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at124x2      John Cage - Two2

Double CD of Cage’s late piece for two pianos

Mark Knoop & Philip Thomas  (pianos)

Disc One  66:05

Disc Two  61:50

Recorded in Huddersfield, March 2017

Youtube extract

Interview with Philip Thomas

How did you become interested in the piece?

Until recently I thought of Two2 rather facetiously as Cage’s mistake. Having heard a live performance and some recordings, I just didn’t warm to it and couldn’t reconcile myself to the piece. It didn’t draw me in in the way that most of Cage’s number pieces do. To my ears there were just too many notes, too much material in the piece such that I quickly lost interest. But last year I was doing some research in the New York Public Library at the John Cage Collection, and I took the opportunity to get the score out and have a look at it. And from the first glance the score felt quite different to what I’d been expecting. I remember thinking that it looked like some of Antoine Beuger’s music; it had the same simplicity and anonymity that his scores often have.

When I read through the instructions I realised that, uniquely for the number pieces, there are no measured time brackets; you work with what Cage, quoting Sofia Gubaidulina, calls your own ‘inner clock’. So I sat there in the library and began to ‘play’ the first few sections internally in my head, and I found that I was coming out at about four minutes per section. There are 36 sections – or ‘rengas’, as Cage calls them - and I did the maths and realised that according to my inner clock the piece would last nearly two and a half hours, and I thought ‘blimey, that’s very different from my memory of the piece as I’ve heard it played’. That made me question my intuitions about the pacing, but I thought it’d be interesting to find out if other pianists I knew might see it in the same way. So when I came back I asked Mark Knoop to look at the score and he was very much in agreement with my intuitions. So we tried playing it, and it came out at over two hours, and I just thought it was an incredibly beautiful work. And it no longer felt that there were too many notes, or that it was dense or hurried. The sounds seem to have a poise and stillness about them. And strangely, despite the length I found it not boring at all, but utterly engaging and compelling.

There is no instruction about duration, so any and all durations are possible and valid, but I think that taking it at the pace we do at least brings a different perspective to it, and reveals other things about the music that I’d not heard before. There are a lot of repetitions of chords within the piece, and you’d have thought that at a faster pace you’d hear the repetitions more, but in fact I think the repetitions are more apparent when it’s played at a slower pace. I think this is because the notes have time to speak and the sonorities resonate more in your memory, so the repetitions become more noticeable.

Can you explain what a renga is and how the piece works?

Two2 consists of 36 sections, which Cage calls ‘rengas’. A renga is an old Japanese poetic form, which has a 5-part structure in which the first part consists of five syllables, the second of seven syllables, the next of five syllables, then seven, and finally seven again. In Cage’s borrowing of the form, each line of music is a single renga, which is divided into five bars, and within each bar there are either 5 or 7 sounds (single notes or chords), following that pattern: 5-7-5-7-7. Cage uses bar lines to divide each line/renga into five units, but they aren’t really ‘bars’ in the standard sense with a marked metre; they are simply containers for the sounds.

The sounds are distributed across the two piano parts, so in a bar with five events, one pianist might have three sounds and the other two, or one pianist could have four sounds and the other just one, or one pianist might have all five sounds and the other have nothing to play in that bar. The rule is that you play the sounds you are given in each bar in the sequence in which they are written, but the alignment of the sounds between the two pianists is free. So it doesn’t have to be that one pianist plays their first event, then the other pianist plays their first one, and so on. You are free to play your sounds within each bar whenever you like, as long as you don’t move on to the next bar until both pianists have played all their sounds for that bar. And when you get to the end of a whole line/renga, you might have a bit of a pause before you move on to the next renga.

What’s interesting about this – and what is unusual in relation to Cage’s other number pieces – is that each pianist has to see the other player’s part. Normally in the number pieces you are given your notes within a set of time brackets and you don’t have to see what anyone else is doing; you are working independently and just need to keep an eye on your stopwatch. But in Two2 you don’t have a stopwatch because you are using your ‘inner clock’, and you do need to see the other player’s music because where they are will determine when you are ready to move on to the next bar. So you have to listen in a different way from in the other number pieces in order to keep track of what the other player is doing, and this introduces a different dynamic. You still function independently, but it feels a bit more like playing chamber music because you have to take account of exactly what the other pianist is playing for the piece to work. And it’s also interesting how you situate yourself in relation to the other pianist spatially, whether you can see their hands or not. I think it’s better if you can’t see their hands, so there is more unpredictability about when the next chord is going to be sounded.

How did Cage produce the material for the piece? Were the chords generated randomly using a computer?

Rob Haskins has done a great analysis of the piece that goes into this in detail. By this stage Cage was using his computerised version of the I-Ching instead of endlessly tossing coins, but that’s as relevant as his use of a computer goes. The material is randomised in a sense, but within a set of parameters that Cage has chosen, in this case partly to reflect the renga form and the repetitions that occur within it. And the repetitions of chords arising from this mean that you get a sense of harmonic character within a number of the rengas, especially if you take it at the pace that we do. I think that harmony became really strong and important again in Cage’s music from the 1980’s onwards, and this inevitably affected the choices he made when determining the parameters within which the chords and pitches were randomly generated. The play on memory and resonance is redolent of Feldman, and there is a similar sense of sonorities being toyed with, but then it’s also unlike anything Feldman ever did.

