Imagine looking up at a clear night sky, and observing a number of distinct constellations of stars separated by inky blackness. Or repeatedly drawing from a pack of playing cards; or casting lots of sticks on the ground, again and again, a different scattered arrangement each time. John Cage’s composition “Two4”, written the year before he died in 1992, is a bit of all of these things: a bit of random chance, a bit of mysticism, a bit of ritual. And lots of uncertain, unpredictable beauty.
The piece is performed in this recording by Aisha Orazbayeva on violin and Naomi Sato on sh?. The sound of the latter, a Japanese free reed instrument featuring bamboo pipes and a metal reed, was a revelation to me — I was expecting something woody and breathy, but here it is more reminiscent of the piercing, glassy upper registers of a pipe organ, blending in very well with the raspier violin. The pair play constellations of notes surrounded by silence, with consonance and dissonance treated with the same acceptance and curiosity: how is this going to sound? Dynamics are quite muted and relatively flat, focusing the music on the shifting, contrasting harmonies.
Cage famously drew inspiration from the ancient Chinese divination book the I Ching, and made use of its concepts in many of his compositions. “Two4” is clearly one of those pieces, expounding as it does the thesis that beauty can be found through random chance — or perhaps that random chance is beautiful. The evenness and restraint of Orazbayeva and Sato’s playing provides evidence in support of this thesis, allowing the beauty of their sounds to manifest in their constellation, rather than in virtuoso flair or pat appeals to the emotions. I don’t know if the pitches played truly are selected at random, or whether they are notated or dictated by convention, but to my ears they sound both arbitrary and pleasing, or maybe even pleasing because arbitrary. One for the stargazers and fortune diviners, and for anyone attracted by music’s indeterminate, unpredictable propensity for beauty.