Modern music: Cage - Number Pieces

This is another placeholder page, this time for an eventual discussion of John Cage's late Number Pieces. I expect to complete this discussion during Autumn 2020, and intend to make some changes to my traditional "recordings" format here in order to do so.


Under Construction


The prompt is basically a recent realization that beyond Cage's conceptual & technical innovations, I'm finding much of his late music to be worthwhile to hear in my daily life these days, i.e. in a utilitarian sense as music. So I'll be articulating more extended thoughts & repertory preferences....

In preparation for a more extended discussion, I'll first be collecting various pieces of information here for reference. Thus, sections will start to be added to this page, but a more general (or critical) introduction is likely to wait for the end of this project....

(Note that I actually began a reinvestigation of Cage early in 2020, prior to the quarantine. Whether I'd've made it as far as an extended personal discussion, rather than just some renewed listening, absent the virus, is then unknown. The "extra" time in the Spring did presumably solidify a commitment to this project....)


Number Pieces — Individual Discussions

This section will consist of a discussion of each Number Piece, including mentions of interpretations where needed or relevant. 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) while also acknowledging one of Cage's most extroverted late pieces.

One3 (1989)
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....)

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. 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; rather, 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). Despite the apparent simplicity of this piece, it's also rich in tiny details, and so more consistently satisfying than might be imagined. I've been expecting to lose interest, but this piece has a peculiar focus that ends up being consistently engaging.... (It reminds me of some of Scelsi's violin music as well.)

One7 (1990)
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....)

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. As opposed to the more ephemeral solo Number Pieces, One8 can actually be abrasive, 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 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 a different complettion of One13.)

One9 (1991; shō)
This is the longest Number Piece (& can be paired with 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 an unprecedented examination of the instrument (with its "gamut" of sound combinations), but also hasn't been recorded completely. Although Miyata has recorded the other Cage shō works, the most extensive reading of One9 to this point appears to be by accordion & sheng (a similar, Chinese instrument) together. Needless to say, those instruments have different technical resources, and so Cage's gamut concept will be distorted. And I haven't found the duo reading to be all that satisfying overall, but there are good passages.... Is this piece destined to be a curiosity? A concert performance must require incredible stamina (& swapping out instruments 9 times)....

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'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 active performer.)

One11 (1992)
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 e.g. Ryoanji). Still, there's 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 more extensively to Ryoanji, with which it shares a notion of an octet pitch set as well, as well as make what appear to be Scelsian remarks about simultaneous unison tones.) This isn't a piece I'd spent much time with until more recently, 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.

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. 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 one summit of 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.

Two4 (1991; violin & shō or piano)
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.

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, but the trombone can be forceful at particular 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 lively, paired version of Music for Two...).

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. 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?).

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.... (The Bozzini Quartet rendition is also worth hearing: It's rather more elegant in its sound, which can be a mixed blessing in this repertory, but does work pretty well for this piece. It's also one of the most recently recorded performances of a major Number Piece.) None of these 1989 pieces really reach 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 enjoy it as sort of a 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 versions (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.

Four6 (1992)
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) 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 feel as though their rendition would also be perfect for driving around, blasting from a Harley too... not that I do that sort of thing myself....)

Five (1988)
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!)

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 a very enjoyable piece, including via a change in instrumentation along the way serving to create a sort of directional momentum.... (I tend to prefer the 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 quartet)
Companion to Two5, this piece is one of the 1991 masterpieces. I favor 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, 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, but the string quartet also tends to sound in a sustaining mode. Together with the independently voiced trombone growling, this piece can make a real impact — although it does seem to do less well than some with noisy listening spaces.

Five4 (1991; 2 saxophones & percussion)
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 preferred The Barton Workshop among the two good recording choices.)

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 done much for me.

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'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 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 the performances turn out to be relatively easy to survey: In this case, the first recording (that by the Ives Ensemble) continues to be of singular merit, maintaining a sense of mysterious command & suspension throughout this 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), Musik Fabrik brings a more spacious & industrial vibe, somehow both more controlled & more dissonant.... 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 quasi-ubiquitous, but never too busy, piano).

