American Record Guide reviews John Cage: Sixteen Dances

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American Record Guide
Rob Haskins
January 1, 2010

This work is from the 1950's and relates to Cage's Sonatas and Interludes in that it concerns the emotions of Indian aesthetics. It's also his last work before he committed himself seriously to the composition of music using chance operations. But like the contemporaneous concerto for prepared piano, it was made by beginning with a chart with rows and columns containing cells of fixed sounds, which he assembled into continuity by making moves about the chart. I'm not sure exactly what governed his decisions to move from one cell to another—and it's not explained in James Pritchett's redoubtable notes—but I get the impression that the continuity of this piece is cryptic, multidirectional, and thus prophetic of Cage's future work with chance composition and indeterminacy.

There has been no recording of this work for some time now (though I gather that a release with Ensemble Modern is still available used), and that alone justifies purchase. But the performance by Boston Modern Orchestra Project is superbly committed and the sound remarkably textured and nuanced. Of all Cage's earlier works, Sixteen Dances deserves more attention on recording and in performance.

- Rob Haskins

© Copyright 2010 American Record Guide