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CD Review: John Cage percussion music a springboard for sonic possibilities

By John Terauds on June 29, 2012

Members of Chicago’s Third Coast Percussion magnificently bring six pieces of John Cage to life.

William Walton, Dmitri Shostakovich and Samuel Barber wrote pieces 70 years ago that are now part of the classical canon. While mainstream audiences still look away in anxiety when anyone mentions the name of John Cage, a new wave of savvy and hyper-talented young percussionists may be able to change fear to love (or at least respect).

You know that a piece of music has your complete attention when the brain is twitching as hard as the hips and left foot.

John Cage: The Works for Percussion 2 (Mode)

Here, the creations of composer John Cage (1912-1992) are banged out by Chicagoans Third Coast Percussion. These men are formidable musical aliens, hijacking every neuron and sinew as they put their own masterful spin on six pioneering works from when the pioneering American master was in his 20s.

So much experimental music is fascinating to analyse and debate with interested friends. But it doesn’t always engage strongly enough to bypass the intellect — and not everyone wants to think their way through a concert.

This is reason enough to celebrate the latest addition to Mode Records’ ongloing, comprehensive survey of Cage’s compositions.

Released to help mark the centenary of Cage’s birth, the album, also available on high-definition DVD, shows how banging, scraping, tapping and scratching are not the vain gestures of cave dwellers, but pathways to new ways of experiencing organized sound.

Or, as Cage put it, “Percussion music is like an arrow pointing to to the whole unexplored field of sound.”

The now explored, but still underappreciated, fields on offer here are the First, Second and Third Constructions, which are studies in combining different combinations of instruments and found objects. The members of Third Coast Percussion (augmented for Third Construction) lavish each touch with the sort of microscopic attention to detail and steely (especially in First Construction) command of the larger musical flow that Angela Hewitt brings to a Bach fugue.

Kudos also go to the recording engineers, who have miraculously kept the sound from being sudio-dry, while managing to capture fine detail as well as giving each sound a bit of space to breathe.

A bit less interesting are Trio and Quartet, the first two pieces Cage wrote for percussion in the mid-1930s, but they help provide context for the growing complexity in sonic texture and rhythm that was to come.

The boys really go wild in the final piece, Living Room Music. The title doesn’t mean that you’re supposed to play it for friends and family after dinner, but that you can use the whole room as percussive inspiration (assuming you don’t live in a condo or semi-detached house).

Ruth Ford House interior

The quartet descended on the rounded architectural whimsy that is Ruth Ford House (built in the late-1940s in Aurora, just outside Chicago), where they received permission to turn the place into their own personal instrument. This is where the DVD comes in handy.

The result is more than a concert. It is its very own Gesamtkunstwerk —  theatre, movement and music combined into a force much larger than its parts.

You can find all the details on this release here.

Hereis the promotional video for the album:

John Terauds

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