise. And for an older — & overdubbed — reading, the Ogre Ogress release does distinguish itself by allowing one to program the different modular versions....) None of these 1989 pieces really reaches the heights of the later Number Pieces, though, even as they do tend to be unique & relatively central to Cage's output overall.
Four2 (1990; choir)
This is another unusual piece in being written for voices. (Chronology might not mean much in this case....) It's also one of the shorter Number Pieces, and the voices are articulated in choral sections, meaning four parts but more singers: This sort of distant oohing & aahing from choruses is exactly not the kind of vocal music I tend to enjoy, and this piece was actually written for a high school ensemble, so it's relatively simple technically. (Cage wrote quite a bit of vocal music prior to this, but none elsewhere explicitly in the Number Pieces. Many of his later vocal works are quite extended technically, though, e.g. the Solos for Voice that he continued to write up to 1988, and so are nothing like this....) Technical simplicity aside, it's certainly not an unpleasant piece — & the Mode rendition (that also provides two takes) includes a similar choral interpretation of Five as well that's worth hearing alongside it. The basic sound of Four2 still isn't my idea of how to use a collection of voices, and doesn't even involve a real "gamut" for SATB choir either, as its sounds are kept within rather narrow (traditional, or even new age) technical limits. (Apparently its sequence of held tones spells out "Oregon.") However, it does grow on me & I've come to appreciate it as a sort of little choral interlude among the Number Pieces.
Four3 (1991; 1 or 2 pianos, violin or
oscillator & rainsticks)
This is another Number Piece where the piano part is filled by the performer with Satie material (like Two6, although the latter piece has other options). It's also interesting that the "violin part" is scored to be handled by mechanical oscillator if needed, i.e. removing the difficulty of producing a single continuous tone.... (The other two performers tilt rainsticks back & forth, giving the piece its characteristic "sandy" sound. Or else one of them plays an optional piano offstage, also based on Extended Lullaby.... And I guess all of the performers are responsible for rainsticks, and might even switch between instruments? In any case, this piece has also been performed & recorded as a duo.) Four3 was written for the Cunningham dance Beach Birds, and ends up being perhaps the most accessible Number Piece. It's relatively simple & I'm not a big fan of the Satie material (especially over & over), but it's an immediately striking & evocative piece — a piece that many people seem to enjoy, given review discussions. I'm surprised to note now that it's only been recorded a handful of times (& not always complete). The premiere recording on Mode is an obvious choice, although I haven't personally found this cyclic piece to be of much lasting utility....
Four4 (1991; percussion)
This piece constructs an extended tapestry of over an hour, and is also unusual in Cage's oeuvre in being commissioned to be recorded straight to CD (which apparently determined its length). It seems Cage had been a curmudgeon to this point regarding writing for (but not employing) recorded music formats, but accepted the idea in this case: Much of his earlier output was certainly created so as to forge a live impression.... Four4 is also his final percussion piece, i.e. (per thoughts on One4) a genre in which Cage had composed extensively early in & throughout his career. The result is often sparse over its extended duration, but can be aggressive at times too, as some sounds are (optionally) maintained for long periods. In that sense it can seem like background music, but then becomes (presumably) too noisy to ignore at times. Still, I've enjoyed having this piece going for, say, a quasi-quiet afternoon or evening. It definitely forges its own vibe, including via senses of tension, but the feeling involved can often be patience. And the dedicatee's rendition is still available on Hungaroton, perhaps its relatively crude sounds being the most authentic, but I've come to prefer the smoother process-oriented rendition by musicians from the English improvisation scene on Another Timbre.... As the sparsest of the Number Pieces, Four4 is also difficult to evaluate in performance, in that (as opposed to e.g. Two2) the individual moments of the piece seem relatively far removed from its general projection of a mood: It's consequently taken a relatively long time to evaluate the available interpretations, as my response needs to be measured more broadly against life context (i.e. as extending far beyond the timeframe of the piece itself...). In other words, obviously "the best parts" of an interpretation of Four4 are when something is actually happening, but such a narrow evaluation can miss the point of sculpting a span of time (i.e. for the listener). And this piece does consequently continue to attract attention from musicians as well: An even more recent rendition of note is by the English quartet Gerauschhersteller, their starkly ringing metallic strikes — but with other materials as well at times — forging an almost crystalline feel (that soon merges back into extended silence), in opposition to the frequent low rumbling on Another Timbre.... All in all, this seems to be music with ongoing practical utility, employing a sophisticated sense of extended temporal "span" (in the Feldman sense): It's less "busy" than Feldman's music, but etches some similar affective impressions via reduced means.
Four5 (1991; saxophone quartet)
This is a relatively short piece, and although I like the idea that Cage composed a piece for saxophone quartet, it hadn't made a big impression on me to this point.... (For one thing, the smooth sound Cage asks of saxes seems to make them sound less like saxes — although it's comparable to what he seeks in the vibrato-less violin.... Or, I suppose, it could be compared to the recorder sound of Three....) It also sounds almost continuously, in different registers, sometimes overlapping, and so could be considered to be a multi-register drone piece. Despite or because of its smoothly overlapping tonal tensions, which appear to vary by chance, Four5 also produces a relaxing vibe, and so perhaps does come to be useful (almost like a sometimes shrill reset button).... (This is the first example of a piece that's grown on me while specifically considering some thoughts for this page. In particular, hearing it as a refinement of ideas articulated earlier in Three ends up making a lot of sense....) I've subsequently come to be rather satisfied with Krieger's quartet version on Mode, although there are also interpretations (including by Krieger himself, as well as from the dedicatee, who pairs it with Tenney's Saxony...) using taped parts to make a solo rendition. Ultimately, I guess I'd like for Four5 to be a longer tapestry....