In terms of how to play the piece, the instruction for the pianists is ‘quietly but equally, no tones inaudible’. So it’s not about fragility; for me it’s about an evenness of tone. It doesn’t say ‘as quiet as possible’, but it should have a sense of stillness. Though of course with the piano you can never achieve absolute evenness of tone. If you play a high note and then a low note, they are so different and will never sound completely even. But you work with that knowing that it’s your aim, trying to maintain that kind of balance of touch across the registers so that nothing sounds particularly gestural or dramatic. You go for a sense of stillness, which is why it reminds me so much of Antoine Beuger’s music.

Does Cage’s concern with harmony in his late works mean that he is using chance differently here than in his works from the 1950’s?

There’s always a set of (often very complex) conditions that he has set in place before the I-Ching is consulted. So what is going to be generated is always within particular parameters, and each piece will have its own character. In the 50’s the parameters often tend towards complexity, whereas in this piece they are set to allow a good deal of repetition. So, whether it’s the I-Ching or a computer, he’s using ‘chance’ to introduce different kinds of bias at different points in a piece, and he’s changing the way it works all the time.

If you ask a student to produce a piece using chance procedures, the results usually sound rather simplistic in comparison. Cage really knew what he was doing and you just have to see the sketches for these pieces to realise that an enormous amount of work went in to guard against a kind of predictable use of chance. The workings are very complex and the questions that he asked were often complex, so that a particular kind of flavour would result.

But something has changed between the 50’s pieces and the works from the 80’s because to a layperson the latter are much easier on the ear.

Yes, he’s asking different questions and is after a different character for the music. In the 80’s he’s interested in harmony in a way that he simply wasn’t earlier – though the works he composed immediately prior to the introduction of chance in his music are also closely involved with harmony. Chance is just a means to produce new and fresh instantiations of the material he’s interested in at that time. So in the 80’s it might be microtones, as it is in some of the other number pieces, or harmony, as it is here. In Two2 the parameters he was working with involved chords within a single hand span, so the piece is necessarily involved with transparency of sonority and relatively sparse chords, including dyads, as well as single tones. There are no dense chords requiring two hands to execute them. And this in turn creates more opportunity for octaves and consonant intervals than in, say, Winter Music, which is another chordal piece but from 1957.

I re-listened to the music yesterday and thought that it is, as you put it earlier, ‘an incredibly beautiful piece’. To my ears it is – the way you and Mark Knoop play it anyway – every bit as beautiful as Feldman’s late piano music. Yet whereas Feldman has arguably been elevated into the classical canon over the past 10 years or so, Two2 is much less well-known and appreciated. Why do you think this is?

I think Feldman sounds more ‘musical’, more composed by comparison. Whereas Two2 - despite the octaves, the sonorities, the gorgeousness of the sounds, the quietness, the play of memory and repetition – despite all this, Two2 still sounds more strange. Each sound seems to have its own centre, as Cage might say, and stands by itself. The sense of relationships with other material, and the harmonic connections appear to be things that one reads into the music, whereas Feldman is projecting them out from the music towards you. Feldman is playing very consciously with those connections in a composerly way, whereas here the sounds are left standing on their own, and listening becomes more of a performative act because you trace the connections between the sounds in your own way, if you wish to. Feldman still creates a kind of narrative with old-fashioned composer shapes and gestures, but there’s no narrative in this. There’s just 36 renga.   

Philip Thomas

Painting by Joanna Wright

Painting by Joanna Wright

Painting by Joanna Wright

Mark Knoop

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“Of Cage's so-called "Number Pieces", works composed late in his life, 'Two2' (1989) seems to be one of the least frequently recorded. It was written for the piano duo Double Edge (Edmund Niemann and Nurit Tilles) though it appears that the premiere was performed in May 1990 by Rob Haskins and Louis Goldstein; it's available to be heard on YouTube. That performance lasts just over an hour and twenty-five minutes and the two others I can locate, by Josef Christof/Stefan Schleiermacher (released on MDG in 2000, as part of the 'Complete Piano Music', volume 5) and a live video by Beata Pincetic and Christos Sakellaridis last just over 46 and 36 minutes respectively.

On the website, the piece is described as follows:

This is one of Cage’s few “number” pieces that does not utilize time-brackets. Being inspired by  a remark of Sofia Gubaidulina, i.e. "There is an inner clock," Cage created a composition consisting of 36 lines of music, each containing 5 measures. Within each line, 31 events occur: 5+7+5+7+7, as in Japanese Renga poetry. The pianists play a measure in their own tempo, but the next measure may only be played when both have completed the previous.

