John Cage – Two2

A new recording of Cage’s late work Two2 for two pianos, an interpretation considerably extended from other recorded versions. Featuring Mark Knoop and Philip Thomas.

“It will be some time before I have the pleasure of encountering either Cage or this piece to such revelatory effect.” (Fanfare)

another timbre, at124x2

“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, “…it 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

“No stopwatch is required for the realisation of Two2; John Cage entrusted the pacing of this piece to the intuition of its performers. Pianists Philip Thomas and Mark Knoop bring feline touch and expert attentiveness to their placement of allocated notes, as they extend the music beyond two hours. Two2 emerges from their close collaborative focus as tactile and tactful music, as precise and deliberate as calligraphic strokes inscribed in luminously blank space. In fact, Cage drew inspiration for this composition from the syllabic patterning of japanese renga verse form. Duration and dynamics locate this particular performance in the vicinity of Morton Feldman’s later music, but although it shares the poise of those long, quiet works, Two2 is less prone to ambivalence, less inconclusive in its inflections and more firmly settled within its own stretched out contours.”

– Julian Cowley, The Wire

“Great art takes time and, as Cage observed in his Lecture on Something, art should not be something that comes from within, but that goes within. Being fond of the piece, I’ve been looking forward to hearing this new recording of Cage’s late piano duet Two² for several reasons and yet it still managed to take me by surprise. First reason: I really like Philip Thomas’ and Mark Knoop’s interpretations of Cage, both jointly as part of projects like Another Timbre’s recording of Winter Music, and their solo interpretations on works ranging from the solo from Concert for Piano and Orchestra and Etudes Boreales, respectively.

Second reason: I’d always had a soft spot for Two²; partly as a rare anomaly amongst Cage’s “number pieces”, moreso for its use of subjective time, placing shared responsibility for the movement of one passage to the next entirely on the performers. (It’s an idea I’ve adapted for some of my own music.) The scope for variation in the density of events from moment to moment added a pleasing amount of upheaval to the usual, even continuum. Third reason: Philip Thomas hated it.

The inner sleeve of the CD, unusually for Another Timbre releases, quotes a substantial chunk of the interview with Thomas posted on their website, explaining his antipathy (“too many notes”) and his conversion. Other recordings I’ve heard of this piece range from about 45 to 75 minutes. Until I opened the package I hadn’t realised this new version took up two discs and extended a little past two hours. Was this a cop-out, grinding the pace down to something tastefully undisturbed; slow, soft and inoffensive?

These days, it’s almost too easy to reduce your sound palette to quiescence, for that superficial impression of beauty and profundity. When things become easy, it gets much harder to do those things with distinction. In Two², each pianist plays in their own time but cannot move to the next measure until the other player has also completed the current measure. Thomas compares Cage’s score to those of Antoine Beuger, for its elegant simplicity, but the technique of interdependent interpretation recalls Christian Wolff’s music. There’s a similar balance here that gently sways between disjointedness and continuity, in a way I haven’t heard in other recordings of this piece. It also feels like perhaps the only Cage composition predicated on the idea of the musician’s “inner clock” that really works as intended, without requiring almost impossibly ideal conditions.

Thomas and Knoop agreed on their instincts that Cage’s score for Two²needed a more generous pacing, and with this extra time comes the greater revelation of details, both in Cage’s composition and the musicians’ playing. As Thomas says, with their slower pacing “the sounds seem to have a poise and stillness about them.” The dramatic contrasts in register can often come with perceptible changes in dynamics, although here the pianists honour Cage’s instruction for an evenness of tone, “quietly but equally”. Thomas and Knoop bring out a beautiful quality where each sound has a distinct character, with its own brilliance or softness, a subtle difference in attack that sets each note or chord in low relief. It’s something I haven’t heard in other recordings.

Another unsual aspect of Two² is the way Cage allowed sounds to reappear. Cage skillfully used chance in a way that enabled chords to be repeated from time to time, creating a hazy sense of memory, variation and even harmony, as the listener hears remembered chords in new contexts. This mysterious sense of patterns is most evident in Thomas and Knoop’s interpretation. In his interview, Thomas attributes this to the slowness allowing each chord more time to resonate in the memory. It also allows each chord to be heard in isolation, so that it may be better recognised should it be played again.

