OPERA NEWS - Nicholas Isherwood: John Cage Vocal Music
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Nicholas Isherwood: John Cage Vocal Music 

CD Button Verlingieri (electronics). Texts. Bis BIS 2149 (SACD)

Recordings Cage Vocal Music Cover 1215

ALTHOUGH NO COMPOSER was more open-ended about the performance of his music than John Cage was, few male singers have taken up Cage's Aria, which is written simply for "voice (any range)." Perhaps the imprint of Cathy Berberian and Linda Hirst was just too strong on the piece; for whatever reason, I've only heard one live performance by a man. Nicholas Isherwood's new version is funny and brisk. It's a little like being hit by a Good Humor truck. Cage's score is color-coded, with eight different shades of highlighter, indicating eight different accents or vocal colorations. Isherwood isn't too concerned with consistency of the colors, but some updating of this 1958 score was necessary anyway: for purple, "Marlene Dietrich" was suggested, and for orange, "Oriental" is no longer a sensitive option. Here, Aria is performed simultaneously with a new realization of Fontana Mix by Gianluca Verlingieri. It runs almost constantly, ending with microphone feedback. The overall effect of the combination, delightfully, is as if a drunken wedding guest had commandeered the sound system at a wedding reception.  

On first listen, it sounds as if Isherwood made separate takes of the different voices, which were mixed together in the studio; Cage would certainly have been interested in the technology. In fact, the bass-baritone recorded the piece in a single take. (Hirst's recording of Aria, which becomes flat-out hilarious as it moves along, was made live.) But the overdubbing was mandatory for Ryoanji, in which Isherwood performs all three parts. Here the percussion obbligato consists of a high-pitched, gonglike sound and a whining string harmonic. Because the vocal part, which Isherwood performs at pitch, lies quite high for a baritone, the unexpected effect of this twenty-minute performance is that it is an extended version of the snoring scene from Berg's Wozzeck. For "The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs" (text from Finnegan's Wake) Isherwood accepts Cage's offer of a "low, comfortable" transposition. Miking is up-close, the sort of thing kids used to do when they got their first tape recorders. Isherwood also plays the piano part, which is performed by knocking on the closed instrument in various places. He makes the percussive sounds a real competitor with the voice, turning the piece into something of a nocturnal incantation.

He also plays the closed piano on "Nowth Upon Nacht," another Joyce setting. Here he performs the voice part in falsetto, something of a dowager countess approach. The pianist Anthony de Mare, who was not a professional singer, made an endearing, homespun recording of the piece that captures Cage's "go ahead, try this at home" aesthetic. But Isherwood, who has an impressive voice, still gets the deadpan humor of Cage. Even when imitating a wood duck in "A Flower" he’s not ridiculous. The whole album is Cagian indeed. —William R. Braun 

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