A UNIVERSITY of Huddersfield professor’s new recording of one of the most mysterious musical masterworks of the 20th century has instantly earned critical acclaim. The disc is one of the products of a three-year, £500,000 project to shed new light on the influential and controversial composer John Cage (1912-1992), who developed radical new ways of notating and performing music.
One of Cage’s most celebrated compositions was his Concert for Piano and Orchestra, from 1958. The performers must interpret a specially-devised form of graphic notation and the duration and shape of the piece is determined by a “conductor” who moves his arms in the manner of a human clock.
Now Philip Thomas – an internationally-known pianist who is Professor of Performance at the University of Huddersfield – has made a new recording of the Concert, with members of the ensemble Apartment House.
Critics have welcomed this latest version of the famous piece, with a Guardian writer stating that “Philip Thomas makes the piano part magnetic, like the centrifugal planet in an erratic constellation. Around him spin trumpet, violin, flute and others, everyone quick-witted and playful.” A reviewer in music magazine The Wire praises its “level of exuberance” as “just what the score requires to rescue it from the canon and restore it to life”.
Professor Thomas said: “It is a very famous piece because if its graphic notations, but it is rarely performed, because in some ways it is a baffling piece for the performers to figure out. However, it is a complete joy to play. There is something new happening in every second.”
In 2015, Professor Thomas and Professor Martin Iddon of the University of Leeds were awarded £500,000 by the Arts and Humanities Research Council to research all aspects of the Concert for Piano and Orchestra. The project concludes in 2018 and in addition to the recording and a book, there will also be an app enabling users to explore the Concert by manipulating its sounds for themselves.
In order to prepare his performance, Professor Thomas spent several months working on the 84 different graphic notations provided by the composer. This immersion has added to his respect for the music of John Cage, which he believes belongs to the future as much as the past.
“I think Cage’s reputation has undoubtedly increased. In the 1970s and 80s, some people perhaps thought his time had passed, but his ideas and his music are becoming more and more attractive to younger composers and the importance of his ideas – which can’t be separated from his music – feel more pertinent today than ever.
“Our job with AHRC project is to try and get away from treating this music like an archive or trying to recall the giddy 1960s. We are trying to take this music forward and finding new ways to play it and finding its richness and value today.”
The new recording also includes a 44-minute work titled Resistance, composed for Philip Thomas and Apartment House by the American composer Christian Wolff, now 83, who was an associate of John Cage. The work had its premiere in July 2017.
Professor Thomas and members of Apartment House have also made a double-CD titled Patterns of Connection – instrumental music from 1962 to 2017 by the veteran British composer Michael Parsons. The Wire has described the recording as “long overdue”.
“The recordings are the fruits of two decades of engagement with the music of Parsons. It’s in my bloodstream,” said Professor Thomas. “He excels in concise, beautifully, crafted, well-focussed music”.
Both the new double-CDs are released by Huddersfield Contemporary Records, part of the University’s Centre for Research in New Music. They are officially launched at the 2017 Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, where Philip Thomas and Michael Parsons will perform together (Monday 20 November, 2.40pm).
And on Tuesday, 21 November, Professor Thomas joins regular collaborators the Bozzini Quartet – with whom he recently toured Canada – for a concert that features works by the University of Huddersfield-based composers Bryn Harrison and Mary Bellamy.
The full HCMF programme is available online.