Starting from One7 as its first part, this is one of Cage's most recorded late Number Pieces, and apparently a favorite with musicians. For one thing, its instrumentation is open-ended — although as suggested around One7, its history does suggest a capacity to sustain pitch. The latter means that Four6 can end up being quite a forceful piece, without much space for silence (e.g. Sabine Liebner's rendition being an exception, as noted around One7, but also being less usual in arranging the four parts for solo performer). There are multiple renditions of note, though, beginning with the premiere featuring Cage himself (in his final public performance, as one of two voices, released as John Cage at Summerstage) in a quirky & sometimes eerie realization without much sustain — meaning that a sparser approach also dates to the beginning of Four6's performance history. However, for a more forceful approach involving extensive sustain, Zeitkratzer turns in a particularly searing & twisted version around rumbling industral timbres — almost scary! (For contrasting sustain-oriented renditions, Ulrich Krieger's ends up sounding like shimmering 1970s UFO music, while Gerauschhersteller's asks the age old question, what if a quasi-musical alarm embedded new age tonalities? That last one can be annoying, the tonality I mean, but does have a certain... I won't say charm. I enjoy the quasi-mystical UFO sometimes though, with its resonant layerings.) Meanwhile, mainstay Cage interpreters The Barton Workshop turns in by far its strangest reading in this piece, yielding a rendition of Four6 that spans a wide range of ideas on timbre & articulation, bizarre sounds & strange layerings. (Unfortunately, this "do not miss" rendition is on their least available album, also with misprints & unclear credits. I did eventually get a chance to read the liner notes, and although the general discussion of Cage's music as embodying his social philosophies seems to be on target, Fulkerson himself has nothing substantial to say about the performance approach here, even as it's the most dynamic & extended in his Cage series....) That interpretation manages both to involve various sorts of sustain & to invoke sparseness, including at the same time.... (Surveying Four6 also proved relatively challenging, not only because of the available variety, but because of the frequent potency of the musical result: Unlike Five, that made stringing together a series of interpretations for audition come to seem like "too much" at times....) A next approach at combining the sparse & continuous in this piece then comes from the English improvisors on Decentred, there also oriented on pitch extremes (framing tonal space, i.e. absent a center), although the electronic timbres (of 1 of the 4 parts) don't work for me 100% of the time (even as the "distant radio" evocations do seem to fit right in with some of Cage's earlier work).... If you're only going to hear one, though — & Four6 would be on a short list of Number Pieces to recommend to any new explorer, at least depending on background — particularly given the availability & sound quality, as of this moment, I'd say go for Zeitkratzer. (I also feel as though their rendition could be perfect for driving around, blasting from a Harley too... not that I do that sort of thing myself... & not that the richly detailed tapestry would remain completely audible.) In any case, although moods might vary between interpretations, and so lend themselves to different circumstances — at least when I'm interested in more "active" music — Four6 ends up being a substantial late piece to which I often return, including in different versions.
This is one of the preliminary Number Pieces. It not only embeds the number 5 in various layers of its construction, next most conspicuously its length in minutes, but is one of the only Number Pieces (along with Four6) not to specify instrumentation. Five thus also initiates a general trend for the Number Pieces in 5 parts as short works that seem intended to be embedded in longer recitals.... (Perhaps there's also a sense in which this piece embeds a notion of haiku, perhaps as followed in turn by Seven — in partial continuation of Cage's various -kus pieces from the mid-80s.) Its infusion of 5s also heralds future permeations in the Number Pieces, and indeed — surely in large part for its flexibility — ends up making for a popular piece to record: One approach is to use five of the same instrument, and The Barton Workshop's (second) rendition for five clarinets is quite elegant in that direction. (Among matched quintets, the Mode discography includes e.g. a rendition for blowing into bottles — as well as the choral rendition noted around Four2.) And then among interpretations combining instrument families, the searing suspensions from Zeitkratzer are particularly appealing (as is, again, the similar arrangement by Krieger).... There are probably others to note on programs that I haven't heard due to their very short Cage content, as this flexible piece can appear in a variety of places.... One thing I also discovered in surveying versions is that it comes off rather affectively to string together a dozen different renditions of Five to form a full program: The changing instrumentations avoid monotony, and the piece itself tends to project a sense of enveloping calm such that the ongoing tapestry comes to feel rather welcome. (This is the only Number Piece where I've really felt that hearing it over & over in this way is effective. Put some versions on shuffle! And now Apartment House has added five more versions — albeit with similar instrumentations — to the playlist....)
Five2 (1991; 4 reeds & timpani)
This is another short piece, and as noted (e.g. around One4), the shorter pieces end up having less time to imprint themselves on the listener. It thus took a while to warm up to some of the details here, but this ends up being an enjoyable little piece, including via a change in instrumentation along the way serving to create a sort of directional momentum.... (I tend to prefer the relatively newer The Barton Workshop rendition over that of the Ives Ensemble, but both are fine readings.) At this point I wish that its sound world was explored at greater length, although Five5 is something of a continuation (or refinement)....
Five3 (1991; trombone & string
Companion to Two5, this piece is one of the 1991 masterpieces. I've favored James Fulkerson's recording with The Barton Workshop (although he'd recorded it before with the other dedicatees), but the Arditti rendition on Mode is also of consequence. (Unfortunately, despite its musically excellent & intuitive program, as an album to hear all at once, The Fives is extremely unbalanced, such that the shorter pieces can be difficult to appreciate in context of this much larger piece....) There are extended periods of silence too, but the string quartet also tends to sound in a sustaining mode (to the extent that it sounds). Together with the independently voiced trombone growling, this piece can sometimes make a real impact — although it doesn't do as well as some with noisy listening spaces (even to the point of sometimes seeming to be swallowed up by the roar of electricity within an ordinary living room...). And so, although it always seemed like a great combination of forces that I'd really appreciate, Five3 had (originally) made a less consistent impact on me than its more percussive partner, Two5. Still, given the distance it projects, its sometimes limited sense of presence comes to have a reassuring quality.... (In this, perhaps the Arditti sense of sustain ends up feeling more reassuring... likely due to familiarity per se. It also ends up feeling longer.) It's not a sense of reassurance on which one can lean, though, at least not in other than a most balanced way — almost as a transverse aural sense of e.g. strips of paper hanging from a ceiling. Nonetheless, I'd come to appreciate this Number Piece increasingly (particularly from Fulkerson, et al.) in the months after originally writing this paragraph, as its ephemeral quality comes to offer a sort of ongoing suspension.... And then, the Apartment House reading (appearing in 2021) tackled Five3 by treating the microtonal material as imprecise (i.e. as simply untuned, per e.g. Eight), plus emphasized sustaining tones as much as possible, making for what seems like a very different piece: It comes to feel almost like a cityscape, complete with traffic & car alarms (while its sort of equivocating tension largely vanishes...). So, I continue to hear microtonal precision as worthwhile in this Number Piece, but the "different" version has some appeal too.
