American new music and improvising percussionist Bonnie Whiting is carving out a career as a “speaking percussionist.” And what better repertoire to collect on her new album than the iconoclastic, prolific and influential American composer John Cage’s groundbreaking scores that require speaking or singing and percussion?
The main program falls into three Cagean periods. Two early career songs bookend a combination of two mid-1950s works for speaker and percussionist. Music for Two (By One), and a realization of Cage’s late period Music for ________ (1984-1987) for solo voice and percussion, follows. The album closes with a 2011 Allen Otte composition which incorporates several Cage works.
On the face of it, the two songs – The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs (1942) and A Flower (1950) – seem the most conventional fare here: melody with piano accompaniment. While they are usually performed by a separate singer and pianist, Whiting performs the two parts together with ease and grace. It’s a performance ethos she traces to Cage’s openness to having some of his works combined and performed simultaneously. The songs, however, are more non-conformist than they first appear. The instrumental parts are tapped and struck with fingers and hands on a closed piano. The voice is also severely restricted. While Cage’s 1930s composition teacher Arnold Schoenberg famously employed all 12 conventional semitones as a structural feature of his later compositions, Cage, on the other hand in The Wonderful Widow, uses three tones. A Flower’s vocal melody is constructed of four pitches with a fifth added only near the end. Were these songs at least partly a result of Cage rejecting a dominant, demanding father figure?
In Whiting’s relaxed, naturalistic yet precise performances the songs feel almost lullaby-like, equally timeless and emblematic of the 20th-century avant-garde.
By the way, I recommend the Blu-ray version that comes with this release. The visual cues and energy in Whiting’s assured performances bring the Cage works, particularly the two long percussion text scores, alive in full colour.