Joëlle Léandre / Kumi Wakao

November 5, 2001

John Cage: Sonatas and Interludes (1946-1948)

Mesostics MESCD-0011


John Cage #4

Mesostics MESCD-0013

As music in the 21st century advances, it’s becoming excessively clear that the conception of modern improv relies as much for new ideas on the ongoing, so-called classical music tradition as the initial African American continuum. Plus, increasingly, even fresher non-Western sounds are being appended.

That’s what makes these two discs so fascinating. They’re made up of performances of the music of American visionary composer John Cage (1912-1992), who made a point of abdicating the composer’s omniscience. Instead, he insisted on the use of chance and the performer’s interpretation of his unique scores for creation, something that linked him, despite his protestations, to improvisation.

As a matter of fact, the way pianist Kumi Wakao, a professed Cage admirer, interprets these tone mixtures sounds as much like contemporary improv as music produced by those who insist they’re playing jazz. Yet there’s an even more subversive subtext here. For Wakao, who performs on both discs, is Japanese. Thus, particularly on the SONATAS disc, made up of compositions for prepared piano, she’s bringing a view of music shaped by studies and playing experiences in Japan, to sounds whose range of sonorities has often been compared to music of the Orient.

Appropriately enough, her partner-in-crime on #4 is French bassist Joëlle Léandre. Universally acclaimed as a Cage specialist since her student days, Léandre, has over the past 15years, collaborated with a variety of musicians from the jazz/improv side of the fence including guitarist Derek Bailey, pianists Irène Schweizer and Marilyn Crispell, saxophonist Mario Schiano and drummer Paul Lovens.

Although only involving two instrumentalists, it’s appropriate that the first track of #4 is entitled “Concert for Piano and Orchestra”. First of all, from the time of its invention, the piano, with its combination of string and percussive sounds, has always been considered a mini-orchestra. Second, due to the extended techniques Léandre brings to the double bass, her traditional instrument becomes a mini orchestra in itself. All together the end product is an enthralling symphony of carefully considering piano notes and touches, not only on the keys, but inside, where the plucked innards are made to respond like a harp or vibrate like a marimba. Meantime, when she’s not wrenching the bass strings with Xena, Warrior Princess-like force, or ripping out a thunderous slice of arco, Léandre whistles and hums extra overtones. As to which musician produces the slide whistle reverberations or whinnies like a horse, gentlemanly manners preclude speculation.

Even more in her element on “Fontana Mix + Aria”, the bassist exercises her voice as much as her fingers, playing along with the pre-selected tape sounds of buzzes, electronic whirrs, static, bells chiming and the like. Besides unleashing a pseudo-operatic soprano, she hums, laughs and hectors, often equaling the taped tones with her pseudo Satchmo-style voice or mumbled dialogue.

Following a pianistic run through of “One”, which seems to take its shape as much from early Cecil Tayor as late Cage, the disc concludes with a ghostly short tune played on tuned water bottles by five musicians who appear to possess neither first names nor a presence before this.

In short, the session is an outstanding homage to the American composer and introduction to some of his works. So too is Wakao more than 64 minute solo piano performance of Cage’s SONATAS, often thought of as greatest hits.

Although the composer’s instructions for the positioning of the bolts, screws and other plastic and rubber objects was extremely precise, the pianist still manages to create a unique showcase of exotic miniatures ranging in length from less than two minutes to more than six. Sounding much of the time like she’s playing a particularly precise toy piano or diminutive temple bells, her rhythmic sensibility and precise touch intensified the Orientalism of the studies — to Western ears at least. With the recital taking place at different speeds and tempos, her interpretation often suggests subtle jazz rhymes rather than the stuffier, more precise, classical pitches.

Soothing as well as enervating, this disc would probably be the one to play for a keyboard loving friend whose appreciation of piano music ends at Bach … or Teddy Wilson

Although the simplest way to find either at the discs is at the label’s Web page:, both are worth seeking out for New music followers, whether their alliance is to jazz or other improvised sounds.

— Ken Waxman

Sonatas: Track Listing: [Sonatas and Interludes for Maro Ajemian] 1. Sonata 1 2. Sonata 2 3. Sonata 3 4. Sonata 4 5. First Interlude 6. Sonata 5 7. Sonata 6 8. Sonata 7 9. Sonata 8 10. Second Interlude 11. Third Interlude 12. Sonata 9 13. Sonata 10 14. Sonata 11 15. Sonata 12 16. Fourth Interlude 17. Sonata 13 18. Sonata 14 15 “Gemini”- After the Work by Richard Lippold 19. Sonata 16

Sonatas: Personnel: Kumi Wakao (prepared piano)

#4 Track Listing: 1.Concert for Piano and Orchestra, Solo for Piano, Solo for Bass 2.Fontana Mix + Aria 3. One 4. Five

#4 Personnel: Kumi Wakao (piano, prepared piano); Joëlle Léandre (bass, voice); H. Okabe, R. Numata, M. Uenari, D. Terauchi, T. Nishimura (glass bottles tuned with water)