Five4 (1991; 2 saxophones &
This is another short piece in the Five series, again taking on a ritual (in this case, memorial) vibe. This is another piece that's never quite clicked for me, as its instrumentation seems to suggest something vaguely jazzy, yet it's actually rather sparse (with some relatively sudden blasts).... (It does suggest vanishing, I suppose?) I've come to hear this piece as something of a followup to Four5, though, i.e. further abstraction around rhythmic interpolation (two saxophones being sufficient to clash tonally), but I don't actually know the order in which the two pieces were composed.... Particularly from this vantage point, I've preferred the Krieger rendition.
Five5 (1991; 4 winds & percussion)
This piece seems to carry on the general impetus of Five2, but with flute instead of English horn. (Its sustained tones in different registers should also be compared to Four5... relative chronology among this handful of fine pieces dated October 1991 remaining enigmatic.) If anything, it's even more chiseled in its exploration of the "five" world, probably the greatest "miniature" among the Number Pieces. It suggests another sound world that would surely be enjoyable to hear elaborated.... (And once again, I've slightly preferred The Barton Workshop interpretation among the three solid recording choices.) And although I've struggled to find much of a place in my listening life for this short jewel among the late Number Pieces, I do find that it can make a big impact under some circumstances: In particular, while it's not really long enough to conjure its own space in a relaxed manner (i.e. via its non-confrontational vibe) & so to refocus the listener (from an arbitrary mental state...), it can still sometimes be very striking — specifically by leveraging its horizontal compactness (so to speak, as it's never terribly busy) into the vertical dimension. Five5 can thus provide an occasional vision of open verticality as a kind of layered, momentary transcendence gesturing outside of ordinary time.... (I guess, practically speaking, I've come to use it to "punctuate" longer Number Piece programs....)
Six (1991; percussion)
This is the shortest of the Number Pieces, and I don't know the story behind it, but it also doesn't seem to be very popular with musicians (aside from, perhaps ironically, the Sonic Youth cover). It hasn't struck me. (And strangely, for what seems like such a modest piece, it also seems to attract overdub recordings, to the extent that it gets recorded....)
Seven (1988; flute, clarinet, percussion,
piano, violin, viola & cello)
This is another of the seminal Number Pieces, and the longest prior to the 1989 summations: Seven also adopts a technical orientation in terms of how its chords are constructed combinatorially, plus it sits at the confluence of three (seemingly important) commissions. (It should probably be analogized to some related chord organization approaches by Carter....) It's also preliminary (in a series ending with Ten...) in terms of balancing the cross-section of instruments deployed in this format, and so interpretations tend to revolve around how they balance the piano against the remaining mixed sextet. (And given its early date, it would be particularly interesting & appropriate to hear a Music for Seven rendition with instrumentation identical to that of Seven....) The piece has been recorded several times (although not nearly as often as Five), but in this case, the performances turn out to be relatively easy to survey: The first recording (that by the Ives Ensemble) continues to be of distinct merit, maintaining a sense of mysterious command & suspension throughout such a shifting & shadowy piece (that can easily end up seeming unbalanced or unwieldy) — & in an interpretation that also seems to evoke (perhaps fraught) echoes of the 1960s. And then a bit more recently (on a double album mainly devoted to Tenney), MusikFabrik brings a more spacious & industrial vibe, somehow both more controlled & more dissonant... such that I'd increasingly focused on this rather tautly timed & suspenseful rendition. (The Barton Workshop version sounds more classical around piano, and hasn't resonated as much for me in this case.) And then in 2021, Apartment House released two versions, the "alternate" being rather spicy & much more blunt than MusikFabrik's (or their own less dissonant "main" offering). So I've also been enjoying the assertiveness of the former, perhaps reminding us that once a choice has been made, even by chance operation, it's time to commit (rather than equivocate).... In many ways, Seven starts a series of what would be Cage's finest late works for mixed chamber ensembles (ending with Ten, as dedicated to the Ives Ensemble...). And although silence might linger in the background, Seven also tends to be sonically active (around a quasi-ubiquitous, but never exactly busy, piano), even engaging a sense of (classical, rhetorical) drama at various points, thus making for more conscious listener engagement than most of the later Number Pieces.
Seven2 (1990; bass flute, bass clarinet,
bass trombone, 2 percussionists, cello & double bass)
This is another unusual piece, particularly where it appears in the chronology (1990), i.e. after some significant summations in formats that Cage had already been investigating. The ensemble here seems out of nowhere, though, and isn't reprised. (Perhaps that it's dedicated to music writers suggests that they'd wondered why so few works were being written for bass instruments? And there are indeed very few basses used in the Number Pieces, unless one counts not-very-low instruments such as bass clarinet....) The piece also emphasizes continuity — a 1990 concern — but of a generalized line passed between instruments as it proceeds, as if via sequence of (more lightly accompanied) soloists.... And despite listening to the two classic, commercial recordings several times — those by The Barton Workshop & the Ives Ensemble, two groups that recorded many fine Cage interpretations — I was slow to appreciate this piece: It was basically difficult to hear — which I distinguish from cognitive difficulty or sparseness per se. And I'd even suggested (already) in this space that the sound quality of recordings of low-pitched instruments had improved considerably over the past couple of decades, so perhaps this piece simply needed updated sound: That happened with the Apartment House release in 2021, and so there's finally a truly audible (low rumbling) performance available.... There'd been something of an ominous quality running through the interpretations (already), and Seven2 is also one of the longest Number Pieces, remaining something of a sphinx. (And at some point, I realized that Seven2 may offer a numerical connection to Fourteen, which does also feature many of these same instruments around piano....) And to double down on the latter comment, as I continued working on this page, I also noticed that its length in minutes mirrors the number of weeks in the year.... So, what does Seven2 seek to invoke anyway? (Such an image suggests, perhaps, the metaphorical passage of longer spans of time, which is not the usual Number Piece orientation.) Whatever it is, such an evocation happens mostly via sequence of long (sometimes overlapping), low tones around dual percussion — & maybe even suggests a sort of counterweight to One6. And maybe now that I can hear this piece better, it will come to seem less mysterious....
