There’s a line of thinking, one to which I subscribed many years ago, that suggests Cage wrote his loveliest, most appealing music early in his career, before the epiphany of 4’33” and the adoption of chance operations resulted in a turn toward unpredictability, inscrutability, and noise. The truth is that beauty runs throughout Cage’s oeuvre — not just intellectual or conceptual appeal, but actual sensual pleasure. The FIVE pieces, composed in 1988 and 1991, are among the best examples, plainspoken intimacies that revel in sound at its most elemental level. The basic methodology for FIVE is explained thusly on the official John Cage website:
Pitches and dynamics are set, and while instrumentation is free, performers must be able to play or sing the tones within the given ranges. There is no overall score, only 5 parts, each consisting of 5 lines, each line containing a maximum of 3 notes, placed within a time-bracket notation system.
Here, were it not for the illuminated clocks, I’m convinced time simply would have dissolved for the duration. Instantly and throughout, you were transported by an exquisite balance of hushed tones and silences; each timbre distinct and sharply etched, yet all congenial in combination. Projected lights in subtle shades shifted in loose assent with Maya Bennardo’s violin, Meaghan Burke’s cello, and Liam Kinson’s clarinet in the initial FIVE; one percussionist, Al Cerulo, plucked a guitar; another, Jude Traxler, applied what looked like an electric toothbrush to his vibraphone, eliciting a soft metallic chitter.
Because the methodology varies slightly among the FIVE pieces, the overarching tone was one of serenity and stability. That turned the emphasis toward striking instrumental combinations: both those devised by Cage – Nathan Mills’s plangent English horn among a clarinet chorale in FIVE2, for example – and new mixtures resulting from Gibson’s chance conjurations, like the hypnotically throbbing concords in a FIVE featuring violinist Leah Asher, saxophonist David Lackner, trombonist Will Lang, and percussionist Chris Graham with Gibson’s own ghostly electronics.