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Published: 2006/05/14
by Randy Ray

Works For Percussion, v. 4 (1940-1956) – John Cage, performed by Amadinda Percussion Group

Hungaroton Classic 31847
What is music? What is sound modulation? How does one interpret what one hears based on the audio facts at hand? These questions and more pop up at random intervals when listening to any work created by avant-garde composer John Cage. And pop up is the key phrase here. Snaps, blips, karate kicks and cymbal shots creep in out of nowhere and float back into the deep vacuum of space on the opening track on the new edition of Works for Percussion cleverly titled 27 10.554. for a Percussionist. And for the Spockheads in the jamband scene, that rounds up to 27 minutes and 11 seconds of large reams of ambient silence with imagined voices and noises serving as the only singular soundtrack sandwiched between intervening cacophony — skin, metal and wooden instruments that sound like Mickey Hart gargling in a brief rhythmic tandem with the 23rd century noises of an abandoned jungle that echoes the aura of its past citizens.
The Amadinda Percussion Group interprets a sampling of Cages work from the period of 1940-1956; hence, the notation Volume 4. 27 10.554 for a Percussionist concentrates on a solo performer playing against his own pre-recorded sections in a multi-tracked ballet between silence and perceived spatial melodic exotica. I do not use the word "melodic" lightly, as I also dont use it hesitantly when describing Cages music and work. His art requires a sort of trust between the artist and audience that includes a mutual grasp of concepts that normally dont play out on the stage. You need to work for your dinner when you go to a performance based upon Cages work. What if one allowed silence for long periods of time in studio and live recordings? What if one played against melody and created a sort of anti-space, or an inverted version of The House of Leaves where the house is not growing exponentially but contracting into a single point of invisible music known as the Cagean Big Crunch? These are long, heady and convoluted questions but they are the imagery that appears when I listen to this sort of birds eye sound rape. Fads and Fancies in the Academy was first performed at Mills College in Oakland, California. My parents brought me to this college along with my sisters when I was a wee lad and we listened to some folk singers while sitting on blankets munching potato chips and Oreos and slurping down Kool Aid. Alas, the music that day was a bit more linear but this Cage piece is the most straightforward on the album. Its seven parts detail the plight of an eager, lazy and total child balanced next to a historical sketch and the opposing vistas of the futurethrough the eyes of pessimist and optimist. Yes, the titles have no meaning in an instrumental piece but these facts help you color scenes inside the frame while the pianist and four percussionists illuminate Cages work. A word of advice: there is an intense segment during this piece — RevolutionairesPitched Battle — that will lift a cats fur, raise a comatose eyebrow and wake the dead. Being an old fan of the Grateful Deads Drumz/Space and Phishs ambient psychobabble period, I cranked this portion as loud as I could and had a wonderful time interpreting my two-year-old sons grin and look of wonder and astonishment. Kids get it, dig?
The third and final piece, Four Dances [What so proudly we hail], is a jovial waltz through four parts of a 20-minute bit of Cage hoodwinkery, which includes tom tom, handclap, footstomp and a choral vocal. This is the man at his highest point of tweaking the percusso fright fantastic and getting away without a single hook or memorable cadence and, yet, the music cracks your head open and ponders its fragments. The Amadinda Percussion Group ushers in the Cage sound like an oiled whip and the movement vanishes before one realizes what has transpiredthe ultimate dense and spatial acid trip and an apt coda to an enjoyable set of challenging music by a deceased artist who remains light years ahead of his time.

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