In Cage Choral Music, Bracketing Time And Minding Stopwatches

An excerpt from John Cage’s Four2 for soprano-alto-tenor-bass choir.

John Cage: Choral Works. Latvian Radio Choir (Sigvards Kļava, music director). Ondine ODE 1402-2.

DIGITAL REVIEW — For those of us who mainly know the John Cage of the Sonatas and Interludes and other music for prepared piano, a release devoted exclusively to Cage’s choral music might come as a surprise. But that is because, as Cage scholar James Pritchett points out, the composer wrote only two works of the kind: Hymns and Variations for 12 voices, and Four2 for soprano-alto-tenor-bass choir. Other pieces, like Four6 and Five, were composed for unspecified instruments but are suitable for chorus. Those four pieces are interpreted and crystallized in John Cage: Choral Works, a new recording by the Grammy-winning Latvian Radio Choir, out now on the Ondine label. Sigvards Kļava conducts the 24-piece ensemble.

The bulk of the album consists of music from the latter years of Cage’s long fascination with aleatory procedures and different kinds of indeterminacy. Cage’s quintessential ethos of chance not only reimagines two of the pieces through choral forces — including the 30-minute centerpiece, Four6 — but allows for novel interpretations of all the selections, especially the three “number pieces” on the program.

Between 1987 and his death in 1992, Cage composed 40 pieces identified by the number of performers each requires; the superscript numerals indicate that there’s more than one for the same number of performers; Four6, for example, is the sixth composition for four instrumentalists.

For these so-called “number pieces,” Cage dispensed with time signatures or bar lines; instead, he indicated “time brackets,” containing the barest musical material — usually a single note, as Pritchett writes in the liner notes for the album. The performers start and finish playing at unspecified moments within the duration of each bracket. It depends on them, stopwatch in hand, to choose exactly when they come in and out.

If this sounds like avant-garde tomfoolery, the magic is in the sprightliness of the performance and the variety of sounds inherent in each piece, particularly when the instrumentation is not fixed. There has been interest in the number pieces recently: In a 2021 four-CD set by the London-based ensemble Apartment House, the medium-sized pieces — between five and 14 players — are tackled, including four different versions of Five (1988).

The Latvian Radio Choir’s performance of Five assigns several singers to each part. As in Four2 (1990), the voices trickle onto a canvas that stretches through glacial time. The choir gives the illusion of a long-breathed line suspended in the air, as each vocal section weaves in and out of the accumulating texture. This choral interpretation of Five also brings to mind the closely juxtaposed voices of Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna, but without the dynamic shifts and wider pitch range.

John Cage in 1988.

It is stunning how Four6 (1992), composed with the same bracket technique, lends itself to a completely different sound palette. Cage instructs each performer — in the recording, each section within the SATB choir — to choose “twelve different sounds with fixed characteristics,” like amplitude and overtone structure. Following these parameters, the Latvian Radio Choir has just about assembled a compendium of extended techniques for the voice.

Their Four6 consists of animalistic sounds organized into Cage’s flexible brackets. There are low, grating noises; nasal quacking; purring and caterwauling; rhythmic breathing; insectoid clicking and buzzing; overtones that appear to materialize from thin air; teetering female chirps, whistling, hisses, and trills; several patterns of vocal undulation; frightening mock wailing; sepulchral drones; gasping, breathed-in notes, and other aspirated sounds.

But the roughness of the unorthodox vocals is controlled within medium dynamics; the performance shepherds sounds and noises that are eerie but never too loud into an ecosystem in which the patterns finally trace a loose structural arch. Think of it as a sonic companion to The Garden of Earthly Delights, which is again reminiscent of Ligeti: The Boschian horror, apocalyptic visions, and wicked humor of Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre, Aventures, and Nouvelles Aventures are hinted in the Latvian’s Four6. A séance of two 20th-century mavericks across the Atlantic.

The oldest selection, cut from an entirely different cloth — actually from another composer — is the Hymns and Variations (1979). Cage’s intention was to revise a piece of early American music in a way “that would let it keep its flavor at the same time that it would lose what was so obnoxious to me,” as Pritchett quotes him. The early music he chose was “Old North” and “Heath,” two hymns by the 18th-century composer William Billings. The thing that was “obnoxious” to Cage? Their harmonic tonality. Cage filtered the old hymns through a method of subtraction whereby he selected which notes to keep, which to extend, and which to leave out, substituting silences for the excised notes. 

The Latvian Radio Choir performs an array of Cage choral works on its new CD.

On the recording, the voices sweetly hocket from one end of the room to the other; although the use of fewer voices makes the piece feel more intimate than the others, the reverberation suggests the spaciousness of the room, with the 12 singers complementing each other. The variations, five per hymn, further rearrange, clip, and distort the hymns, making for a fascinating experiment in how much one can tamper with an existing composition without losing its essence. The result is a work of serene, slowly unfolding beauty, gossamer textures, and minimalist delight, lingering on the newfound silences between the notes.