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Album Review

John Cage: Hymnkus, Thoreau Drawings, Two

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John Cage: Hymnkus,   Thoreau Drawings,   Two
Another Timbre recordings featuring music by John Cage are into double figures and those featuring Apartment House now number thirty-something, so there was a certain inevitability about this album on which Apartment House perform three Cage pieces. It does not seem long since the label's box set of Apartment House playing some of Cage's number pieces was issued to unanimous praise, but the current album, recorded in January and April 2022, is very different. Its three tracks, the titles of which form the album title, are all distinctive in their way but are not otherwise connected.

The opening track, "Two," connects with that box set, having been composed in December 1987, making it the first of Cage's number pieces. As the box set only included pieces for five to fourteen players, "Two" (along with "Two6," "Three2," "Four6...") was not included. Originally written for flute and vibraphone, here it is played by Kathryn Williams on flute and Mark Knoop on piano. As so often in his number pieces, Cage used randomly-determined time brackets within which specified pitches should be played but left the duration and timing of the sounds to the performers. The flute part has only three different pitches and is played quietly. The piano part is notated on two staves, with the content of one played in any relation to that of the other. Each piano time bracket consists of seven to ten sounds. Although a composition, the end result is different every time it is performed. Here, the duo give a beautiful rendition of which Cage would surely have approved.

As its title hints, "Thoreau Drawings" consists of twenty unnumbered pages on which Cage drew shapes taken from the drawings of American naturalist, essayist, poet, and philosopher.Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862). The shapes were drawn onto a grid of six systems, each divided into five plus seven plus five parts, the significance of that being that they each followed the form of a haiku; some of the pages contain a lot of shapes, while many are very sparse. Although the piece was originally composed for the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, Apartment House recorded one layer of seven instruments then added two layers on top, mixed together, giving a full-sounding virtual ensemble of twenty-one musicians. As Cage instructed, each utterance of a line of notation is immediately followed by a silence of the same duration, allowing the listener time to appreciate and savour what they just heard before moving on. In addition, a ground-breaking instruction at the time, Cage deemed that once the music ended a field recording, made at Stony Point, NY, (where Cage lived at the time) by David Behrman in the early '70s should be played. The combined effect of these two Cage directions is a spacious, meditative soundscape which feels at peace with itself and with the natural world.

The album closes with its longest piece, the thirty-minute "Hymnkus," its title being a combination of "hymn" and "haiku." Performed by six players with similar instrumentation to the preceding track, the piece does not have an overall score, or the spaces of "Thoreau Drawings." Instead, like verses of a hymn, the piece contains repeated parts. The musicians operate independently, the end result being a fuller soundscape with a more anarchic feel than one might expect of Cage. Nonetheless, it brings this varied album to a very satisfying conclusion. On this showing, we must hope Apartment House will revisit Cage again soon...

Track Listing

Two (1987); Thoreau Drawings (1974); Hymnkus (1986).

Personnel

Additional Instrumentation

Kathryn Williams: flute (1); Mark Knoop: piano (1); Anton Lukoszevieze: cello (2-3); Mira Benjamin: violin (2-3); Gordon MacKay: violin (2); Kerry Yong: keyboard (2), piano (3); Gavin Morrison: alto flute (2-3); Heather Roche: clarinet (2-3); Raymond Brian: bass clarinet (2-3).

Album information

Title: Hymnkus, Thoreau Drawings, Two | Year Released: 2022 | Record Label: Another Timbre


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