Imaginary Landscapes
Maelström Percussion Ensemble, Jan William conductor Hat [now] ART 145

Performance: ****

Sound: ****

Collecting American composer John Cage’s percussion pieces together on one CD, Jan William and the Maelström Percussion Ensemble conclusively illustrate that although visionary and provocative, these works also have a traditional base.

Granted the tradition(s) Cage (1912-1992) approached aren’t those of the standard high-European orchestral canon. Yet by writing for all-percussion groups, he recalls African drum orchestras; his musical use of electronics and gadgets harkens back to the Italian Futurists’ early 20th Century experiments; and while he eschewed improvisation, utilizing randomly captured sounds – especially in the compositions here for 12 radios and 42 cut-up recordings – he adumbrates the methods of contemporary notated and free music creators.

The languid and understated hollow pulses, tambour thuds, paper crumbling and extended silences on the CD’s 26-minute final composition from 1985 – whose 43 word title would take up most of this review – show an accommodation with minimalism. Conversely, the staccato, bombastic explosions and siren-whistling timbres on “Imaginary Landscape No. 2” and “Imaginary Landscape No.3”, (both 1942), could easily fit in with rock’s Industrial Music or mid-period Musique Concrète.

Yet besides their influence and antecedents, Cage’s compositions are notable on their own. Both the final piece and “Imaginary Landscape No. 1” (1939) – played on electronic keyboard and oscillator – stand up as pleasurable percussion variations. Equally impressive is the chameleonic “Imaginary Landscape No. 4” (1951). The off-the-air signals captured here by the radios located in border city Buffalo, N.Y., for instance, include snatches of French plus Canadian place names among the static, weather and traffic reports, pop music and commercials heard.

By chance, “Imaginary Landscape No. 5” (1951) for cut-up recordings also cements another contemporary Cage linkage. The big band vamps, saxophone growls and flute obbligato used are from discs recorded by Anthony Braxton, another modern composer, who like fellow American Cage, consistently avoids musical pigeonholing.

— Ken Waxman

OPUS Volume 30 No. 2