Seven2 (1990; bass flute, bass clarinet, bass trombone, 2 percussionists, cello & contrabass)
This is another unusual piece, particularly where it appears in the chronology (1990), i.e. after some significant summations in formats 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? Now I'm realizing that Seven2 may be a numerical reference to Fourteen, which does feature most of these instruments....) 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 commercial recordings — by The Barton Workshop & the Ives Ensemble, two groups that have recorded many fine Cage interpretations — several times, I've been slow to appreciate this piece: It basically ends up being difficult to hear — which I distinguish from cognitive difficulty or sparseness per se. (Experience with contemporary improvisation suggests that the sound quality of recordings of low-pitched instruments has improved considerably over the past couple of decades, so perhaps this piece simply needs updated sound....) In this case, the Ives Ensemble interpretation is the second to be recorded, and does end up sounding more communicative (& maybe a little ominous).... Seven2 is also one of the longest Number Pieces, so remains something of a sphinx. And to double down on the latter comment, as I continue working on this page, I've noticed that its length in minutes mirrors the number of weeks in the year.... So, what does Seven2 seek to invoke anyway?

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 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 the result is one of his most assertive late masterpieces.) This is not the sort of music I was originally expecting to hear, 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 this piece is to quote Cage's instruction that "intonation need not be agreed upon" — & so the particular microtonal clashes are apparently supplied by the performers. There's only The Barton Workshop's interpretation on record, but what a great interpretation.... (Someone should definitely reissue this off of the obscure Megadisc Classics label!)

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. In some ways, it can be heard as a followup to Fourteen, and although the piano part is not as relatively 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 in different families, presumably for maximum timbral variety between them. Of these, though, 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) are still impressive, perhaps this is a piece that could use an update? (The other known recording, by Johnny Reinhard & The American Festival of Microtonal Music, is currently available on Bandcamp & does offer some appealing shadings, particularly from the winds....) I have a feeling that there's more here, though, perhaps to be revealed now that some thoughts on some other pieces have settled.... Even so, this piece comes off as one of Cage's late monuments — these sorts of mixed ensemble pieces being one important thread running through the Number Pieces.

Thirteen (1992; flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, tuba, 2 percussionists, 2 violins, viola & cello)
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've yet to return fully to explore the available interpretations: It's one of the longest pieces in terms of number of time brackets (i.e. volume of "material") as well, and has basically been waiting for more of my attention since I'd quickly assessed its significance.... (Sixteen & Seventeen, spurious or unfinished pieces listed on the Wikipedia page, are also apparently related to Thirteen....) So further discussion will have to wait, but this is clearly an important item here. (There are four versions of the piece across three albums, so the discography isn't especially messy....) Note for another thing, that although in some sense the material is more traditional than many late Number Pieces, there is no piano in this mixed ensemble.

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 dynamic & dramatic in the way it's staged too.... (Backbone of the Number Piece discography, enterprising Cage interpreters The Barton Workshop & the Ives Ensemble have 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 texture is not always obvious. Particularly considering the critical positions the previous piano concerti (albeit more explicitly named) occupy in Cage's output, Fourteen has to be considered central to a chronology of the Number Pieces....

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.

Twenty-Eight, Twenty-Six & Twenty-Nine (1991; orchestra)
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 also a 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....)

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, but the sequence of "outbursts" also recalls Eighty (apparently composed the month prior). Once again, this music very much projects a distinct feel. (Maybe more general orchestral music patrons would even enjoy it? It's not very long....) The performance from Südwestrundfunk on Klang der Wandlungen (recorded in 2011) is 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. 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 section will continue to be elaborated, with different layers of thoughts & information added throughout this project.... It will remain the "meat" (a metaphor I should avoid with Cage, though, I suppose...) of this page then?


Some related works...

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 instrumentations)
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 is more here that was never really revealed after the turn to emphasizing the Number Pieces.


Number Pieces chronology

The following chronology was based on that on Wikipedia, here grouped by year.

1987 / 1988

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.

1989

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.

1990

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....)

1991

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.

1992

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.


Chronology of cited recordings

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 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. In several cases, Discogs was consulted to arbitrate dates.

I've now hit the point of having surveyed recorded interpretations, or at least those having been released long enough ago (or prominently enough) to appear on discographies. But I do intend to continue to audition new interpretations of at least some Number Pieces on an ongoing basis. And I will articulate more remarks on this particular topic at a future time.

Mode Complete Cage Edition

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 53 (released in 2018). Volume 1, the first release by Mode as a new label, appeared in 1985.

The Barton Workshop

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 as of the present moment.) Their albums are of special note, although the first is a more general anthology.

Ives Ensemble

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....

Some other classics & older recordings...

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).

Newer interpretations...

And here are 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....

Some more thoughts will be forthcoming (at some point) on recent efforts & trends....

Ogre Ogress

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. This is likewise a partial list, 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.)


Number Pieces needing an updated recording?

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?


Number Pieces by duration

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 to work 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: 29 September 2020