An Anarchic Society of Sounds
Apartment House and John Cage’s Number Pieces

by Michael Rosenstein

Apartment House recording Cage's Number Pieces

In his liner notes to a recording of John Cage’s Four4 by percussionist Glenn Freeman, pianist and Cage scholar Rob Haskins cites the following quote by Cage, made after a disastrous premiere of his piece Concert for Piano and Orchestra in 1958. “I must find a way to let people be free without their becoming foolish. So that their freedom will make them noble ... My problems have become social rather than musical. Was that what Sri Ramakrishna meant when he said to the disciple who asked him whether he should give up music and follow him? “By no means. Remain a musician. Music is a means of rapid transportation to life everlasting.” And in a lecture I gave at Illinois, I added, “To life, period.” [John Cage, A Year from Monday: New Lectures and Writings (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1967), 136.]” In the over 40 Number Pieces that Cage created during the last five years of life, the composer grappled with how to create a clearly-defined compositional framework, both temporal and harmonic, while still entrusting the performers to make their own decisions as to the specifics of their realization of the open guidelines.

Cage turned 75 in 1987, the year that he started working on the Number Pieces. With increasing commissions for new work, he devised a system with which he could develop scores relatively quickly using prescribed ensembles, number of players, and durations along with parameterized parts for each of the players. This approach enabled him to complete over 40 pieces in the last five years of his life and 23 in his final year; a staggering output. Yet for the most part, since the time that he composed them, the pieces have rarely been performed or recorded. While a handful have been included in releases on Simon Reynell’s Another Timbre label, particularly a resplendent version of Two2, this alone makes the four CD set of the complete Number Pieces for mid-sized ensembles, performed by the group Apartment House, a momentous release. Comprised of realizations of all of the pieces for quintet up to thirteen players, the ensemble delves into what Hoskins refers to as the “enlightened anarchy” required to fully deliver on Cage’s vision. As with all of their projects, the group drew on their deep engagement with composers’ structures and vision as well as a commitment to playing pieces in which the musicians have freedom of interpretation, delivering nuanced performances that reveal the clarity and harmonic richness of the series.

The utilization of time brackets is central to most of the Number Pieces, a notable exception being Two2. This construct basically lays out a period of time within which a note must start and a corresponding period within which a note must end. In the score, the staves within the time bracket contain one or more sound events without specified duration or dynamics. But in his incisive liner notes included in the boxed set, producer Simon Reynell notes that the harmonic content and decisions is just as vital to these works. “The number pieces constituted an unexpected turn in Cage’s output, a late flowering of music which is often quiet and meditative, and much less angular and abrasive than most of his compositions of the previous 40 years ... If he still wasn’t interested in classical rules, he was moving towards an idea of harmony as an omnipresent co-existence of sounds. As he said in an interview with Joan Retallack a few months before his death in 1992: “Harmony means that there are several sounds being noticed at the same time, hmm? It’s quite impossible not to have harmony, hmm? ... This notion of ‘anarchic harmony,’ of pitches and sounds simply co-existing, and thereby establishing de facto relationships in a non-rule-bound way, is fundamental to much of what I enjoy about the number pieces.”

Time Bracket notation from the trumpet part of Eight

In his article ... The Whole Paper Would Potentially Be Sound: Time-Brackets and the Number Pieces (1981-92), Benedict Weisser lays out the process that Cage used to compose the pieces. Computer programmer Andrew Culver was a key collaborator in the process. Culver wrote a special program called TBrack which “was not geared toward ‘content’ decisions such as designating sequences of pieces and interludes ... The fact that TBrack was intended strictly as a time-specific generating program should provide a clue as to the direction in which Cage was taking his method ... It signals a growing preoccupation with pure time-structure, as well as an increasingly personal interest in ‘content’ which manifested itself in a wider variety of choices ... [The Number Pieces] are pure-time abstractions, empty slates on which any sequence of events is in principle compositionally by performatively admissible.” The program captured parameters for the number of instruments, begin time, end time, whether the end would be defined as a hard stop or derived by a time brackets, parameters as to how end brackets would be aligned, and how silences were to be utilized. Cage then chose bracket lengths, degrees of overlaps, and notably, pitch ranges to be utilized. Once those were captured, the program would generate a score.

