John Cage: Two3, Inlets, Two4
OgreOgress (DVD)
Tamami Tono, sho
Glenn Freeman, conch shells
Christina Fong, Violin

There’s something to be said for leaving things unrecorded. Not every jot and tittle may be worth committing to the ages, and in the case of John Cage, there are quite a lot of jot and tittles.

Inlets (1977) is Cage’s famous conch shell piece. [Conch shells are the ones that are handy for calling island-wide meetings and that Steve Turre used to play on SNL going into commercials.] But Inlets is one of Cage’s indeterminate scores. The point is that you fill the things up with water and twist them around, waiting for them to gurgle.

Just like there’s no predicting when a water cooler will burp, the fun of the piece is that there’s no telling when the shells will gurgle or how. It’s a neat idea for a party game, but it hardly holds up on a recording. The magic lies in the physical act: the exoticism of the shell, the mysterious turning motion, the invisibility of the sound mechanism.

Sadly, there’s no magic in Glenn Freeman’s precisely recorded version of Inlets that appears on the latest OgreOgress release. Though the piece also features burning pine cones, and one solitary conch whistle, (both faithfully recorded), there simply isn’t enough musical material to create a compelling recording.

Glenn and company are in the middle of an ambitious project to be the first to record all of Cage’s number pieces. In addition to Inlets, this latest installment features Two3 (1991) and Two4 (1991), both of which are far more compelling, though just as monolithic.

Two3 is One9 (1991) with a conch obbligato, and in this performance, the water-filled conch is used sparingly. So much so, that over the course of the recording’s two hours, when the bubbling conch intrudes, it is startling. Cage’s use of the sho’s extremely limited timbre has a cumulative effect, which is quite compelling. Kudos to OgreOgress for stretching their legs in DVD format, thereby enabling a reading of the piece that starts to make sense. Unless you’re a glutton for punishment, avoid headphones when listening. Best to light a candle and pop this disc into your surround sound. Give yourself the time and the space to truly encounter the piece and you will definitely be rewarded.

The recordings here are clinical, however, which is only really detrimental in the rendering of Two4, where Christina Fong’s lovely performance of the microtonal violin part is matched poorly with Tamami Tono’s sho. The two parts sound like they were spliced together from two very different sessions in two very different sound environments, creating a hybrid that never captivates the ear.

Though the DVD allows for OgreOgress to deliver nearly three hours of music on a single disc, it does knock the retail price into a range that only Cage devotees would enter ($37.99 on Amazon. Considerably less on CDBaby). The usual shenanigans with the liner notes are present (they are printed in nearly illegible lines of monstrous length across the entire inner jacket), rendering the total package less than impressive, which is a shame, because there are real merits to each of these recordings, and this is clearly a labor of love on OgreOgress’ part.

The best bargain for the casual Cage fan will be to purchase the separate recordings on iTunes, when it becomes available next month.

12 Responses to ““The Rules Are the Only Thing We’ve Got!””
  1. Evan Johnson says:

    Re Inlets. Certainly Cage is one of history’s least recordable composers, at least in large swaths of his output, and certainly the audio-only impact of some of his work can be of only passing interest.

    But he’s a special case, in that so damn much has been written — both by and about him — that the music needs to be out there, somehow – maybe video would be more appropriate – but the recording and distribution process is a sorely needed corrective to the still widespread, and still pernicious, opinion that Cage was more a “philosopher” than a composer.

  2. To call Two3 a “jot and tittle” unworthy of “committing to the ages” is a crime. The only magic missing in this recording is that which is lacking in this critic’s clinical mind.

  3. Correction. OgreOgress is not planning to record all of Cage’s Number Pieces. We have, however, recorded the complete Number Pieces for strings and/or percussion on 5 CDs. This 3 CD length DVD contains the complete works for sho and/or conch shells.

  4. Evan Johnson says:

    Glenn, it’s Inlets that was the jot-and-tittle, I believe. While I haven’t heard this recording, I have heard (and used in the classroom) the Quatuor Helios one on Wergo, and I certainly think it’s one of the pieces about which it’s fair to bring up the question of the viability of the audio-only experience.

  5. Evan Johnson says:

    … (clarifying) which is not to say that it shouldn’t be recorded, or that it shouldn’t have been included on this album. In re which see my first comment above.

  6. “and in this performance, the water-filled conch is used sparingly.”

    Every performance of Two3 will have the same number of conch shell bubbles. Cage’s score is very precise in this regard.

  7. Evan, recordings are audio-only experiences. This critic could have simply stated “I do not believe Inlets works very well as a piece of music devoid of its theatrical aspects.” What seems magical for one person may seem trite to another. Also, Inlets has a very clear musical structure. To state “the point is that you fill the things up with water and twist them around, waiting for them to gurgle” is a vast oversimplification of a highly structured and subtle piece of music. The statement Inlets “is one of Cage’s indeterminate scores” makes me laugh out loud.

  8. For those who want to link “The Lord of The Flies” with this project visit the below link …

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lord_of_the_Flies#Ralph_and_the_conch

  9. Who wrote the review? I don’t see a credit.

  10. Evan Johnson says:

    “Jodru” wrote it.

  11. “Jodru” is short for Joseph Drew, whom has decided to not include his name as the reviewer. Although there were some technical errors, I appreciate the honesty of this review, from Mr. Drew’s perspective.

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