Piercing the World of John Cage

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There are few pianists as equipped to tackle the polarizing music of John Cage as powerfully as Joshua Pierce. Having championed the composer’s piano music for the last 30 years, Pierce has delivered multiple landmark recordings of the Sonatas & Interludes for Prepared Piano as well as premiere recordings of several Cage pieces (particularly on the four-volume “John Cage: Works for Piano and Prepared Piano”).

It's fitting, then, that to celebrate the composer's centennial, the onetime Cage collaborator offers a new double disc of historic re-releases and first recordings. While somewhat overwhelming to stomach in a single listen, “John Cage: A Tribute” is one of the most powerful and listenable cross-sections of Cage’s work to date.

The album opens with the 14-part, (mostly) tonally-centered Four Walls suite, setting the tone for 2.5 hours of surprisingly inviting and accessible music. Pierce's biggest contribution here is that crucial aspect of so many Cage performances—a sense of wonder, as if the pianist is endlessly mesmerized and caught off guard by the sounds generated by his own fingers. Playful, meditative, and often intense (the last two parts of Act Two conjure sustain pedal-driven thunderstorms from the keyboard’s low end) the suite is marked by Cage’s signature sense of space, and is an important insight into an oft-neglected facet of the composer's oeuvre: the easily digestible.

While sticking largely to Cage’s keyboard-driven output in the 1940s, the retrospective makes for a highly varied listen. The charming 1942 prepared piano dance accompaniment Primitive brims with playful absurdity and gamelon-like textures. In the Name of the Holocaust offers the “dark side” of altered keyboard strings, singing with dissonant, buzzing drones and haunting, bell-like tones before descending into madness. In Our Spring Will Come, one of the compilation's nine "first recordings," the instrument becomes a relentless one-man percussion ensemble. Three Early Songs, delivered by tenor Robert White, is a series of miniature ruminations on absurdist Gertrude Stein-penned phrases (“it was to be what it was/and it was, so it was”).

And then, of course, there's Sonatas & Interludes—nearly an hour of hypnotic and alien sounds informed by Cage’s interest in the philosophy of the rasa Indian tradition (the scales used express the eight “permanent” emotions of the practice) and his love of the sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti. Screws, bolts and pieces of rubber transform the instrument into a miniature gamelan orchestra as fragile as a piece of glass, endlessly morphing through colors and meditations.

While few would deny Cage’s influence on the landscape of Western classical music, the composer will undoubtedly continue to polarize listeners who see him as more of a conceptualist philosopher than a composer. While “John Cage: A Tribute” won’t change that, the selection of pieces and, of course, Pierce’s balance of careful technique and violent abandon throughout offer a profound and accessible portrait of the landscape-changing composer.

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