Clarinetist Heather Roche, who was a central member of the project notes how key harmony was in her consideration of the pieces. “I think a lot of the discovery process came about through the process of making the recordings, actually. Because my clarinet part more or less looks the same for each piece, I never could have foreseen how different each of the number pieces sounded. I was constantly struck by this; how much density of sound and different orchestrations can change something so dramatically. I also never really considered Cage's work that much in terms of ‘harmony,’ but I think here in late Cage we have this – this really rather beautiful approach to harmony.”

Cellist and founder of Apartment House Anton Lukoszevieze talked about what drew him to the project. “I have been playing and been interested in Cage’s work and music for nearly 30 years, so this is a logical progression for me. I have discovered that there is a great variety to the Number Pieces, the main one being instrumentation but also different aspects of tuning (what people call microtonality, though not a term I agree with) ... Cage’s scores of this period tend to be ‘earthquake proof’, in that the instructions are clear (pretty much all of the time) ... I think we discovered how beautiful these works are and our aesthetic approach has confirmed that.”

Violinist Mira Benjamin weighed in, noting that “One thing that really struck me when we were sitting in Henry Wood Hall recording two of the larger group pieces (Thirteen and Fourteen) was just how little notation tells us about sound. Here are two pieces that look pretty similar on the notated page – but begin to sound them and the difference between them is staggering. They’re completely different species, different universes, and the dynamics of instrumentation and duration that are composed into each piece pull you as a player toward those distinct places. This is my experience of the Number Pieces, anyway, and one of the reasons I am drawn to play them. Perhaps this could also be a reason why they might sometimes be overlooked? These compositions don’t give much on the page, and then give so much in the resounding world. Cage’s notation in the Number Pieces is a cipher, and the humanity of the players filters out the other side.”

Across the discs, one framing strategy informs the realizations. In his notes to the set, Reynell explains that “for this box set we agreed that the Apartment House musicians would play relatively long within the time brackets, letting their notes rub up against the pitches of the other instruments. While some of the most sparse scores (especially Five3) inevitably do have periods of silence, in general we minimised the silences and enjoyed the unusual harmonies that resulted.” This impacts the way that the pitches and sounds gather and co-exist, and the relationships between sound and silence. It also impacts the overall dynamics of many of the pieces. In his notes for many of them, Cage states “Sounds may be long or short. When they have duration, the loudness should be soft. Very short sounds are free as to loudness, even sfz if wished or ppp.” (In some hands, that freedom has had shambolic results, though certainly, the members of Apartment House would not have fallen into that.) Rather than a limitation, the musicians seize on that central guiding principle, delivering readings of assured lucidity and acumen, accentuating the underlying “harmony as an omnipresent co-existence of sounds.”

Each of the four discs begin with a reading of Five, an early piece for five unspecified instruments or voices of five-minute duration with each part consisting of five time brackets with between one and three notes in each. The decision to include multiple versions hinged, in part, on the desire to maximize the musicians present at the various recording sessions. Three of the versions were recorded during the same session as Antoine Beuger’s jankelevitch sextets, using different combinations of the musicians involved. The versions on Discs 1 and 2 include Mark Knoop’s accordion playing, and the rich sonorities of the instrument provide a lushness, particularly on the first version along with viola, double bass, bassoon, and bass clarinet. The version on Disc 3 for violin, viola, double bass, bassoon, and bass clarinet is imbued with a warmth of the paired strings and lower register reeds while the final version, for three clarinets, bassoon and oboe takes advantage of the interlocking dusky sonorities of the reed instruments as the individual lines converge and then separate off, at times evoking the resonant combination tones of a reed organ. There is an additional version available as a download as well.

