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Even though it is only based on two of the label's previous releasesWandelweiser und so weiter (2012) and Morton Feldman Piano (2019) the reputation of Another Timbre box sets is enviably high. The music they contain, their sound quality, information, artwork and packaging all contribute to the fact that these albums are highly rated and sell like hot cakes. Like its predecessors, John Cage Number Pieces does not cast its net too wide or spread itself too thin. As its title indicates, this four-disc, five-hour-plus set focusses on the Number Pieces that John Cage composed in the final years of his life, from 1987 to 1992. These compositions are readily identifiable by their distinctive titles; so, "Three2" is the second of the pieces that Cage composed for three players while "Two3" is his third piece for two players (in these titles, the final numeral is sometimes seen placed above the line, like an index). Although Cage wrote number pieces for one player up to 108 players, this box-set only includes realisations of all those from five players up to fourteen, with a closing version of "Four5" added as a bonus but no other pieces for four players.
Recorded at various locations between August 2020 and May 2021, the music here was performed by twenty players drawn from the ranks of the esteemed Another Timbre regulars Apartment House, the ensemble which took its name from Cage's 1976 composition "Apartment House 1776" and has a history of performing Cage. Together, they and producer Simon Reynell, a lover of the Number Pieces since the '90s, worked to make these realisations as good as possible, for instance by listening to all existing recordings of the pieces and thinking about what did or did not work; for all concerned, it was a process of discovery, with details emerging in the playing. In that process, rather than sticking to Cage's suggestions, experimentation was allowed. For instance, "Four5" was not performed on four saxophones as suggested but on two clarinets, a bass clarinet and a bassoon; "Five4" was not performed by five players but by the trio of Heather Roach on clarinets with percussionists George Barton and Simon Limbrick, while Barton and Limbrick alone performed "Six." In all cases, the end result justifies those decisions.
In the Number Pieces, Cage tended to allow musicians to use their judgement rather than everything being prescribed by him. In some pieces, other than the number of players, no instruments were specified. None of the pieces had time signatures, bar lines or a conductor. Although the scores specified notes to be played, they did not specify when; instead, using stopwatches and a system of time- brackets, musicians were free to decide when a note started and finished. In some pieces, Cage allowed musicians to choose how loud or soft each note was, with the proviso that loud ones should be short while quieter ones could be long or short. The end result of all this is that every realisation of a Number Piece is a unique one-off. That point is eloquently illustrated by the four tracks which open this set's four discs; each one being a realisation of "Five," an early (1988) number piece which specified no instruments. In Apartment House's four versions, the same instrumentation or line-up of players is never used twice, the only ever-presents being Heather Roche and bass clarinet. Hearing the four versions one after another is a fascinating listening experience, as they have enough in common to identify them as connected but their differences, such as instruments' timbres and the placement of phrases, make each one an individual.
Once he got beyond groups of seven, Cage no longer wrote multiple pieces for the higher numbers, so "Eight," "Ten," "Thirteen" and "Fourteen" are each one of a kind. For these larger groupings, it is noteworthy that increasing the number of players did not lead to clutter or overcrowding; instead, they increased the range of instruments available, thus giving more to choose from, leading to richer, more detailed soundscapes.
John Cage Number Pieces is a dead cert for 'album of the year' lists but, more importantly, its four discs will provide a source of listening pleasure and discovery for many years to come. 5 stars, no contest.