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CD Review: Mayumi Miyata
John Cage: Two4

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Total Time: 60:34
Released: 2000
Review Date: April 2001

Order from:
Mode (CD 88)
PO Box 1262
New York, NY 10009
Phone/Fax: 212-979-1027

Mayumi Miyata, sho
Irvine Arditti, violin
Stephen Drury, piano
  • John Cage: Two4 for violin and sho
  • John Cage: Two4 for violin and piano

Review by Henry Doktorski:

John Cage (1912-1992) is, without a doubt, the most influential American composer to write a major work for a free-reed instrument. During the course of his long life he pioneered novel new approaches to music composition.

In 1938 he founded a percussion orchestra; his music at this time was concerned with filling units of time with ostinatos, such as First Construction (in Metal), (1939). He also began to use electronic devices such as variable-speed turntables in lmaginary Landscape No. 1, (1939) and invented the 'prepared piano', placing diverse objects between the strings of a grand piano in order to create an effective percussion orchestra under the control of two hands.

In the 1940s, Cage became interested in Eastern philosophies, especially in Zen, from which he gained a treasuring of non-intention. Working to remove creative choice from composition, he used coin tosses to determine events, such as Music of Changes for piano (1951). He wrote for 12 radios in Imaginary Landscape No. 4 (1951) and introduced other indeterminate techniques. His signature piece, 4'33" (1952) has no sound added to that of the environment in which it is performed.

Logically, Cage became interested in electronic music. Imaginary Landscape No. 5 (1952) consists of randomly mixed recordings, Cartridge Music (1960) consists of small sounds amplified in live performance, and HPSCHD (1969) uses seven harpsichords, 52 tape machines, 59 amplifiers and speakers together with 40 movie films and 6,400 slides connected with the theme of manned space flight. At its first performance it lasted five hours and was heard by 8000 people.

It is not surprising, considering the composer's interest in Eastern philosophies, that he would write music for sho. German concert accordionist, Stefan Hussong wrote, "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." (For more about Stefan Hussong and John Cage, see Thomas Fabinski's review of Dream: Music of John Cage.)

Cage eventually wrote four pieces for sho: One9 (1991) for solo sho, Two4 (1991) for violin and sho (or piano), Two3 (1991) for sho and conch shell/percussion, and Perugia (1992), for sho and percussion. These pieces were composed during Cage's most abstract period; he titled works simply with numbers which represented the number of players in various ensemble configurations. Most of the works use his "time-bracket notation" which permitted him to generate pieces rapidly and mechanically.

The music seems to float by as time durations are extended; (the sho part is limited only by Mayumi Miyata's ability to sustain her breath). The sho plays a conglomeration of sometimes dissonant and sometimes consonant tempered chords while the violin sustains single pitches in the infra-chromatic cracks between the tempered scale, as the violinist is asked to differentiate six micro tonal units between each chromatic step, resulting in a scale of 84 pitches to the octave. The aural landscape is surreal; I found it pleasant to listen to. Certainly it forces the listeners mind to go inwards and focus on the subtle interplay between pitches.

This CD is especially interesting in that it contains both versions of Two4, one version for violin and sho and the other for violin and piano. Although the piano and sho parts are identical in every respect, the two pieces have unique characteristics, as the sho is a sustaining instrument while the piano is a percussive instrument.

The CD booklet notes by Stephen Drury are informative and translated into German and French.

Certainly no classical free-reed connoisseur would call his or her CD collection complete without this important recording.

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