Five2 and Five5 have similarities to Five, however in each case, the instrumentation is fixed. Five2 is scored for English horn, two clarinets, bass clarinet, and timpani; with each part identical as to the duration of the time brackets. One notable difference is the introduction of silent brackets for the timpani and English horn parts. What stands out in the piece is the quiet timbral interplay of reeds and timpani, particularly the deep resonance of the lower-pitched English horn, bass clarinet and percussion. One is immediately struck by how the members of Apartment House honor the hushed dynamics and minimal harmonic structure of the piece with incisive clarity, hitting starts and stops without hesitancy and allowing the tonalities of each part to sit against each other. Simon Limbrick’s muted, rolling timpani adds a particularly captivating element to their reading. Five5, for flute, two clarinets, bass clarinet, and percussion is a bit more strident with the introduction of flute, and here the percussionist has to choose their instruments but must utilize continuous sounds if a long sound is selected. Again, the members of the ensemble eschew any sense of tentative delicacy, instead digging into the way that the sounds of the wind instruments accrue with the layer of bowed and abraded percussion.

Five4, originally scored for soprano and alto saxophones and three percussionists takes a bit of a different approach. Firstly, the saxophone parts are shifted to clarinet. In addition, Heather Roche recorded the two clarinet parts and George Barton and Simon Limbrick shared in creating the three percussion parts. But more importantly, Cage’s instructions veer from the quiet dynamics of the three pieces noted above. Here, the composer outlines “Single or several tones (1-5) in flexible time brackets. Do not play the tones more than once. Dynamics and durations should be extremely varied and go to extremes of loudness and softness.” This can easily lead to theatricality, which is the downfall of far too many Cage performances. But Roche, Barton and Limbrick’s razor-sharp attack and flawless articulation transform the piece into an authoritative, compact reading. Roche commented about the process of recording multiple parts, reflecting that the preparation process was “Not really any different, although I admit it did feel quite disorienting to do alone, after so many of the big group sessions. I guess in some ways I tried to enter the same headspace as though I had colleagues there with me.”

While the other pieces in the “Five” series come in at five minutes each, Five3, originally written for trombonist James Fulkerson and the Mondriaan String Quartet extends to 40 minutes. Cage also developed a microtonal notation system for the piece which Reynell describes as “using small arrows beside the notes in the score to create six steps between each semi-tone. This didn’t come from a particular interest in, say, just intonation, nor a keenly felt concern for extreme pitch accuracy, but was, I think, more a way of making the music strange for both the musicians and listeners.” There are also more extensive periods of silence specified in the score which further disorients the listener. Here, in particular, Reynell’s masterful recording and production reveals the subtle nuances of the string voicings, from diaphanous pianissimo to the microtonal scrims of intersecting parts to the poised arco tones woven in and out of the piece. Barrie Webb’s rounded trombone timbres and low, tawny pitches are adeptly balanced in the field of sound. Here, in particular, one gets absorbed into the expansive open fabric of the performance as the various threads are intertwined with a measured patience. Lukoszevieze homes in on this, noting that “We never play with vibrato in Apartment House, unless for effect in certain contexts, and absolutely not in this music, as the timbre, clarity and control of sound and harmonic focus is what is important.”

