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CD Review: Stefan Hussong
Dream - Stefan Hussong plays John Cage

CD Image

total time: 67:50
released: 1998

label: Denon Records CO-18069
Attn: Jill Noe
3343 Peachtree Rd. NE
Suite 333
Atlanta, GA 30326
phone: 404.240.2940

John Cage:
Dream (1948)
In a Landscape (1948)
Souvenir (1983)
Two3 No. 5 (1991)
HARMONIES from "Apartment House 1776"
XXI: HEATH - William Billings
XXXV: FRAMINGHAM - William Billings
XV: BELLINGHAM - William Billings
XXXIX: WEYMOUTH - William Billings
III: FUNERAL ANTHEM - William Billings
XVIII: OLD NORTH - William Billings

Review by Thomas Fabinski:

As Dorothy said to her furry friend in The Wizard of Oz: "Well, Toto, we're not in Kansas anymore!" Or Dresden, Leipzig or Weimar for that matter. We all know how Dorothy's dream took her from Kansas to Oz. But how did Stefan's "Dream" take him from Bach to Cage? Part of the answer, I believe, is that Hussong has an insatiably rich and exotic appetite for musical delicacies.

Another part of the answer is contained in the following quote from the July 31, 1998 LAWeekly article by Alan Rich:

"There are treasures as well in a new disc on Denon, music by John Cage... Cage, it seems, became enamored of the Japanese court instrument, sho, which produces sounds from flexible reeds and is thus an ancestor of both the accordion and the mouth organ. From this implied license, Hussong has transcribed other Cage works - several of the "Harmonies" from the bicentennial piece "Apartment House 1776," and the 1948 "Dream" and "In a Landscape" - for accordion, and also performs Cage's "Two No. 5," composed for sho and struck water-filled conch shells. If this all sounds somewhat insubstantial, it is. It is also exceptionally beautiful. Honest."

What is substantial is the sound. Done in a minimalist, lyrical abstractionist style, the recording is peaceful, quiet, evanescent and evocative. It is not rich with notes, but rich with feeling. In an autobiographical statement (see: Cage says that he didn't believe the purpose of music is to communicate, since when he wrote sad music, people often laughed. Rather he believed music's purpose is to "sober and quiet the mind, thus making it susceptible to divine influences." (I suspect Bach shared this belief.)

The liner notes written by Stefan are a musical education in themselves. The following is a quotation from his discussion of John Cage and the sho: "John Cage's first closer contact with "free-vibrating-reed instruments" took place in Darmstadt/Germany in 1990, when he met the famous Japanese Sho-player Mrs. Mayumi Miyata, who asked him to write for her instrument. The Sho, a kind of mouth organ, is an instrument of the gagaku, the Japanese court ceremonial orchestra. Of its seventeen bamboo pipes, which are attached to a wind chamber, only fifteen sound. As many as six of its free reeds can be made to vibrate by closing the finger holes that are cut into the bamboo pipes. Consequently, the instrument is used primarily to produce harmonies. Cage was so touched and impressed by the beautiful sound of this instrument, that he completed 3 major works for Sho out of his so called "number-piece-series" until his death in 1992." Hussong continues "I came into contact with John Cage's many compositions for (unspecified) keyboard instruments, when recording his complete works for violin and keyboard together with the British violinist Irvine Arditti in 1991. Cage, who had started working already together with Mrs. Miyata, was delighted by the idea to use another "free reed instrument," namely the accordion, as a "keyboard-partner" to the violin. His concept of indeterminacy included very often also the question of instrument, even in some of his earlier pieces as for instance "Dream" and "In a Landscape." "Dream" as well as "In a Landscape" (written for piano or harp) can be beautifully adapted for the accordion, by using one of the 2 (almost identical) manuals as a kind of "controlled pedal" which then doubles the single melody-line of the other manual with the result of obtaining thus harmonics or chords.

The first four tracks on the CD are sustained and flowing. The entire CD has very few percussive accents; the closest being the tapping of a conch shell on Track 4. The appearance of the organ register in Track 3, "Souvenir," a song originally written for the organ as a sequel to "Dreams," is a very dramatic contrast to the first 2 tracks. The traditional harmony that appears on the last seven tracks is a strong contrast to the tight cluster harmonies of the first four tracks. The seven excerpts from "Apartment House 1776" are multi-faceted and kaleidoscopic. "Apartment House 1776" was originally composed as a Bicentennial tribute. It "decomposes" traditional New England folk songs by taking individual snippets, a phrase here, a measure or two here and there, maybe just a few notes, maybe just one note, slowing them down, rearranging them and separating them by silence. Or as Hussong writes, "Cage used original tunes of the music from New England from 1776, but subtracted and atomized them to such a degree, that the hierarchy of their traditional harmony with all its rules got completely dissolved, leaving only the spirit of the harmony preserved. An "Anarchic Harmony" of sounds without any relation to each other, connected only by "Silence" or "Ma."

But do Johann Sebastian Bach and John Cage have anything in common? May I suggest the following: (1) Their two last names, both with 4 letters each, together use only the first 8 letters of the alphabet (a connection which I think Cage would have approved) and they share the same first name; (2) Their music is composed with similar thought and attention to structural organization although with an obviously very different result; and (3) Thankfully for us and the reason for this review, they share a common gifted interpreter in Stefan Hussong. I can think of few musicians who can, with such confidence and expressiveness, bridge as wide a superficially obvious gap in musical styles as exists between Bach and Cage.

Once again Hussong has set the standard for contemporary art music for the accordion. If one can be both bold and quiet at the same time, then this is it. It will be fascinating to see where Stefan's musical adventure takes him and us next!

(By the way, incorrect answers to what Bach and Cage have in common include: (1) They both studied Zen Buddhism; (2) They both wrote percussion music; (3) They both "prepared" pianos by sticking objects between the strings (although admittedly by so doing, Cage did transform the piano into a more percussive and quiet instrument such as one more popular in Bach's time - the harpsichord); (4) They both wore "powdered wigs;" (5) They were both court appointed musicians and (6) They both fathered 22 children. But you knew that.)

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