Cage: Litany for the Whale

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LABELS: Harmonia Mundi
WORKS: Litany for the Whale
PERFORMER: Theatre of Voices/Paul Hillier
This new disc of John Cage’s vocal works is an eminently worthwhile project. It’s a brave compilation, taken not just from the more listener-friendly pieces of early in Cage’s career or of recent years, but also from the more experimental and challenging works of the Sixties and Seventies. The centrepiece is the 25-minute Litany for the Whale from 1980, in which Cage constructs winding melodies for two antiphonal voices from just five notes assigned to the letters of the word ‘whale’. The ecclesiastical-sounding acoustics lend a spiritual atmosphere to this already meditative music, and also serve to bring out the voices’ natural harmonics to wonderful effect. Elsewhere, the music ranges from the early folksong-like Experiences No. 2 for solo voice and the better known Joyce setting, The Wonderful Widow of 18 Springs for voice and closed piano (performed seductively by Hillier, although a little less ‘knock’ and a little more resonance from the struck piano woodwork would have been welcome), to the recent Five, which at times sounds like an electronic score, such is the purity of Theatre of Voices’ tones. Terry Riley joins the group for the haiku-like 36 Mesostics re and not re Marcel Duchamp, by turns trivial or profound, always perceptive. My only uncertainty is about the famous Aria, written in 1958 for Cathy Berberian, here performed in an ‘arrangement’ by Hillier for seven voices and electronics. Hillier argues that the ten vocal styles which the score calls for, from Sprechstimme to baby-talk to Marlene Dietrich, cannot quite be managed by one singer alone, but isn’t that friction between conception and realisation rather the point? And sadly, there’s not much sense of the performers actually enjoying themselves in a work with such outlandish demands. David Kettle