Despite liking other versions of Two², this new interpretation reveals so much more about what makes this piece beautiful. By removing the complexity from the surface, Thomas and Knoop have found a more accomplished complexity within the music.”

– Ben Harper, Boring Like A Drill

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 Two2harmonies 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

Cage’s Two2 (1989) is one of the few in his late Number Piece series that doesn’t employ time brackets. (This notational device ensures that the musical content always happens more or less in the same order and that the piece always lasts more or less the same amount of time, but the flexibility built into the system makes it impossible to predict the precise order of the individual events.) Here, instead, the piece explores the implications of a remark from Sofia Gubaidulina in conversation with Cage: “There is an inner clock.”

Accordingly, each system of music in this piece (36 in all) is divided into five measures, each of which has various sonorities (either chords or individual tones) in at least one piano part. The pianos’ damper pedals are depressed throughout the entire work, which contributes to the work’s sonorous character. The two pianists must play the sonorities in their measure in order, but they can freely decide when to begin playing their measure and how long each musical event lasts before playing the next. For instance, given a measure where one pianist has events I’ll label 1–4 and the other 1a–3a, the measure could be performed as <1, 2, 1a, 3, 4, 2a, 3a>, <1a, 2a, 1, 2, 3, 3a, 4>, or many other possibilities. However, the pianists must wait until both have finished playing a single measure before continuing; as a result, the total duration of this work is indeterminate.

Up until now, performances have ranged from about 40 minutes to about 80. Thomas, quoted in the brief liner note, says he had previously found the piece too busy, too full of information. This performance, then, slows things down considerably. It allows the listener to pay very close attention to the quality of the sounds: among other things, their initial attack and decay, their timbral variation, and their position in register. This is very much in keeping with Zen Buddhism, which emphasizes observing phenomena broadly and discourages relying upon habit, which can make us prematurely assign something to a category without really appreciating it as it is.

The two pianists are virtuosos: in this piece, which moves so slowly, the challenge is to produce each sound beautifully, clearly, and consistently. They do this exceedingly well, and are so evenly matched that sometimes it’s hard to imagine there are two of them. Although they move slowly through the work, the exact rate of progress is never predictable—this, too, is not at all easy to do. The recorded sound is very fine: although the recorded perspective is a little closer than I would like, the sound is never claustrophobic or overly percussive. Still, had the microphones been placed a little further away I think the piano sound might have bloomed even more effectively.

I will say, too, that I found listening to the piece a moving experience. Whether or not this was their intention, I’m not sure. For Cage was famously uneasy with the idea of basing composition on emotion, and as a listener he frequently commented that he was happy hearing a sound without deriving any specific emotion from it:

I love sounds, just as they are, and I have no need for them to be anything more than what they are. I don’t want them to be psychological. I don’t want a sound to pretend that it’s a bucket, or that it’s president, or that it’s in love with another sound. I just want it to be a sound. And I’m not so stupid, either. There was a German philosopher who’s very well known; his name was Immanuel Kant, and he said there are two things that don’t have to mean anything: one is music and the other is laughter. Don’t have to mean anything, that is, in order to give us very deep pleasure.

Fair enough. But the method by which Cage wrote Two2 also guarantees that a number of specific sonorities in the piece recur—indeed, 200 of the 327 sonorities in the work recur, some as many as four times. For me, at least, hearing these recurring sonorities are like encountering old friends after a long absence: I experience emotions when I see them, some which I understand and some which I don’t. And I feel a certain sense of loss when I hear one of these sonorities for the last time. I’d like to think, too, that Mr. Thomas and Mr. Knoop also engaged expressively with the music without necessarily trying to press their listeners into feeling one specific thing or another—which is what I suspect Kant had in mind when he talked about the pleasure that one feels from the “changing free play of sensations” experienced in music, humor, and games of chance.