Eight (1991; flute, oboe, clarinet,
bassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone & tuba)
This is a piece that I instantly enjoyed early in my survey of the Number Pieces, and so was even one of the impetuses to extend the project.... For one thing, it's a wind octet, and so basically unrelated to so many of Cage's ongoing instrumental concerns (e.g. piano, percussion, strings...), but also a dance piece — for a different dance company! (It's probably worth noting that a sense of modern dance pervades so much of Cage's music, if only at a distance....) Eight is also the only Number Piece that clocks in right at an hour, whatever that means.... But this is also a colorful & lively piece! (Cage's "gamut" concept was obviously applied to winds too, even as that appears to be less specifically discussed, and here the result is one of his most assertive late masterpieces.) This is not the sort of music that I was originally expecting to hear either, but might be described as Cage's summary & transfiguration of the "ballet music" genre. The only thing people elsewhere seem to have to say about Eight, though, is to quote Cage's instruction that "intonation need not be agreed upon" — & so the particular microtonal clashes are apparently supplied by the performers. When I wrote this page, there was only The Barton Workshop's interpretation on record, but what a great interpretation.... And now there's another from Apartment House, and I've enjoyed that as well. (Indeed, I enjoyed it immediately, just like the older recording. This piece thus seems to come through especially clearly in performance....) Eight is then generally assertive throughout, even as its pace tends to be mellow (& as the horns can become individually loud): Hearing it as a dance becomes easier & easier, again a genre for which Cage was one of the leading composers of his generation (here scored entirely without percussion). (It might also be characertized as a series of horn calls, but these end up being contextualized dramatically — & presumably figuratively, via characters emerging from the dancers.) Eight is thus a clear summit in his output, still relatively neglected.
Ten (1991; flute, oboe, clarinet, trombone,
percussion, piano, 2 violins, viola & cello)
This is one of the most advanced Number Pieces, in terms of combining instrument families with technically demanding extended material — including microtonal material for most instruments. In some ways, it can be heard as a followup to Fourteen, and although the piano part is not relatively as large as on the latter, it ends up sounding more pianistic more often via a variety of techniques. (Ten is also 50% longer overall. Note further that its four winds are from different families, presumably for maximum timbral variety between them. Of these, though, note tangentially that Cage didn't write any of his lowest numbered pieces for oboe or clarinet....) This is also demanding music for the listener: Although interpretations from distinguished Cage performers The Barton Workshop & the Ives Ensemble (the dedicatees, who somehow end up sounding relatively brassy) remain impressive, perhaps this is a piece that could still use an update? (Another medium-old recording, that by Johnny Reinhard & The American Festival of Microtonal Music, is currently available on Bandcamp & does offer some appealing shifting colorings, particularly from the winds, but isn't especially assertive....) I have a feeling that there's more here, perhaps to be revealed now that some thoughts on some other pieces have settled.... And so Apartment House did tackle Ten in their set for Another Timbre, but by treating the microtonal material imprecisely, and although the resulting "coarseness" does come off assertively, the imprecision simply doesn't work for me in this piece. Even so, Ten obviously presents as one of Cage's late monuments — these sorts of mixed ensemble pieces being an important thread running through the Number Pieces. Ten is then a clear climax among the mixed ensemble works with piano, and one of the most subtly provocative of the Number Pieces overall: It comes to suggest both intimacy & distance, such a combination being e.g. one key to loving relationships for Cage.
Thirteen (1992; flute, oboe, clarinet,
bassoon, trumpet, trombone, tuba, 2 percussionists, 2 violins, viola
This is sometimes figured as Cage's final completed piece, and is unusual among the late Number Pieces in that it often contains extended strings of notes (i.e. figures/phrases). The piece also made an early impression on me when surveying the Number Pieces, and in fact, I waited a while to explore the available interpretations more fully.... It's one of the longest pieces in terms of number of time brackets (i.e. volume of "material") as well, with the longer phrases even involving rhythmic contours at times. (Sixteen & Seventeen, spurious or unfinished pieces listed on the Wikipedia page, are also apparently "versions" of Thirteen....) This is then a unique work in Cage's output — although the longer figures aren't so dissimilar to those of 103 — and an important item here. (And there're five versions of the piece across four albums, so the discography isn't especially messy....) And note that although in some sense the material is more traditional than that of many late Number Pieces, there's also no piano in this mixed ensemble.... The dedicatees did soon put out a strong album with two renditions of Thirteen, and theirs continues to be available: The two versions are studies in contrast, in that the first is basically as "smooth" as possible, while the second involves spikier rhythms & spicier textural contrasts (starting e.g. from a sparkling early xylophone sequence). The more legato orientation of the first is not without its own merits, though, retaining much of the same affectivity. (It's worth comparing these versions as versions of the same piece by the same ensemble, as the overall timbre & sweep making up the piece via a sort of flexible "web" of relations can be revealed — details of articulation themselves being contingent, e.g. stretched. The first rendition might thus be described simply as more "neutral.") Meanwhile, The Barton Workshop balanced things differently, seemingly with more of a dramatic flair but without spikier passages per se.... (While the older rendition released later by Mode doesn't make much of an impression in comparison.) I've come to appreciate the starker approach of The Barton Workshop, i.e. more in keeping with many of the other Number Pieces, but wouldn't ultimately be without the warmer tones of Ensemble Thirteen, especially the spicier second version. (Theirs is also a Cage album that, remarkably, appears to have remained physically available this entire time....) And now, there's the 2021 version from Apartment House, and I've indeed found their update to be worthwhile as well: Sound (especially of percussion) is very clear (as on the set as a whole...), and I even start to hear snippets of Americana coming through via abstracted figures. The "material" of Thirteen thus appears to be rather far removed from "gamut" concepts....
