Sequenza21 reviews John Cage: Sixteen Dances

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Sequenza21
Christian Carey
February 21, 2010

Sixteen Dances comes at a transitional time in Cage's career. Completed in the beginning of 1951, it intimates the importance of chance in his works from then onwards, but still retains a fascination for serial procedures and precompositional planning: a remnant of his 1940s studies of Webern. The overall plan of the piece involves a constantly morphing 8×8 array, albeit one which Cage deployed freely and in a wide variety of permutations.

At nearly an hour in duration and for large forces, it's also a departure in terms of his music to accompany dance. Indeed, it's Cage's first evening length piece for the Cunningham company. To add still another layer, the movements are subtitled as progressions through the emotional states of classical Indian aesthetics. However, the composer's reaction to these various emotions is anything but conventional. One can hear a particularly idiosyncratic response – to "The Heroic" in an audio excerpt below (courtesy of BMOP).

In a new recording by the estimable Boston Modern Orchestra Project, one also detects another strand of influence: there's a lot that's jazzy about the score. Indeed, in places it seems like a post-swing trumpet concerto colliding with avant-garde percussion. One of the numbers, No. 10 (Interlude), was even conceived of as an (unorthodox) blues. While one often associates Cage with rhythmic variety and even a seemingly unfettered flow of events, here is the place where the composer most thoroughly incorporated early bop's own experimentations with pulse, swing, and the freedom that would lie beyond.

After Sixteen Dances, Cage immersed himself in the I Ching. It might be fanciful, but at least to my ear, during his work on Sixteen Dances, he was immersed in the music of Dizzy Gillespie.