– Rob Haskins, The International Journal of Music and Music Performance

“In addition to its mission of championing living composers, Another Timbre has issued several insightful and inspiring recordings of the music of John Cage. The catalog includes two separate recordings of “Four6” for mixed ensemble, along with recordings of “Four4” for four percussionists and “Three2” for three percussionists, and a septet realization of “Cartridge Music.” Two particular favorites focus in on Cage’s music for piano with John Tilbury’s realization of “Electronic Music for Piano, 1964,” and more recently, a resplendent four-piano realization of “Winter Music.” Key to the success of these projects has been the considered choice of participants since it is incumbent upon them to immerse themselves into Cage’s compositional framework, absorb the composer’s instructions, come to a common perception and approach along with their collaborators, prepare their parts within those parameters, and perform the piece within the overall agreed-upon context. Choosing one’s colleagues wisely is paramount. This recording of “Two2” reunites Philip Thomas and Mark Knoop, both of whom participated in “Winter Music,” and both with rich experience in Cage’s music. And they are the perfect pairing.

Much has been written about Cage’s Number Pieces, a series of compositions written during the last six years of his life. Rob Haskins’ “Anarchism and the Everyday: John Cage’s Number Pieces” is a particularly good place to start. In particular, he homes in on the composer’s concern for “the place of the artist within society and his concern for society in general … In the Number Pieces Cage made his final statement on this social problem: how to create a musical metaphor for an ‘enlightened’ anarchy, a society of individuals who live together in harmony without having to sacrifice their freedom as individuals to a central governing authority.” This gets to the crux of the process of preparing a recording or performance of Cage’s music. Here, composition serves in Cage’s words, to define a process rather than a structure. Haskins quotes an interview with Cage where he talks about an ensemble as a microcosm of an anarchist society. “That they would have no common idea, they would be following no common law. The one thing that they would be in agreement about would be something that everyone is in agreement about … and that is, what time it is.”

That common agreement on time is central to “Two2.” The basic structure is built around 36 sections based on a “renga,” a Japanese form of collaborative poetry, with five events per section. Cage structured notes and chords across the two piano parts and the rule is that each pianist is free to pace their part however they like. But neither can move to the next event until both have finished their sounds for that bar. In Cage’s other Number pieces, each musician operates independently, with an eye toward a stopwatch and the time brackets of their part. But here, Cage instructs the performers to rely on their “inner clock.” This process and freedom toward marking the passage of time as a collective endeavor is what sets “Two2” apart.

In an interview on Another Timbre’s site, Thomas explains how this invested freedom led him to reevaluate “Two2.” Thomas’ exposure to the piece was through a recording by the piano duo Double Edge (for whom the piece was written) which clocks in at 35 minutes, and a few performances that stretched the piece to around an hour. His impression was that “there were just too many notes, too much material in the piece such that I quickly lost interest.” But upon looking at the piece and the instructions, he realized that there was something there he wanted to explore further. He notes that as opposed to Cage’s other number pieces, you don’t have a stopwatch and you need to be fully aware of the other player’s music as that collective agreement that a bar is over is what determines when it is ready to move to the next section. Listening becomes paramount as each player needs to account for where each other is for the piece to work. With this in mind, he started thinking about what that might mean in performing the piece with a more expansive pace. Taking this notion of the pacing to Mark Knoop, the two began work on a performance which resulted in extending the overall duration to just over two hours.

Thomas and Knoop make the music breathe in new ways. Time and duration function here in a much more malleable way than the way they function in a piece like “Winter Music” or in the other Number Pieces. Cage references a pace-setting “inner clock” in his performance instructions. In a correspondence, Thomas explains that “time and duration … is very much negotiated between the two players to a much greater extent than is necessary in, say, “Winter Music.” For the latter piece we assigned each other a number of pages and a duration for pages and then that was it, but we could have been much more free with that or indeed much more specific… But essentially performers work independently through the piece. With “Two2,” the total duration of each line is entirely free, but the rules are such that one has to listen to the other, and work with them in the performance. And whilst that doesn’t particularly necessitate communication (such as looking or cueing) it does require attentive listening.”

Slowed down and opened up, the relationship of the two piano parts accrue with a measured stillness. Cage instructs the performers to play “quietly but equally, no tones inaudible, damper pedals down throughout.” This serves to reveal the mercurial interrelatedness of the harmonic structure. Haskins, in his notes for his own recording of “Two2” (which clocks in at 74 minutes), elucidates that the sonorities within the piece are myriad and complex, determined by chance procedures. But those chance procedures are tempered by Cage’s decision to repeat chords and successions of chords throughout the piece. Haskins observes that “The manner of their overall succession, of course, is determined by chance procedures and performance, which guarantee a nebulous ordering that offers a modicum of coherence without any predictability whatsoever. And so, the logic of recurrence resembles the way that our different friends and acquaintances pass in and out of our lives—a continuity that doesn’t make conventional sense but is meaningful nevertheless.”

