In 1976, John Cage composed a work for four solo singers and an orchestra to honor the bicentennial of the United States of America. The piece, Apartment House 1776, is based around the four main religious beliefs of the American people, Sephardi, Protestant, Native American and African American, represented by the four singers. These four voices were meant to sing traditional songs in parallel, not really forming a coherent unit, but rather each one having a central position in the piece, while the orchestral score was based on music composed during the American Revolution, pieces that Cage rearranged by means of chance operations. While difficult to untangle, Apartment House very beautifully illustrates the eclecticism and polyphony of North America.
Ten years later, Roger Zahab selected 13 of the 44 harmonies Cage recomposed in ’76 and once again reconstructed them as duet pieces for Electric Piano and Violin. Being derived from Apartment House, these works still somewhere retain their traditional, folk character, but their separation from the flurry of voices Cage had composed, brings out some surprisingly enticing pieces. Performed by Annelie Gahl and Klaus Lang, these short pieces take small harmonious steps very slowly, renouncing melody in favor of silence (they are based on Cage pieces after all) and harmony.
The very soft tones employed by the two players manage to both let you drift away and pull you back in by sprinkling the pieces with lots and lots of pauses which are just long enough to make you curious of what comes next. The first Harmony stands as an introductory statement showing how this whole record will work. Both the Rhodes piano and the violin take small tonal steps, none of them focusing on their respective purpose or direction, rather simply harmonizing with the other. The melodic snippets are very short, as most clearly heard on the second harmony, where some more easily recognizable patterns are kept of Supply Belcher’s Rapture, retaining the archaic and sacred theme of Apartment House, but moving into a far subtler, cleaner and more personal kind of spirituality. It doesn’t cry loudly as one would imagine a service from Revolutionary Time America would sound like, rather being an introspective religious exercise. The following three pieces, 3-5, all fumble for balance in an attempt to solidify a spiritual thought or experience, but without the need for clear rules directing that particular event, without a need for order or grammar within religion. The patterns are generally very hard to remember (only the last few have a sort of traditional ending movement which can easily be recognized as such), following a structure based on very simple intervals which are meant to follow each other, on a series of instantaneous harmonic relations rather than sequential, narrative development.
The duets are very lonely, in spite of the constant interaction of the two elements. The instruments very rarely manage to actually form a dialogue, mostly just speaking in parallel, trying to pull your attention to what is between them. Both of them try to point you in the same direction, without trying to stand in the center. Where Apartment House had a multiplicity of centers around which it functioned, Thirteen Harmonies has only one, but it is very hard to say where exactly it is, the two instruments being merely hints. They ask of you to fill in many gaps, to contribute to the process of enlightenment they conjure, so that it is really yours. Unlike organized religion, Thirteen Harmonies selflessly tries to help your spiritual side, without drawing any attention to itself. It may be hard at first to recognize them as the nurturing and guiding pieces that they are, easily getting lost in their uncommon sense of direction, but once found, the equilibrium they instill never leaves you again.