Fourteen (1990; piano, flute/piccolo,
bass flute, clarinet, bass clarinet, horn, trumpet, 2 percussionists,
2 violins, viola, cello & double bass)
Although the piano part is larger than the others, I hadn't really thought of this piece as a piano concerto, until noticing that Mode included it — with other important works from earlier in Cage's oeuvre, Concerto for prepared piano & chamber orchestra (1951) & Concert for piano & orchestra (1957/58) — in an album of piano concerti. It does make sense, and that interpretation is relatively spacious & dramatic in the way it's staged too.... (Mainstays of the Number Piece discography, enterprising Cage interpreters The Barton Workshop & the Ives Ensemble paired it with Ten, where it comes off more as a general mixed chamber work....) As noted around One5, then, Fourteen offers something of a summary of Cage's thinking on writing for piano & ensemble, prior to embarking on the later Number Pieces.... Here the use of fishing line to rub the piano strings internally (sounded with more variety of methods on Ten) produces a loud clear tone, and so the piano's dominance of the shifting & usually legato texture is not immediately obvious. (The rumbling opening to the Ives Ensemble rendition, the earliest to be recorded, is particularly tense & even ominous. That entire interpretation suggests subtly searing dissonance much of the time....) Particularly considering the critical positions that the previous piano concerti (albeit more explicitly named) occupy in Cage's output, Fourteen has to be considered central to any chronology of the Number Pieces. (In this, its shorter length relative to many later masterpieces does sometimes seem unfortunate, though....) And I do tend to prefer it with more of a chamber vibe, such that the winds & strings are closer & more individually apparent. The most recent recording (i.e. in 2020, when I wrote this section...), that from The Barton Workshop (from 2006), generally maintains a sense of dramatic tension throughout, including via some piercing tones, but at the expense of minimizing what might be some more climactic moments.... (That's also the one Cage album from them for which I haven't been able to read the liner notes.) I guess that leaves me with a modest preference for the Ives Ensemble version.... And Fourteen does manage to conjure some pit-of-the-stomach anxiety at times: Despite the relatively smooth sound, it's not a placid piece, it's slowly shifting (not exactly atonal?) tapestry coming to yield quite a transformational mood.... Further to the previous remarks, then (which I'll leave more or less intact for now), the Apartment House reading emphasizes a forceful, searing (unsubtle & anxious!) rumble, its bluntness highlighting the overall "sweep" of the piece (versus details...), thus presenting it as a showpiece (relatively speaking, I suppose...).
Twenty-Three (1988; string band)
This piece remains something of an enigma, particularly appearing so early in the sequence. (It's also unusual among the Number Pieces in that the musicians keep their own timers, instead of referring to a general clock.) What prompted it? It does seem to be an exploration of string continuity, but here rather than effort from a soloist toward extension, it's simply a matter of overlapping parts taking up the slack.... (So I guess Cage was intrigued by this sort of buzzing sound already, but then changed to more of a virtuosic mode....) And I've only heard this piece in the overdubbed Ogre Ogress production, but it hasn't done much for me. Actually, now I wonder if Twenty-Three was already prompted (in part) by an encounter with Scelsi's string music.... (It's unclear to me when Cage first encountered Scelsi's music, but the latter's big splash internationally was in 1987.)
Twenty-Eight, Twenty-Six & Twenty-Nine
This piece is also rather mysterious: Once again, I've only heard it in the overdubbed Ogre Ogress production, and in this case, constituent works themselves were already overdubbed. (A total of 12 musicians are credited, 8 of those for the winds on Twenty-Eight.) And why was it published as three different pieces like this? Are they intended to be articulated separately, but then sound together, perhaps in some sort of Ivesian array of different performance spaces? I have no idea. (It's also very possible that the three components have durations in minutes matching their titles, such that they don't necessarily start together.) But if the Ogre Ogress rendition is any indication, this is quite a sonically imposing piece, with lots happening, layers of dissonance, a huge sound overall.... In other words, this could be one of Cage's late masterpieces, but no one else seems to be very interested to this point.
Fifty-Eight (1992; wind orchestra)
This is another Number Piece that, like Eight, takes up winds exclusively, here for a larger ensemble that was to be arrayed in various arches around a large structure. Fifty-Eight is also the most imposing of the late orchestral works in terms of its number of time brackets.... It basically comes off as a sequence of fanfares, though, seemingly endless announcements that something is about to happen — but that something never happens. I thus find the piece to be annoying, but I'm also impressed by how well it captures its particular affect: That's one aspect of Cage's music, for all the verbiage that may surround it (including here), it can have a direct effect. So I would say that Fifty-Eight is very effective. (I suspect it's also more compelling if one is within its physical space, i.e. surrounded by its moving sounds.)
Sixty-Eight (1992; orchestra)
This piece is both relatively straightforward in the way that all parts follow the same sequence of pitches (with different timings), as well as relatively sparse in terms of amount of material. Still, I've generally found it to be one of the more appealing & sophisticated late orchestral works, projecting a sort of floating & spacious quality. Cage obviously retained a strong interest in orchestral writing, and I hadn't really realized how much he'd written for orchestra through his career, but these late orchestral commissions must have pleased him, especially as they came to occupy much of 1992. In this work, then, Cage was able to construct meaningfully different affective pieces, often from relatively simple means.... And Sixty-Eight ends up creating a strong feeling of suspension, but not pure anticipation, rather spatialization: It's an effect of the way a pitch moves around the orchestral space, sometimes with overlap. There's a sense of calling — akin in some ways to the more epic stance of 108 — but without the same sense of duality. There's also a broader feeling of dissipation that comes to balance feelings of emergence — in the sense of "clearing the mind" per Cage's musical dictum — making Sixty-Eight one of Cage's most effective & even elegant late works. The second recording by Lucas Vis is then an easy choice for me, affectively executed & with prior experience. (For those readers with an overall preference for orchestral music, I might suggest it as the best entry to late Cage, although 108 has a more "traditionally" symphonic feel....) Particularly with the reputation of orchestral music within the classical tradition, this piece should be far better known within Cage's output. It does involve space & silence, but also provocatively so, within a charged atmosphere of pitch shadings & Scelsi-esque pitch fixation-wavering motion. Sixty-Eight thus combines many of the most characteristic aspects of Cage's late music, i.e. in the best sense of symphony, making for one of his most potent pieces. It's also achieved via rather minimal conceptual means, and I've found it to be increasingly engaging.
