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

CD Review: Journeys—Tony Tobin plays Claude Debussy (Telepherique Productions, 2012, 56 minutes)

No one, I hope, would dispute Debussy’s importance to twentieth-century music; nor would they disagree that his innovative approach to timbre and his use of techniques like chordal planing, modes, and other unusual scale types forms an important part of his legacy. On top of this, his music is staggeringly beautiful, urgent, and unforgettable.

Debussy was also a pianist, and, from contemporary accounts, an extremely gifted one. Any pianist can appreciate that the sound of his music is an important key to its effective performance. What is that sound, though? Debussy gave detailed descriptions within some of his scores. One of my favorites is “Sonore sans dureté” (“sonorous without harshness”), in prelude called “The Sunken Cathedral”—at fortissimo, how does a pianist actually play this? I’m still trying to figure it out; I think it would be the sonic equivalent of something like the soft, luminous colors in paintings by J. M. W. Turner.

Perhaps a good starting place is the actual choice of instrument. Debussy played a 1902 Bluethner, a little under 6′3″ in length—it’s still in existence and well maintained at the Musée Labenche in Brive-la-Gaillarde, Limousin. This fact suggests that a smaller piano might be better suited to Debussy’s music than the largest concert grand.

Through listening to this 2012 release, I’ve certainly become convinced that a smaller piano works superbly for Debussy’s music; Tobin uses a Steinway A (6′2″ long). It’s a light-sounding instrument, and the bass strings, in particular, have a less strident sound and a somewhat faster decay than with larger instruments. The topmost register is like lace, never harsh or metallic; the middle register has a lean sound as well.

Tobin recorded the program in Switzerland’s Kulturplatz Wetzikon using only a modest Zoom H4N recorder (costs about $200 on Amazon). Each piece was captured in a single take, and there was no further postproduction of any sort. This approach not only offers a testament to his superior technique and musical instincts, but also gives the performances a freer, spontaneous character that suits Debussy’s music very well.

One highlight for me is the revelatory performance of “Des pas sur la neige” (“Footsteps in the Snow”) from the first book of Préludes). Like so many of Debussy’s works, the piece unfolds through the presentation of a single motivic idea placed in constantly shifting harmonic contexts; there’s also a frequent additional melodic layer in a higher register (occasionally transferred to the bass) and, about three-fourths of the way through, an unexpected new idea that sounds a bit like parallel organum. Tobin’s performance constantly varies the level of dynamics between the principal idea and the upper subordinate one, revealing subtle layers of motivic interaction between them. With timing and variations of tone color he also creates various connections for the different harmonizations, making them seem to follow a definite plan rather than to appear simply as a kaleidoscopic succession of chords. The piano’s characteristic timbre makes the enigmatic closing sonority (a D-minor chord at the outer extremes of the instrument) sound pale and completely forlorn.

The lighter tone of the piano also works very well for the evergreen “Fille aux cheveux de lin.” The lowest bass notes of the chords have a direct quality that never overpowers the subtle textures Tobin achieves. In the performance, too, I can savor (and envy) the soft, non-percussive quality throughout: it’s as if the musical lines emanate from the instrument almost as if they were bowed or perhaps willed to sing from within. The sonic approach is also nicely complemented by the interpretation, which makes its musical points simply but never diffidently. Rubato emphasizes unusual turns in the formal shape but gives the impression of a new idea considered just at that moment and nevertheless integrated naturally into the ongoing music.

Of course, Tobin is a consummate virtuoso—you have to be to tackle Debussy. And his virtuosity is effortless, as demonstrated in the limpid arpeggios, sudden expressive changes, and light, non-legato passages in “‘Les fées sont d’exquises danseuses.’” Here and elsewhere (as in “Ondine”), Tobin’s deft handling of so many different moods and figurations helps to reveal what is truly astonishing about Debussy’s conception of formal design. As with Stravinsky, the Frenchman’s music propels itself forward through a mosaic of different ideas, many of which are presented more than once in a sophisticated rotational design. (For a fascinating formal study of this principle, see this essay about “Nuages,” by James Hepokoski.)

There’s almost everything here that a single-CD collection of Debussy’s piano music should include. (In addition to the pieces mentioned already, the program contains “Clair de Lune,” “Le vent dans la plaine,” Brouillards, “Canope,” “‘Général Lavine’—eccentric,” “‘Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir,’” “Les Soirs illumines par l’ardeur du charbon,” “Feux d’artifice,” “La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune,” “Hommage à S. Pickwick Esq. P. P. M. P. C.,” and “Pagodes.”) I’d love to have heard “Reflets dans l’eau” on the same disc, but maybe Tobin will release another Debussy CD before too long. He should; whenever I teach Debussy’s piano music, I illustrate it with Tobin’s recordings—they’re that good.

The CD can be purchased through HBDirect and other vendors.

CD Review: Zsolt Bognár, piano (Con Brio 21346, 58 minutes)—Schubert and Liszt

I have one complaint about this disc: it’s too short. Mr Bognár hails from Champaign, Illinois and studied with Sergei Babayan at the Cleveland Institute of Music. The young pianist has performed in Europe, Russia, Japan, and the US and also maintains an active internet presence, where his series Living the Classical Life presents fascinating video interviews with performers including Yuja Wang and Stephen Hough.

This—his debut CD—couples, as the title playfully puts it, Franz and Franz; the pair might seem incongruous at first glance, but Schubert figured prominently in Liszt’s concertizing and work, and one might argue that Schubert’s piano music, more than others in his generation, established expressive terrain of Romanticism.

Bognár’s playing is Romantic through and through; sensitive rubato in the first two Schubert pieces demonstrates that there’s still much a performer can say with these pieces, and the electrifying but sure technique in Liszt’s arrangement of Paganini’s “La Chasse” (included among three Schubert song transcriptions: “Der Doppelganger,” “Aufenhalt,” and “Ständchen”) makes the music seem almost ridiculously easy.

Bognár indulges himself a bit with the Dante Sonata, Liszt’s enigmatic, new formal design masquerading as a fantasy—but the piece has a long tradition of being treated this way and it’s a marvelous closing for the program. More important, he takes full advantage of a fabulous range of tone color, which the recording engineers capture perfectly. (Carefully modulated bass-register sonorities in the “Doppelganger” arrangement mark another high point of his artistry.) The excellent Hamburg Steinway he plays seals the deal. Zsolt Bognár is a pianist I’ll keep my eyes and ears on.