From the very first notes of the first event, Knoop and Thomas are guided by an organically attuned collective sensibility as to “what time it is” within the progression of the piece. Notes and chords are sounded and resonate within the events and pauses between each renga leave open spaces. And that patience and attentiveness to resonance and decay take on a fundamental role in the recording. In a correspondence, Mark Knoop explained that “[s]omething that struck me when first reading through “Two2” was that the material seems to highlight one of my favourite qualities of the piano. This is the continuous evolution of the instrument’s resonance with the pedal held. Each string of each pitch of a new chord decays and changes at a different rate and is in turn affected by the decay of the previous chord and the resonance of the other piano. Cage’s use of repetition in this piece is doubly enhanced: the repeated chord is ‘new’ precisely because we have heard it before, but [now] it exists in a resonance which has since evolved. For me these differences are enhanced in the ear by greater temporal separation; the piece exists between the chordal attacks, rather than being the chords themselves.”

Listening to the piece unfold over the course of 128 minutes, it is easy to suspend any notion of the passage of time. Cage intentionally eschews any sense of linear development, setting up an unhampered framework where notes are sounded and left to hang without any specified notion of defined linearity or harmonic connections. Start and end become immaterial, as if one happens in to the piece in progress and leaves midstream of an infinite flow. Memory flickers as successions of chords rematerialize but not in any readily identifiable way. Notable in the recording is the decision to meld the two piano’s together rather than panning them spatially, allowing the two to unify into a collective voice.

Thomas lays it out nicely when comparing the piece to Morton Feldman’s late piano music (which he and Knoop each play superbly.) “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.”

– Michael Rosenstein, Point of Departure

Two2 is one of forty-eight number based pieces John Cage composed before his death in 1992. The works for two pianos and was inspired by a statement by Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina: “There is an inner clock.”- meaning that the work has an adjustable duration- with a playing time anywhere between forty minutes, and two & half hours. This recent double CD release on the always consistent Another Timbre- comes in at just over two hours, and if like me you enjoy sparse & skeletal based modern composition, you’ll find it most worthy.The piece was composed in 1989-  and followed the concept of Renga poetry. With the work been composed with 36 lines of music, each containing 5 measures, and each line having 31 events occurring in the sequence 5-7-5-7-7, with the pianists allowed their own tempo but waiting to synchronize each measure. So in layman’s terms it basically means that the piece is a series of patterns & notes(sometimes harmonic, sometimes not) played –out. As this version of the work is of one of the longer ones the pace is decidedly slowed & languish, with at times reverb & gaps of silence used to great effect.

The piece is broken up over the two CD’s with just over sixty-six minutes on disc one, and sixty-one minutes on disc two.  And really the whole thing sits somewhere between lulling & tensioned- with structure moving from angular to hauntingly-yet-sparsely harmonic. It’s certainly a work you have to let your self-slow down to, and become one with both the patterns & the subtle harmonic twists. Both Knoop & Thomas unfold the pieces skeletal structure with such care, depth of touch, and feeling- moving from slowed angular wonders, onto furtive higher darts, though to cut short doomed plods, onto reverberating weaves of mid ranged notation. The patterns are not as pronounced & bleakly moody as something like a Feldman composition, instead, they map out a semi forlorn map of patter-nation.

I feel one the most effective & rewarding facets of the piece is when it finally ends, as one’s mind is expecting yet another pattern after the cursory gaps of silence & reverb drift – so in a bizarre sort of way it’s akin to when listening to a densely packed slice HNW, that cuts out after say a 60 minute run…and your left pining both the wall & it’s pattered mass, but with this piece your left pining for the next stark weave on notes, and when it doesn’t happen you feel slightly lost & sad, yet impressed by the way you have become so enthralled by the works hold.

I guess it goes without saying that Two2 is not going to be for everyone- and you really need to enjoy extremely slow, considered, and sparse piano music, which is both about the full two-hour journey & its minute -by-minute detail. But personally I found the release total spellbinding, and as we’ve come to expect from Another Timbre the recording is captured wonderfully sonic definition & clarity.

– Roger Batty, Musique Machine