All of your favorites, in one place.
Originally released as a 4LP set back in the early days of Mode Records, the first two discs of this 3CD set document the two live performances of John Cage's 1961 orchestral work Atlas Eclipticalis played simultaneously with 1957's Winter Music (in a version for three pianos) recorded at Seattle's Cornish Institute on December 11th 1983. Disc three presents what the label rather grandly describes as an "all-star" recording of all 86 instrumental parts of Atlas Eclipticalis, (the first of its kind) recorded under the composer's supervision at the John Cage At Wesleyan festival in 1988 - the "stars" include the Arditti Quartet, Alvin Lucier and Christian Wolff - and an version of Winter Music directed by Stephen Drury, overdubbing four pianists five times to get the required 20-piano result. As ever, the CDs are accompanied by an erudite and comprehensive set of liner notes, including, amongst other things, facsimiles of Cage's handwritten performing instructions and essays on the works by the composer, Matthew Kocmieroski, Don Gillespie and Stephen Drury.
While not questioning for a moment Gillespie and Drury's assertion that Atlas was the major Cage work of the 60s (like Concert for Piano and Orchestra was for the 50s and Sonatas and Interludes for the 40s), the Seattle performances are still a tough listen. One wonders whether it is really necessary to sit down and concentrate furiously all the way through, or let the mind wander ("if the mind wanders, let it", as the composer once famously wrote). But even if you choose to spin this while you busy yourself with other more mundane activities such as picking mushrooms or consulting the I Ching, the occasional fortissimo percussion crashes will soon shake you out of Ambient mode. The fuller textures on the 1988 86-part version are more engrossing, though for my money the late orchestral number pieces 103 and 108 are more satisfying. The 20-piano version of Winter Music is much more fun, its multitracked jagged clusters and pointy staccatos getting almost funky. Cage completists who missed out on the earlier LP box set (me!) can rejoice; it's a thrill to see this sitting on my shelves, even if I wonder how many times I'll return to it in the years to come.
--- Dan Warburton, www.paristransatlantic.com/, April 2007