Philip Thomas, in an interview published on the Another Timbre site and partially reproduced in the sleeve of this release, mentions having heard the piece both in live performance and on recording, remarking, " just didn't draw me in in the way that most of Cage's number pieces do. To my ears there were too many notes, too much material in the piece such that I quickly lost interest." But reading the score himself and calculating what he thought was an appropriate amount of time to spend on each measure, he arrived at a potential duration of around two and a half hours. The current recording clocks in at just short of two hours and eight minutes. Thomas remarks, "There are no instructions about duration, so any and all durations are possible and valid, but I think that taking it at the pace we do at least brings a different perspective to it, and reveals other things about the piece that I'd not heard before".

Having listened to the three other versions, online, I have to say that, as generally enjoyable as those are to my ears, Thomas' intuition is exactly correct. The sense of pace is almost viscous without any connotations of stickiness or anything syrupy. If you can imagine very slowly flowing water, that's close. Maybe cold lava. Notes suspend in the air for a few moments, then softly fall and disappear. My impression is that there's more in the mid- and mid-low range of the piano than elsewhere, a real roundness in the tonality, a thickness. The sequences have something of a darkly Romantic character, as though extracted from a larger work, slowed way down, carefully examined and considered. As in Feldman, there's somehow a sense of forward progression though never the slightest indication of a goal. For what it's worth, I never get the impression of two pianists, just one strong, coursing river of music. It's 108 minutes of pure, thought-compelling, perception-enhancing, down to earth bliss. Can't ask for more.

A major achievement.”

Brian Olewnick, Just Outside

When Wolfgang Rübsam rerecorded the Bach organ works for Naxos in the 1980s and 1990s, his aesthetic had shifted from a relatively rapid mainstream to a contemplative and ornamented slowness that irritated many critics. I loved it and continue to love it, partially because Rübsam is bringing out relationships in the music’s motivic and harmonic development that seem fresh in light of his newfound flexibility. I was reminded of the radical nature of Rübsam’s accomplishment when listening to this new set from the excellent Another Timbre label, which has demonstrated continuous and increasingly important devotion to Cage’s work. Philip Thomas and Mark Knoop consider this late Cage two-piano work from an angle similar to latter-day Rübsam, with the proverbial ear toward an entrancing integration of detail and beauty.

Two2 was composed in the summer of 1991. It is one of the few number pieces that does not use Cage’s late-period time brackets to determine when events occur. Instead, the piano duo is confronted by thirty-six lines of music, each containing five measures. The microevents are divided into patterns of five and seven, as are syllables in Japanese Renga. While the pianists play measures in their own tempi, of which Cage conceives as the internal clock, they can only move to the next measure when both have completed the previous one.

Tempo is one of the keys to this version’s unique kind of success. some performances come in around the forty or forty-five minute mark, and the longest I’ve heard takes just about an hour and a half. Philip Thomas and Mark Knoop turn in a rendering that exceeds two hours. Anyone who has heard Thomas’ recent and breathtakingly beautiful recording of Cage’s piano concerto with Apartment House knows what to expect. Both Thomas and Knoop have come to the opinion that a slower tempo reveals more detail in the sonorities with which Cage was occupied late in his life. In an interview on Another Timbre’s website, Thomas compares them to those in Winter Music, a late 1950s piece, citing huge differences in that earlier composition’s harmonic approach. Two2 conjures a world of what might be construed as more conventional sonorities shorn of context, and if they don’t necessarily resolve according to tradition, this new version exposes their individuality as they articulate and are allowed to fade in slow motion. Cage instructs the performers to play each sound quietly but equally, which is what this duo accomplishes.

It is impossible to describe the music’s rapt unfolding in anything even orbiting a meaningful way. Unlike any other recording I’ve heard, and there aren’t very many, Thomas and Knoop create a soundworld absolutely commensurate with a large-scale late piece like 103, Cage’s final orchestral masterpiece. We don’t often think or talk about beauty in Cage’s music, but it is here in abundance. Unlike Winter Music or Music of Changes, Cage’s Two2 harmonies glide and envelop, even the ones with clusters often anticipate a kind of resolution. Sample the complex low-registral dissonance at 10:21 of the second disc as it fades slowly, leaving a meditative space for an octave E-flat, expertly voiced and precisely placed. After a crystalline major third at 25:07 of the first disc, we get a quietly apocalyptic ninth in the bass, so similar and yet totally alien to the one that opens the score. These are simply fleeting images emerging from a hugely diverse canvas. The recording is closer than any other version I’ve heard, a sure-fire way to force every articulation and sustain to the fore until they fade into the subsuming silences separating measures. The piano itself often sounds like an organ, so long and colorful are the sustains. This version is more intimate than a concert hall experience and also somehow larger than life, combining the potency of poetic invocation with the all-encompassing narrative arc of the finest stories. It will be some time before I have the pleasure of encountering either Cage or this piece to such revelatory effect.”

Marc Medwin, Fanfare