Today the American Classics series on the Naxos label released the first volume of a project to record the complete works for flute composed by John Cage. The project was conceived by flutist Katrin Zenz, who will be the principal performer on all of the volumes. This is a somewhat anomalous effort. On the Wikipedia page listing Cage’s compositions, “flute” appears fourteen times. The first is a 1935 set of three pieces for flute duet. This is followed by a prelude for six instruments, an arrangement of a 1946 composition for piano with the flute as the highest instrument. There is then a major gap until July of 1984 and “Haikai” for flute and zoomoozophone. All remaining entries are indeterminate “number” pieces, many of which designate specific instruments.
On this new recording Zenz plays the three 1935 pieces with Uwe Grod, and she performs “Two” with pianist Ludovic Frochot. The first selection on the recording, on the other hand, is an arrangement of music not originally composed for flute; while the last is a “Music for …” composition, which probably is better described as a “metacomposition.” Cage composed the first, “Ryoanji,” in 1983 for a large ensemble as an homage to a Zen garden in Kyoto. (The photograph on the cover of the album, reproduced above, was taken at that garden.) Cage then added more parts to the ensemble between 1983 and 1985. Since no arranger is listed, one can assume that the 1984 version on the recording, which involves pre-recorded flutes and percussion, is Cage’s own. While Cage was rarely interested in denotation in his music, Zenz’ “live” contribution to this mix is highly evocative of a Japanese shakuhachi, used by the monks of the Fuke school of Zen Buddhism for their meditation exercises. The final selection is a realization of “Music for Two,” which Cage composed for any combination of seventeen different instruments playing “parts without scores.” The recording consists of Zenz’ interpretation as a duet for flute and piano (Chara Iacovidou).
However, anomaly resides in more than just the question of what Cage did or did not compose for flute. Rather, it extends to broader questions of just what constitutes the act “composition” in the first place and the resulting “works” in the second. Mind you, Cage clearly felt strongly about having his work published, and he never seemed to object to his initial outlet, Henmar Press, being distributed by C. F. Peters. Nor did he object to the many efforts to produce recordings of those works, to the point where he was an active performer on many of those recordings and a consultant for the performing artists on others.
Nevertheless, when Cage advanced to his work on “Music for …” and the “number” pieces, there is a clear sense that, late in life, he realized that his philosophy was homing in on a truth he often liked to quote when he was younger, Erik Satie’s declaration that “Music is what happens at concerts.” In other words it is worth considering the hypothesis that many of these late exercises in indeterminacy involved the creation of music-making opportunities, rather than the creation of “music” itself. I propose this hypothesis from the vantage point of one exposed to several (not enough!) of those opportunities; and I submit that a corollary of that hypothesis is that the opportunity can only be realized through in-the-moment playing, basically improvising within the confines of rather unconventional rules.
Thus, the second track on this new recording is not so much a “performance” of “Two” as it is an “audio document” of Zenz and Frochot exploiting the music-making opportunities of the score for “Two.” Presumably (hopefully?), were they to play this piece in a recital, any resemblance to the recorded version would be purely coincidental. It would probably even be the case that any experiences in listening to the recording on this album will do little to prepare even the most devoted listener for the experience of listening to any duo of flutist and pianist presenting “Two” as part of a recital.
This is not to say that Zenz’ new recording has no value (or, worse, negative value). It is only to suggest that it occupies a domain quite remote from that domain of “music that happens at concerts” that Cage so admired. Within the confines of that premise, I must confess that I am now left wondering just how Zenz plans to continue her project, and it is definitely a very positive sense of wonder!