Seventy-Four (1992; orchestra)
This is the most Scelsian of the late orchestral pieces, a sort of jagged wave of musical emergence.... Like Sixty-Eight the means are relatively straightforward, with only two sets of parts, one high & one low: The imprecision of tuning between the instruments appears to capture — & to isolate — some of Scelsi's mysterious affect of chaotic dynamism (i.e. deconstructs his music to a degree, much as Tenney was doing). Within Cage's output, the length clearly recalls 1O1, which has a similar sort of "outburst" arc, here suggesting a kind of nonlinear foreshortening, but the sequence of "outbursts" also recalls Eighty (apparently composed the month prior). And further audition has suggested another sense of Sixty-Eight, as a tauter opening does tend to "spread out" by the end of Seventy-Four.... But once again, this music projects its own distinct feel — & the latter aspect doesn't actually recall Scelsi. (Maybe more general orchestral music patrons would even enjoy this piece? It's not very long....) The performance from Südwestrundfunk on Klang der Wandlungen (recorded in 2011) can be particularly searing & Scelsian, although it's also available from one of the dedicatees in two versions on ECM....
Eighty (1992; orchestra)
This is another piece that I've only heard in the overdubbed Ogre Ogress production (with 12 musicians actually credited, mostly individual winds).... Like Sixty-Eight it's relatively more substantial in length, and like Seventy-Four (which it apparently predates) it involves waves of emergence, i.e. a series of outbursts — that might themselves be characterized as appearing in a wave — separated by extended periods of silence or quiet. (Like both, its means are also relatively straightforward, with identical, but perhaps transposed, parts for each instrument.) It thus forges a sort of coming & going, or perhaps a sense of not-quite temporal alignment in eruption, that makes for another affective piece. (It's almost the opposite of Sixty-Eight, as there pitches tend to space themselves around the orchestra, while on Eighty sounds tend to clump together temporally....) What would it be like with musicians who can hear each other, though...?
1O1 (1988; orchestra)
This piece also dates to what I've called the preliminary Number Pieces, although it doesn't seem as strange as Twenty-Three.... The commission for the Boston Symphony must have been meaningful to Cage — particularly considering how he & his colleagues had so often been mistreated by members of major orchestras to this point — but the piece itself comes off almost like a rattling & noisy distraction around a sort of pensive & rhetorical quiet. (The loud rattling of Tibetan Buddhist ritual does come to mind at times, but I don't hear a lot of sophistication from the approach here.) It seems almost like an "in your face" piece (or maybe an extended Éclat, pace Boulez), paradoxically tentative as well, and I hasn't had much appeal for me. (I've warmed to the piece & its paradoxes, somewhat, since a relatively negative early impression....)
103 (1991; orchestra)
This is very much a major piece by duration, and is in fact one of Cage's most impressive orchestral works. I'm not sure why it doesn't seem to be better known, although that the Mode issue is a DVD (as paired with the film One11) is surely a factor. (Or am I the only one who finds DVDs to be so inconvenient?) In short, this ninety minute score — typical mainstream movie length — employs a "gamut" of the dramatic gestures of film music writing — the sequence of deployment arising by chance, of course. (That so much of this music, broadly speaking, originated from Schoenberg's stay in Los Angeles — during which he also incidentally taught Cage — should probably also be noted, as that event seems to have transformed 20th century film music....) Orchestral scoring for the winds also changes randomly through the piece.... This actually ends up being taut & often fast-paced music, though, very dramatic, but of course our affective response is made to twist in the wind of a chance sequence. I don't think I'll ever prioritize large-force music like this, or indeed film (or narrative drama in general), but I also believe that this piece deserves more recognition: It's a real tour-de-force of chance affect applied sequentially through the film format — & tends to forge a strangely charged, yet mellow, home environment (i.e. background drama absent any particular visuals). And I'm not sure why I neglected other releases for a while, but the performance on the reissue collection from Edition RZ (also that conducted by Arturo Tamayo for WDR from 1992, as on the Mode DVD...) is satisfying & available.
108 (1991; orchestra)
In parallel to comments on One, i.e. from the very beginning of this section, I also went into this project without a lot of interest in orchestral music: I was primarily seeking the sort of small ensemble combinations that I appreciate in contemporary improvised music.... But hearing 108 (in the Mode version, together with portions of One9 for shō soloist) was what convinced me to explore Cage's other orchestral music. (And do note that "108" is an auspicious number in the Sanskrit tradition....) In other words, this ends up being rather satisfying music, moving from a big sound to silence & back over a series of quasi-symphonic movements: It doesn't seem as satisfying without the soloist, although that might be because I'd heard that 109b version first.... I've also not been able to hear it paired with One8 (which, as noted above, was surely the original intent), other than (once again) in the Ogre Ogress version.... 108 ends up projecting a sort of epic feel, including via silence as the soloist can sometimes stand out starkly (as an individual). I suspect that this was also music Cage always wanted to write, and that the four last orchestral pieces consequently owe their "easy sophistication" in part to this relatively more fraught work. This really does seem like man-against-world sort of stuff, if more diffuse around Cage's ideas on escaping egoism: It's thus relatively contradictory within his output (although contradiction might also be considered a kind of norm...), seemingly an essay — even a rationalization — around projecting egolessness while being a composer (i.e. one of the most egotistical jobs there is, at least per the image of Beethoven, the historical dominance of which Cage is known to have found regrettable...). Yet there is certainly the sense of a calling in this work. Drama tends to be palpable throughout (not so unlike the tensions of 103 at times).
This section will continue to be elaborated, with different layers of thoughts & information added throughout this project.... At this point, that will basically mean updates to reflect new recorded interpretations. This section will presumably remain the "meat" (a metaphor I should avoid with Cage, I suppose...) of this page, though....
This section lists a few pieces (all from the 1980s, to this point) that are especially suggestive of the Number Pieces and/or appear together regularly on albums. In other words, these are other Cage works that I've found particularly intruguing or enjoyable within the context of this specific project. (Likewise, this section will continue to be elaborated... but I don't anticipate that the number of pieces listed here will grow much, if at all. There are definitely no aspirations for completeness beyond the Number Piece project, so more like an overflow....)
