John Cage’s percussion works are hard to pull off. First, you have the notes that are actually written down. Then, there are the parts that require you to flip a radio dial back and forth, or use variable speed turntables and Test-Tone records (in what amounts to the very beginnings of turntablism as a concept). The thing is, you really need to believe in both activities as a performer to make it work. And you also have to be fearless about not chasing down clearances for every little speck of radio that might show up in your recording.
Listeners, meanwhile, are allowed to be suspicious about everything. So give Percussion Group Cincinnati, and Mode Records, a ton of credit here — for they have succeeded where many others have failed (or else declined to try). The Works for Percussion I also happens to be brilliantly sequenced as a standalone record: faithful both to Cage’s philosophy, as well as the intuitive needs of our ears.
All of the Imaginary Landscape pieces are here, sometimes in multiple versions that show both how different and how similar the products of Cage’s “chance” composition choices can sound, sandwiched in between two versions of “Credo in US.” Lest you think these repetitions to be unnecessary padding, the difference in samples among the various takes makes the overall listening experience doubly rewarding. Sometimes, you get Shostakovich licks, while at other points the Beatles pop up (to pay their karmic due for the structure of “Revolution No. 9,” perhaps). In the final track, you hear a stray blast of De La Soul. Regardless of whether you’re intimately familiar with Cage’s approach, the Cincinnati players have made an album that registers first and foremost as stylishly playful. Bring on Volume II.