Semi-tone notation from the Violin 1 part of Five3

Though a brief 3 minutes, Six, for percussion sextet is an intriguing addition to the set. Reynell explained that “I couldn’t afford to bring in four extra percussionists just to record one 3-minute piece, so I talked to Simon Limbrick and George Barton ... and they agreed to try recording Six as three multitracked duos. I think the piece did come out differently both from the other pieces, and from how it might have sounded if there had been a percussion sextet. We simply superimposed the duo recordings without doing anything to them technically or trying to make them fit together ‘better.’ The results are very strange; the piece has an unpredictability and randomness that would be difficult to achieve in an ‘as live’ recording, where players would inevitably react in small ways to what the other players were doing (whether they intended to or not).” The score for the piece consists of overlapping brackets allowing for a wide variety in the length of sounds. Longer sounds should be played quietly and shorter sounds may be played louder, resulting in far more movement and range of dynamics than the other pieces contained in the box. The two percussionists use contrasting timbres and a keen ear for attack and decay, delivering a dynamically charged reading.

Seven, for flute, clarinet, percussion, piano, violin, viola, and cello is one of the earliest number pieces and Cage cannily creates a structure that draws on notions of a piano concerto while still leaving the score open, subverting traditional hierarchies of chamber ensembles. The piano part contains many notes marked forte, with several notes or chords in a time bracket. The string instruments are instructed to play with loosened bow hair and with the side of their bow, and the friction of bow and strings brings out an abraded edge to their playing. The percussionist can use four sounds which they can choose, but all must be produced by friction. The inherent tone colors and longer note lengths of flute and clarinet complement the ensemble sound. Heather Roche commented on the process of preparing for pieces like this. “What was illuminating in general was the conversations with my colleagues at the start of each session. Which we always had to make time for, because even though clarinet was in most of the pieces, around me the instrumentation (and thus the colleagues) shifted a lot, including a few colleagues who perhaps didn't have as much experience with this as others (you'll be perhaps unsurprised to hear that we don't have regular call for a tubist in Apartment House!). We spent a lot of time discussing things like dynamics and length of notes. When it was appropriate to play more than one pitch in the winds (i.e., in the string heavy Number pieces, where string players are holding for a significantly longer amount of time), and why circular breathing in this case is totally inappropriate (kind of messes with the human element of these pieces somehow).”

It's instructive to listen to both the version of Seven on the CD set as well as an alternate version that is available for download. Both display the surety of attack and sustain and assiduous choices in how the parts overlap to create an immersive whole. One is struck by the way that clarinet and flute overtones meld with the wispy string textures and frictive percussion. Mark Knoop’s more resounding piano playing never overwhelms, instead providing framing events over the course of the 20-minute piece. The alternate version has a somewhat darker mood, with Knoop favoring the bottom registers of the piano, particularly in the opening sections and the strings drawing on a bit more grit in their playing. It also incorporates slightly more use of silence, though as with all of the realizations here, silence never becomes the defining element of the piece, instead acting as a structural component within the overall trajectory of the performance. The reading that ended up on the CD fits in a bit better with the overall set, but both are well worth spending time with.

As Roche mentions above, the shift in instrumentation between the pieces is essential to the overall composition. Seven2 is a 52-minute, bass-heavy piece for bass flute, bass clarinet, bass trombone, two unspecified percussionists, cello, and contrabass. Cage’s only stipulation for the percussionists is that they us “any very resonant instruments,” suggesting mainly metal instruments like “Chinese and Turkish cymbals, Japanese temple gongs, tam tams, thunder sheets, bass marimba tones and Balinese gongs.” Here, the percussion parts are central to the realization, with long resonant sounds that rumble and reverberate beneath the low register instruments. The grouping of bass clarinet and bass flute, cello and contrabass, and bass trombone creates a meditative depth to the piece. Tones are parsed out unhurriedly shifting in density as the various parts ebb and flow against the mutable percussive ground. The careful recording here is key, particularly in catching every seismic vibration of the percussion parts.

