CD Review: John Cage: Variations IV—Avant Media (Avant-Media [Bandcamp], 2014, 54 minutes)

I’ve often referred to a number of John Cage’s works from the 1960s as examples of radical indeterminacy, a term that not everyone has agreed with. But I think the term applies to works like 0’00” and the individual items in the Variations from the third onward (1963–1978). All these works have in common an extreme rethinking of the content for a musical composition, the venue in which it is performed and heard, its total duration, and an ongoing concern with widening the possibilities for performers’ contribution to the work itself.

For example, Cage’s 0′00 (1962) called for the amplification of any activity, usually one that fulfilled a social obligation to others. Variations III (1963) included an apparatus by which one could construct a blueprint of sorts indicating how many sounds appeared during a performance along with aspects of the sounds or their interactions with each other. I continue to be astonished that the instructions also contain what, for me, is the line drawn in the sand marking Cage’s acknowledgment of radical indeterminacy’s implications: “Any other activities are going on at the same time.”

Variations IV (1963) places increased emphasis on the location of sounds inside and outside of the venue in which it is performed. Cage offers a number of possibilities (one of them, a cave, strikes me as an eerie presentiment of the Deep Listening work of Pauline Oliveros and others). Performers use several transparencies, overlaid on a map of a space, which allows them to identify where sounds exist with respect to the space. The process can be repeated any number of times to determine a temporal length for the performance. And in keeping with other similar remarks Cage made over the course of this series, he remarks that “A performer need not confine himself to a performance of this piece. At any time he may do something else. And others, performing something else at the same time and place, may, when free to do so, enter into the performance of this.”

The recording offers an aural snapshot (again assembled by chance operations) of an eight-hour performance on February 22, 2014 by Avant Media at Wild Project during the fifth annual Avant Music Festival. I corresponded with Avant’s artistic director, Randy Gibson, who explained that he created for the actual performance iterations of two simultaneous readings, using chance operations to determine the durations for these readings from noon until around 8 p.m. Performers who signed up would arrive, go to their designated spot in the space, and perform for the chance-determined time—some performed multiple times over the course of the event.

To accomplish the “sound from outside” aspect of the piece, Gibson created sound feeds from the lobby and from radio stations around the world. Other sounds included recordings of Cage reading from I–VI, readings of “Lecture on Nothing,” and much else. (I kept hearing snippets from some of the “Indeterminacy” stories, one including Cage’s recollection of his grandmother saying “John, are you ready for the second coming of the Lord?”)

Needless to say, it’s not very easy to give a conventional review of this performance, since the material can contain so much variety. Comparing this recording to the one by John Cage and David Tudor on Everest, however, I’m inclined to say that its palette of sound is much more diverse. The earlier recording used a great many recordings of classical music, inspiring Eric Salzman to remark that “One of the parlor games of the future will be ‘Catch that Quote’ in the John Cage Variations IV.” Some of the Avant Media performance reminds me of the original: I caught the minuet from a Haydn Sonata in A Major (the one where the second half is the mirror image of the first) and the first movement from Schumann’s Kinderszenen—both toward the end. And their appearance makes for an unepxected bit of poetry not unlike the appearance of Wagner’s “O, du mein holder Abendstern” from Tannhaüser at the end of Cage’s Europeras 3 & 4. The pianist (or pianists) plays beautifully, and overall I like the sound quality and the separation of the various components. I’d say this performance of Variations IV is superior to the Everest release, and I hope it stimulates more interest in these works.

The recording is available from Bandcamp. Read more—and buy!—at http://avantmedia.org/what/original-works/variations-iv-album.

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