Ryoanji (1983-85; differing
This is probably the piece appearing most frequently on Number Piece albums, and is apparently scored for oboe, double bass, flute, trombone or voice & percussion or small orchestra (i.e. one of various soloists & accompaniment). The glissandi in the main lines are taken from curved drawings around rocks from this Kyoto garden, and have usually been supplemented by taped lines as well (for practical reasons) in performance. And although the original scoring can involve an orchestra, Ryoanji usually seems to consist of various interlocking glissando lines & simple offbeat percussion: In particular, per the discussion of Two, I enjoy the taut flute & percussion version on the recent Katrin Zenz album.... (There's also at least one version with voice.) Between the microtones & the almost disinterested offcenter rhythms, this little piece (under 20') is consistently effective at projecting a ritual mood (e.g. according to Cage's "clearing the mind" notion). Ryoanji has been recorded many times, including by Kleeb & Dahinden, the Ives Ensemble & Ulrich Krieger (to name only some interpretations appearing on albums already cited here).
Hymnkus (1986; various arrangements)
The title of this piece combines hymn & haikus, and thus continues a short series of -kus pieces Cage wrote in the mid-1980s, all of which appear to feature voice. (Note also that Cage wrote a variety of pieces around hymns, especially early American hymnals....) The original version of Hymnkus also employs voice with chamber ensemble, but most of the recorded arrangements seem to be purely instrumental these days. In particular, I've enjoyed the saxophone arrangement (with accordion, piano, percussion) by Ulrich Krieger on Mode. (The similar approach from Zeitkratzer is also potent.) This is a roughly 30' piece — like so many of the most prominent Number Pieces — & forges some of the same flowing, meditative style, although it can seem static at times as well (perhaps paradoxically, via its much more tangible pulse). This is also a piece that had achieved some (critical) prominence in Cage's output — at least prior to the Number Piece sequence: It definitely anticipates some of the feel, although still does come off (more repetitively) with a more consistent pulse. (In that sense, perhaps Two2 is a more specific continuation of these ideas.) So in some ways, the appeal is hearing a step in the process of realizing the late Number Pieces, but Hymnkus is also still enjoyable on its own.
Music for ____ (1984-87; variable ensemble,
up to 17 musicians)
This piece, or set of pieces, was the direct precedent for the Number Pieces, and so will require further discussion. In particular, the idea of a single work with variable number of parts to be combined according to whatever forces are available has a certain elegance to it, and my understanding is that Cage had intended to continue adding more & more within this horizon. (This sort of notion seems to have been in the air in the 1980s, as e.g. Anthony Braxton has suggested that all of his music can be played simultaneously as well....) What actually happened is that Cage ended the project after 17 parts — those for voice, flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, trumpet, trombone, 4(!) percussionists, 2 pianos & string quartet — and moved on to the Number Piece series instead (& I do recall some buzz about this around New York at the time): To my mind there are two basic issues with Music for ____ as an ongoing compositional framework, namely the coordinated timings & the way that the written parts are indifferent to how many other musicians are participating. Regarding the former, Cage resolved the issue by continuing to develop flexible time brackets (in the Number Pieces), thus removing any lingering demand or incentive for precise temporal coordination between parts. As a result, the Number Pieces achieve a more flowing & organic sense of time & simultaneity, whereas the relatively more precise timings & alternations (between "pieces" & "interludes") of Music for ____ — which is also a 30' piece — lead to a sort of intricacy that, especially with many parts, takes on the feel of modernist music. (In this, the full Music for Seventeen, recorded by the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players under Stephen Mosko on an old Newport Classics album, is a must hear. The full piece remains one of Cage's monuments, a remarkably intricate & layered half hour.... Note also that it includes a particularly free but not very prominent voice part, as solo voice is generally lacking from the Number Piece instrumentarium.... Of course, the voice part is central to the short reading of Music for Three around Joan La Barbara on the Summerstage program.) One might say that there's a tendency for each part to find a consistent rhythmic niche & to make itself heard within that niche (which is very different from the later music). Regarding the latter issue, just in terms of naïve social thinking, there's the sense that everyone should be themselves regardless of who else is around, but the reality is that people behave differently in different sized groups — or at least many do. (And for good reason.) It's this part of the Music for ____ concept that seems unresolveable to me, as far as continuing within a single musical framework for ongoing composition.... (In that sense, the individual Number Pieces then take the number of people participating as of crucial significance, while the overall concept continues to treat it generically.... In another sense, the Number Pieces might be said to remove the frame or binding from the Music for ____ ideas.) That said, besides the full Music for Seventeen version (which can seem almost mechanical with so many players, very much like some serial works...), Music for Four for string quartet is another prominent version, particularly when it first appeared (& as it continues Cage's series of string quartets from throughout his career). Per the discussion of Four above, I'd also heard it back closer to its composition, when this flexible Music for ____ composition/series was being hailed as the very latest thing.... (Criticism of modularity, similar to that offered around Four above, could apply here as well.... Plus, repetitive rhythms do seem to end up appearing amid a pulsing pace, almost a fractal-like clustering of notes around temporal-structural points....) (A voice part also appears on the Music for Eight around Steffen Schleiermacher, a rendition that makes a nicely flowing timbral impression, featuring winds & piano/percussion with younger performers outside of Cage's circle, but ends up being less affective on repeated exposure....) Since the Number Pieces subsequently became more established with musicians, though, Music for ____ hasn't been recorded as much: Most of the recordings for larger or different combinations are older, and so I'll also note Music for Six by perhaps the most ambitious ensemble in this repertory, The Barton Workshop (from 1992), among those featuring somewhat larger mixed ensemble sounds: Theirs remains a sensitive & evocative performance that hasn't really been superseded, particularly for its hybrid sense of space.... (More recently, playing from this set in one of its many duo options seems to be the most popular, even including arranging parts for a solo performer... thus moving almost entirely away from the concept of separately overlaid parts.) Pairing a version of this piece with a corresponding Number Piece instrumentation also seems like a good trend (including e.g. on Complete Works for Flute, as noted above around Two), and there are various other such pairings that could still be recorded: Indeed, most of the smaller Number Pieces could be paired with a similar version of Music for ____, the exceptions being those for shō, recorders, saxophones & choir (but also, technically, Five2 & Five5, whose specific combinations of winds don't appear), and then as the numbers get larger with Six (but not Seven or Ten, or even for somewhat smaller forces, Five3 or Four4...), etc. There's more here that was never really revealed after the turn to emphasizing the Number Pieces.