Notation of sound selection from percussion part 2 of Seven2

Another true find of the collection is the recording of Eight scored for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, tenor trombone and tuba. The hour-long piece, commissioned by the Trisha Brown Dance Company is unique in that dynamics are completely free with each part containing between 80 and 90 time brackets with one note per bracket. Cage also specified that “intonation need not be agreed upon” allowing for variations in tuning between the instruments. The range of dynamics, timbres, and registers across the instruments, from the upper pitches of flute, oboe, and clarinet through the mid-ranges of bassoon, horn, and trumpet to the lowest range of trombone and tuba provide a verdant palette for the octet. The music unfolds with deliberation and patience as the changeable striations of sound continually accrue and dissipate against each other. Bereft of patterns or motifs, there are no touchpoints for the listener to fix on to gauge progression of time. But the inner logic adhered to by the musicians never wavers, inviting the listener to immerse themselves as the composition advances.

Mira Benjamin talks about the process of collectively fitting the parts together effectively. “The discovery of these pieces happens in the moment of sounding, with the group present. With a group like Apartment House, I’m completely confident we’ll share an approach and a way of playing, and I trust those musicians implicitly ... Sometimes it surprises me (enjoyably) how one musician will conceive of these pieces so differently from the next – I once sat next to a musician playing one of the larger group pieces (Fourteen, I think) and he had 5 minutes of silence at the start of his part, while others played. During the session he told me he was finding it challenging to count those five minutes, which came as such a surprise to me – I could never count in these pieces.”

Benjamin continues, “We use stopwatches to coordinate the time brackets, but 60 seconds in a minute is an arbitrary thing, a mechanism but not at all present for me in the experience of these soundings. If there is a sense of pulse (which I’m never sure about) then it appears and disappears, emerges through sound, distorts, totally as a consequence of the sounding relationships that unfold. So, five minutes of silence in my part, while others play, are like an opening where I can be another kind of participant, give way to what’s unfolding around me. It’s always nice to be able to take a role of curious listener in your own playing – I guess Cage just enables that a little more obviously.”

With Ten, Cage utilizes the same microtonal system as Five3, an approach that recurred in many of the Number Pieces he wrote in 1991. Here, scored for flute, oboe, clarinet, trombone, percussion, piano, two violins, viola, and cello, the piano part combines note clusters along with sounds made by plucking the strings or tapping the body of the instrument while the percussionist chooses ten sounds to draw on. The rest of the ensemble’s parts employ overlapping time brackets, many of which, Reynell explains “contain long threads of notes, often no more than a tone apart, like bizarre little microtonal melodies that flutter and circle round the more sustained notes.” In his notes to the score, Cage implores the musicians to “Search with them [the tones] for melisma, florid song.” The ensemble embraces the synthesis of unstable, microtonal lyricism, the textural colorations of percussion, and the chords, clinking strings, and percussive resonance of the piano being struck as the piece evolves over the course of 30 minutes. The voicings for strings, reeds, and trombone provide an undulating, elastic field of sound, effectively complemented by Knoop’s sharp attack and scrupulous control of decay. Limbrick’s percussion choices, in particular, set this reading apart, adding just the right tinges of spikiness to the performance, something all-to-often seen as taboo when performing these pieces.

Notation of sounds and note clusters from the piano part of Ten

Thirteen for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, tuba, two xylophone players, two violins, viola, and cello, was the final work that Cage completed, months before his death. Here, Cage diverged from the spare approach of many of the pieces, with long threads of notes. Additionally, many of the parts are specified with narrow pitch ranges and repeated notes. The parts for the two xylophones are also notable in that both parts are identical, though the two players are instructed not to play in unison. With nearly double the number of time brackets and all notes specified within the bottom octave of the instrument, their parts become a rippling layer underlying the piece. The size of the ensemble and relative concentration in the number of notes across the parts evokes a notion of open-ended lyricism with whorls of sonorous subcurrents that continually eddy across each other. The xylophone parts ring through, accenting the ensemble parts without subverting the flow. The masterful production and recording are integral to revealing the detail of the interlaced parts, capturing and presenting them with a natural separation across the sound plane.

