John Cage: Two²

Friday 15 June 2018

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 Two² needed 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.