The following chronology was based on that on Wikipedia, here grouped by year.
Preliminary Number Pieces.... The first two from 1987 could be separated from the next four from 1988.... But Five & Seven are also significant technical explorations of this concept in the wake of concluding the Music for ____ project.
Major summations by Cage, almost retrospective, although continuing to innovate concepts around the basic "time bracket" idea for score-less parts.... (Later in 1989 & into 1990 also saw the last little flurry of multiple works that aren't Number Pieces, although Cage would continue to compose a smattering of other works e.g. for tape or radios in his last couple of years....) Note also that there's a relatively large gap (i.e. six months!) between the composition dates of 1O1 & Four (with no other works), suggesting a major conceptual consolidation.
More summations, especially for solo instrument(alist)s. Refining technical concepts, particularly after completing intervening non-Number Pieces.... (Fourteen also consolidates the centrality of these compositional ideas in Cage's work, returning to the "piano concerto" genre....)
The first works dated 1991 are from April (likewise 6 months after Four2...), and suggest further major summations. Cage then completed an entire series of masterpieces in this style, including prospective ideas.... Cage's 1991 can thus be registered alongside the most significant years of any great composer.
In some ways, this year break is the least significant stylistically. However, perhaps Cage's last year can be distinguished by the greater frequency of his orchestral writing....
Several of these pieces are dated only by month, or in some cases less specifically than that, so a precise order is not always possible (& it's certainly also possible that compositional activity overlapped etc., even when there is a definite date...).
I will probably make some further comments about "periodization" at some point. (The years at least seem to be generally accurate here.) In the meantime, hopefully this list will be informative, although admittedly it's not newly compiled in any sense.
The title for this heading is self-explanatory. Note however that these are (hopefully consistently?) listed by release date (rather than recording date), and that as opposed to many of the other discographies here, I've most often encountered these albums via digital downloads, and so don't always have access to complete production information — a lamentable situation that remains for many downloads. Consequently, at least for the time being, I'm going to be uneven in creating recording files for individual items. (In particular, merit won't be the primary factor....) And in several cases, Discogs was consulted to arbitrate dates.
I did hit the point (during this project, in 2020) of having surveyed recorded interpretations, or at least those having been released long enough ago (or prominently enough) to appear on discographies. But I intend to continue to audition new interpretations of at least some Number Pieces on an ongoing basis, and so new recordings of note should continue to appear here....
Of course, Mode Records is the most significant source for Cage recordings, and they've also recently made the move to Bandcamp (apparently in 2020, i.e. during my project!), meaning that their material remains available. (The same cannot be said for many of the recordings that follow....) I'm not listing the entire Complete Edition here, but only the items that I've specifically mentioned.... Nonetheless, this list could still grow.
The Mode Edition stretches from some of the earliest recordings of the Number Pieces to the present day, the most recent (although not including any Number Pieces) being Volume 54 (released in 2021, i.e. after this writeup was first completed). Volume 1, the first release by Mode as a new label, appeared in 1985.
Particularly when it comes to the Number Pieces, The Barton Workshop was one of the leading Cage interpreters. (I don't know if they're still active, or active in this arena.... They recorded e.g. some of the great Tenney albums as well.... And their website was still around when I began this project in 2020, but not really as of the present moment.) Their albums are of special note, although the first is a more general anthology.
Although they have fewer Cage releases, the Ives Ensemble was also an early leader recording the Number Pieces. (Their discography includes a lot of Feldman too, and their concert schedule is ongoing presenting new music.) Like most of those of The Barton Workshop, these albums are out of print physically, but apparently have some ongoing availability as downloads....
Here are some other albums noted above as classics (at least in some vague sense, as some might better be labeled simply as older recordings).... The first group appeared directly or specifically in the wake of Cage's death (in August 1992).
In more recent years, the UK's Another Timbre label has been releasing an increasingly rich set of music by Cage (as well as by others in the post-Cage tradition...), including a massive 4CD set featuring many Number Pieces, thus prompting me to add a heading for the label here. (Another Timbre can likewise be found on Bandcamp.)
And the final entry did appear after I'd completed the individual Number Piece discussions, such that remarks were added above in September 2021 (as they continue to be added for newer releases...).
Here are, then, the remainder of the cited recordings — that I'm somewhat arbitrarily (pace that none, at least so far, are exactly first recordings...) designating as newer....
I do intend to continue noting (at least some) new recorded interpretations, both here & above (in the individual Number Pieces section). There'll likely be reviews of notable future albums over at Jazz Thoughts as well....
Finally, the Cage discography would not be what it is without the enterprising efforts of Glenn Freeman (& faithful associates) to put these (often overdubbed) productions together & bring them to the public. The list below is relatively complete, but the operation appears only to be selling off old inventory at this point.... (Ogre Ogress has also contributed significantly to e.g. the Feldman discography. Their website likewise disappeared during the course of this project.)
This section has been compiled according to imprecise & subjective criteria, but perhaps a few thoughts are worth summarizing here in this form. This is basically a list for musicians who are pondering what they might record, I suppose. Or else for the generally curious....
I'll update this brief section with new remarks as needed, but presumably the list itself will only become shorter? (And the Apartment House release by Another Timbre, already in 2021, did promptly remove four items from the original list....)
And although the chronology section largely duplicates what's on Wikipedia, I also want to include a list of the Number Pieces ordered by playing time. These timings are derived from both recordings & the Database of Works at the John Cage Trust:
Especially considering that length was one of the parameters with which Cage often began, and since his method of composition also involved specifying timings, such a list as this is more meaningful than it'd be for many composers.... It should also be a helpful reference for selecting works to fill particular spans of time in real life, including as I continue on this project....
(Some of these figures do remain, nonetheless, approximate. And the Trust doesn't generally give timings for pieces where performers can choose to perform some or all.)
Back to modern music page.Todd M. McComb Started: 16 August 2020 Last update: 15 September 2021