While we are now fairly used to the idea of the chance operations in his music, it all had to start somewhere for John Cage, and Sixteen Dances is seen as a turning point in his career. This was the last work Cage composed before he committed himself entirely to the use of chance operations. It also represents an intermediate step on the way towards Cage’s deployment of techniques that work with predefined collections of sounds.
Like many of his other pieces, Sixteen Dances was created alongside Cage’s closest artistic collaborator, Merce Cunningham. The choreography was concerned with the nine emotions of the Hindu classical aesthetic, using titles such as “Anger,” “Sorrow,” “Fear” and “Tranquillity.” This commission was closely attuned to Cage’s own study of Indian philosophy, and acted as a stimulus to the changes in his compositional approach in this period. Sixteen Dances is sparingly scored for flute, trumpet, four percussionists, piano, violin, and cello. It has nine movements and seven related interludes, all of which are developed by chance methodology. The individual sequences, and durations for each were discovered by a combination of using the I Ching and tossing coins.
There are plenty more fascinating ideas and concepts which create their own aura around this piece and Cage’s work in general, but an impression of what you might expect to hear from this disc is of more interest in a review of this nature. Having heard the piece live many years ago, I do have some kind of reference, and consider this performance to be very fine indeed. The instrumentation promises and delivers a kind of restrained, thoughtful drama, in which the potential for peaks of high-pressure percussion is always present and does indeed appear to great effect, but always in proportion and with a sense of refined musical scale. There is a feel of process in the music, but this forms a kind of background or framework rather than anything exposed and skeletal. The reason for this is that the musical ideas are so richly varied that the ear is kept alert and guessing, as well as being constantly provided with handy little repetitions and references. The clarity of the instrumentation and definition between the instruments means that there is a sonic counterpoint as well as a purely musical interplay. The overall effect is of superbly crafted and cleverly formulated chamber music, which also happens to have a high ‘entertainment’ factor.
The music is both atonal, and teasingly full of moments in which tonality peeks over the parapet: little flute melodies, chords in the piano, moments of unity between instruments and recurring ‘hooks’ are all deliberately built in to generate micro-contrasts. Confluence and diffusion exist side by side, percussion is both rhythm and colour; instruments are both mechanical and melodic. The titles previously mentioned give some indication as to musical content, but the emotions described are alluded to rather than expressed explicitly - allowing space for the dancers to add their own elements to each mood. “No.1 [Anger]” opens the work, and while creating a brief and intense statement also sets out the ‘zen’ feel which runs through the works as a whole - it’s not “Anger” as a statement, more as a channel through which we witness abstract ideas of “Anger” flowing before us, like a bowl of food at an automated sushi bar. Webernesque floating notes and connections are a characteristic of the subsequent “No.2 [Interlude],” melodic shapes and gestures forming horizontally and shared over the diverse timbres of the instruments. Much as “Anger” isn’t played for shouting and stamping, “No.3 [Humor]” isn’t played for laughs, though “The Heroic” does allow symbolically defiant open fifth intervals to appear from the cello and piano. Swinging rhythms in “No.8 [Interlude]” form a central axis around which the other movements can orbit. Leading notes in the recurring trumpet figure in “No.10 [Interlude]” give a momentary Miles Davis jazz feel. The general sense is of a slowly turning circle, of movements which evolve, but have an inner sense of return, and which present impressions of symmetry and permanence while at the same time sounding free and ethereal. “No.12 [Interlude]” has a marvellous feel of an Irish folk gigue in its dotted rhythms and restricted melodic line. Most of the dances are short, the more extended five-minute “No.14 [Interlude]” allowing the sense of process to develop its own clarity through the multiple repetitions of each instrument’s material. This is followed by “No.15 [The Erotic],” which has some softly seductive nuances amongst the more angular lines. The work finishes with “No.16 [Tranquillity],” which puts the piece to bed on a rich palette of deep gongs.
This piece is full of magical moments, and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP) plays with superb control and sensitivity. The label BMOP/sound, launched by the orchestra and devoted exclusively to new music recordings, has created a stunning sound picture, with convincingly deep lows from the bass drum and a realistic perspective from the ensemble as a whole. The instruments are not recorded too closely, and, being set in a pleasant resonance, the recording is inviting and non-fatiguing. Not quite as shocking as it would have sounded in 1951, this music still sounds avant-garde and uncompromisingly modern nearly 60 years on. Like Cage’s abstract watercolour on the cover of this release, it is however a landscape on which the imagination has no problem drawing its own rich range of interpretations. This is not music which stands alone on some kind of island. As mentioned, one can trace the line back through Webern to the strictness of J.S. Bach’s baroque, and forward, informing the repetitions and cycles of something like Karel Goeyvaerts’ Litanies of the early 1980s. Cage himself moved more towards experimenting with sound for sound’s sake, but the techniques which appear in his later number works can also be traced back to Sixteen Dances. This won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but for those prepared to sample and rejoice in exotic blends from India and China rather than jut their usual mug of builders’ there is a great deal to be discovered and enjoyed here. Don’t be put off by the relatively short playing time either: this is a substantial work which deserves to stand on its own. If you are like me, you’ll want to go back immediately and cover some of this fascinatingly fertile ground again having heard it once, but you won’t have the feeling that you have been short-changed. Sixteen Dances is a central work of our 20th century Western musical heritage, and having it in such a fine SACD recording as this is a genuine delight.
— Dominy Clements
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