Fanfare reviews John Cage: Sixteen Dances

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Fanfare
Art Lange
March 1, 2010

John Cage composed these short dances in 1951, to accompany choreography by Merce Cunningham. In fact, according to Cunningham, much of the movement and rhythmic impetus came first, to which Cage coordinated musical phrases drawn from a chart of 64 different sonorities. Though looking for ways to lessen his control over the compositional process at this time, Cage had not yet adopted a system totally dependent upon chance procedures—that was to come in his next completed work, Music of Changes. In fact, Cunningham had decided nine of the dances should correspond to the primary emotions defined by Hindu philosophy—anger, humor, sorrow, the heroic, the odious, the wondrous, fear, the erotic, and tranquility—separated by seven interludes. But Cage had previously attempted to convey these emotions musically in his Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano (1946–48), and his subsequent feelings of frustration at what he considered the inability of music to express emotion, there and in other psychologically-motivated works such as his Four Walls (1944), eventually pushed him towards methods of eliminating personal choices completely. His chart of "sound gamuts," which assured a consistency and variety of material, was a preliminary step in that direction.

The question remains, however, whether or not listeners can—or need—associate the music with the intended emotions, especially without seeing the dances themselves. Do sharp, angular accented rhythms make us think of anger? Do surprising dynamic leaps and jolts of instrumental color suggest humor? And, heaven knows, what might sound erotic to one person could be simply odious to another. Suffice to say, from a strictly musical standpoint, the narrow melodic contours, crisply articulated events, and repeated motifs provide an attractively shifting soundscape that often makes me think of Stravinsky, of all people. Perhaps that's due to Gil Rose's emphasis on abrupt contrasts and brisk momentum; he takes the music at a faster pace than either Paul Zukofsky (CP 2) or Ingo Metzmacher (RCA), and makes a good case for retrieving it from the vast and often misunderstood recesses of Cage's catalog.

— Art Lange

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