Notation from the oboe part of Thirteen

Fourteen for flute/piccolo, bass flute, clarinet, bass clarinet, horn, trumpet, two percussionists, piano, two violins, viola, cello, and double bass is notable in that the piano part is specified to be bowed, sounded solely by the pianist pulling horsehairs through the strings. Cage instructs, “Let the bowed piano part be an unaccompanied solo, one which is heard in an anarchic society of sounds.” He goes on to note that the two percussion parts “should all be very resonant and are bowed or played with a tremolo such that individual attacks are not noticeable.” Brackets are far more open for the other parts with long gaps between them. Reynell explains that “Most of the other instruments play only a few notes across the twenty- minute duration (on average about twelve notes each), and gaps of about three minutes between time brackets are fairly common (the double bass has one pause of over nine minutes!)” Apartment House’s realization of the score seizes on that notion of “anarchic society of sounds,” creating mercurial strata of hanging tones with the diverse instrumental timbres and registers insightfully adjusting focus. The bowed and sustained percussion parts create an additional textural layer, drawing on a broad range of instruments, from ringing, metallic flutters of xylophone to bowed cymbals and low rumbles of bass drums. The spectral resonances of the bowed piano strings hang against that field, shimmering and undulating like northern lights. While only 20 minutes long, the piece sounds as if it could continue infinitely.

The boxed set concludes with a reading of Four5, originally scored for four saxophones, and here recast for two Bb clarinets, bass clarinet, and bassoon. Like Eight, Cage notes that “The intonation should be unique to each player, thus a unison should be ‘a unison of differences.’” Also, though scored for instruments with different registers, the range of pitches is restricted to two octaves. The shift from saxophones to clarinets and bassoon results in an expansive warmth enriched by the variable intonations which oscillate against each other in measured waves. The amalgamation of clarinet, bass clarinet, and the deep double-reed intonations of bassoon brings out a timbral depth while the tight voicings bring a tonal focus to the piece that stands apart from the other pieces in the set. The reading included in the set is augmented by an alternate version for download, allowing the listener to compare the subtle differences in the overlap of parts.

By design, Cage negated the notion of definitive versions his work; their structures demand that every realization is unique.  What is necessitated though, is that any ensemble that grapples with the compositions must fully immerse themselves in the composer’s inner logic, respecting the parameters and instructions while navigating them with their own perspective. Mira Benjamin provides her insight on this. “Each time I hear one of these pieces it’s a totally different experience, whether I’m playing or listening back to a recording – I can’t have any memory from one listening to the next, because these pieces just unfold and you’re always in the present of that unfolding. So, I’m looking forward to hearing Simon’s recordings because it will be a new experience of the pieces we played, with some other musicians mixed in – just as it would be a new experience to hear the recording if we had all been there on the day ... I don’t approach these pieces in terms of intention and action, or concept and realization. They are phenomena – phenomenological ‘things,’ as the anthropologist Tim Ingold uses that term, to mean not objects that can be regarded, but ‘gatherings together of threads of life.’ I keep using the word ‘unfolding’ to talk about the experience of playing these pieces, but I think that’s the crux of them for me – I like the description offered by the sociologist Karin Knorr Cetina, who writes how practices like these have the capacity to ‘unfold indefinitely’ and are thus ‘always in the process of being materially defined’ as they ‘continually acquire new properties and change the ones they have.’”

Cage spoke about his approach to composition as arising out of “asking questions.” With this set, Reynell and Apartment House have faced the challenge of exploring solutions to those questions, while fully accepting that these solutions will, as Benjamin notes, “unfold indefinitely.” Mira Benjamin spoke of Cage enabling the musicians to become “curious listeners” in their own playing and the members have clearly taken that to heart, noting Cage’s entreaty that “music is a means of rapid transportation to life, period.” By its very release, the box sheds renewed light on this oft overlooked series. Through their dedication and Reynell’s peerless production values, they have created a singular lens into these pieces, one well worth spending time with.

© Michael Rosenstein


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