The Ten Thousand Things is not, strictly speaking, the name of a composition by John Cage. Instead, it was the name Cage used in his own notes to refer to an open-ended series of works that could be played in any combination. Five of these works were completed between 1954 and 1957—two for a pianist, one for a string player, one for a percussionist, and one for a speaker. A new recording from Microfest Records presents these pieces all at once, with Aron Kallay and Vicki Ray on piano, Tom Peters on double bass, and William Winant on percussion. The performer of 45’ for a Speaker is John Cage himself, from a recently unearthed 1962 recording.
This in itself is quite an achievement, especially considering the sometimes extraordinary difficulty of Cage’s music here. The performances are crisp and crystalline, and the engineering and production (by John Schneider) are stellar, giving each musical idea its own sonic space even when several figures are overlapping. (The overall effect is similar to the 1959 recording of Indeterminacy with Cage and David Tudor, but with five moving parts instead of two.) Winant’s performance in particular is a joy to listen to, partly because of the diversity of materials that he incorporates, including some electronic sounds and what sounds like a radio playing brief, tantalizing fragments of pop songs.
But the “I Ching Edition” of the recording also includes a remarkable something extra, contained on a USB drive the size of a business card. This inconspicuous piece of technology comes with software designed by Aron Kallay that allows us to listen to the pieces in any combination—solos, duets, trios, and quartets (in addition to the full quintet), for 31 total possible combinations. The sections of the shorter pieces are automatically distributed to fit the length of the longest piece, with silence interpolated between. The software also realizes Cage’s instructions for shuffling the 28 sections of each individual piece (except for 45’ for a Speaker, which doesn’t use these divisions). That means that there are a dizzying number of possible versions just for each solo, a 30-digit number if my math is right. It turns out that Cage vastly undersold the number of things contained in his compositions!
The software is Mac-only for now, though I’m told a PC version is in progress. The interface was a bit sluggish to respond on my machine, but I’m happy to report that this did not affect playback at all. There’s something really gratifying about being able to create your own versions of the piece that are different every time, and I especially enjoy the suggestive silences of the sparser solos and duos. While it’s certainly a treat for Cage aficionados, I very much hope that it reaches new audiences too, as it gives non-performers a rare chance to observe and participate in one aspect of Cage’s process. It’s an incredibly clear demonstration of the unexpected and delightful confluences that result from chance-based procedures, and in many ways, I can think of no better introduction to Cage’s music.