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**** CAGE: "Litany for the Whale" and other works. Theatre of Voices (Harmonia Mundi).

June 28, 1998|Mark Swed

"Beautiful" and "amazing" were John Cage's two favorite words of affirmation, and he used them all the time. This recording of a miscellany of his vocal works is both beautiful and amazing, but not quite in Cage's way. For the late avant-garde composer, beauty was very often in what we ordinarily didn't notice, say the sounds all around us, and that was amazing. But hearing Theatre of Voices, the early music specialists under Paul Hillier, sing "Litany for the Whale," you fall under the spell of a more old-fashioned beauty. For a bit less than a half hour, two voices chant back and forth making syllables of each letter in "whale," and here Alan Bennett and Paul Elliott sing with a kind of utter purity of tone that sounds, well, like exceedingly beautiful chant. And much the same can be said about the other small pieces included, especially Hillier's elegant trace, also chanted, of "The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs," an early Cage song with text by James Joyce. Some of the Cagean edge is missing, perhaps, but the astonishment will be the same for those who love him and those who fear him--the sheer beauty of it all. Terry Riley makes a guest appearance as vocalist.

*

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent).

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