Collected Stories: Memoirs – John Cage and David Lang at Carnegie Hall

When I started this blog, the idea was to subsume all of my informal musicological endeavors under one online umbrella: thoughts about cultural and musicological issues, conference writeups, reviews and thoughts on contemporary classical music, and my love of Phish and the Grateful Dead. At a certain point, a number of those enterprises found other recourses, I got distracted by comprehensive exams and dissertation writing, I got lazy, and I started re-obsessing over Phish. Smooth Atonal Sound followed its namesake and became a Phish blog for a couple years. But there’s a reason I chose that particular Phish lyric as my online presence — it is one of the only Phish lyrics to use a word directly from my academic field (“atonal”) and represents my scholarly passion, post-tonal music of the 20th and 21st century. To continue with another quote from the same song, “this isn’t who it would be, if it wasn’t who it is.” And this IS me, musically speaking.

Returning then to my roots, and just to be writing more often, I’m going back to reviewing classical concerts, writing thoughts on music popular and classical, and all sorts of other non-Phishy things. And Phishy things still. Let me know if you hate it. Without further ado…a concert review of aleatory music. With free drinks.


 

_john_david_tudor_cage-indeterminacy_new_aspect_of_form.. Certain aspects of John Cage’s music have gotten played out, for lack of a better term. Cage was something of a raconteur in the 20th century, bringing performance art into the realm of concert music, and creating a space where literally anything could become a musical performance. Literally, anything: his piece 0’00”, designed as a sequel to his most infamous piece 4’33” and dedicated to fellow Fluxus composer Yoko Ono (who also, you may have heard, dated a Beatle), merely required that the performer perform a distinct act. I’ve done performances of the piece where I’ve written an email to my students.

Yet all those things that were so radical, so difficult, and so completely challenging to the way we think of art, performance, audience, and most essentially, music, have been dulled by our own shock culture over the past few decades. We are no longer bothered by a piece composed entirely of silence, and we have come to expect that the performer/audience dynamic may be inverted at any point, the fourth wall of the musical stage to be broken. A performance of 4’33” almost becomes routine at this point, a novelty item on a concert program. Nothing could make this more clear than the BBC broadcast of a full orchestral performance of 4’33” by the LSO, complete with the overeager, hagiographic introduction and commentary.

My point is this: the shock value of Cage’s music is dead, as is the novelty factor. All we are left with is the music itself, the sounds arranged in space and time. And although there are potentially some cool moments where the audience becomes the piece, 4’33” just isn’t that great. In that BBC video, the commentator’s reaction, the shots of the audience looking intently pensive, the rote and obligatory applause, it just highlights the farcical and self-serving nature of this sort of performance.

This is why Tuesday’s performance at Carnegie Hall of Cage’s Indeterminacy, with a simultaneous rendering of his Fontana Mix on lights and 27’10.554″ for a Percussionist, was so successful. It worked as a musical performance. Without being shocking, without being wildly innovative (these pieces are nearly 60 years old!), and even without drawing too obvious attention to its own chance operations, the evening was a wild success based on what we heard and saw alone.

Indeterminacy is a collection of short stories, each one told over the course of one minute, read from notecards. The order of the stories is randomly determined. The topics of these stories range from the metaphysical to the literal, but all seem to celebrate their namesake philosophical principle, that of chance, randomness, happy accidents, and happenstance. Some reinforce the meta-narrative of indeterminacy, others play out like little zen miniatures (appropriate since many of them concern Buddhist monks or figures like D.T. Suzuki), and still others are vignettes that offer a glimpse into the playful mind of their creator.

_SuzukiCageDoubling down on the aleatory concept, Cage dictated that another piece of his, or another media of art altogether, could be superimposed with Indeterminacy, so as to create even more of the chance alignments and dissonances, both musical and cognitive.

What struck me most, and what played out as such a beautiful aesthetic, was how little I was conscious of the indeterminacy as I was watching and listening to this piece. Certainly the lights, percussion, and readings never seemed to be intentionally in sync, but they still seemed to go together in some inexplicable way. Even the random ordering of Cage’s stories seemed to happily effect a narrative or some continuity, occasionally, as when a story about taking one of Schoenberg’s classes in L.A. preceded a story which began “Another time, Schoenberg…”

When the lights, percussion, and readings did happily find themselves in alignment, the overall effect was glorious. Percussionist Steve Schick’s scrapes, rolls, and hits, a virtuosic performance in and of itself, often seemed to fill the spaces in the stories. There was a notable moment when actor Paul Lazar, whose voice lacked the gentle yet focused lilt of Cage’s but who instilled the same intensity and deliberateness into the words, spoke about water to the accompaniment of Schick’s brushed metal, like the sound of a stream, while lighting director Eric Southern illuminated bright blue LED floor lights.

The stories were funnier than I was expecting. I laughed out loud a number of times; some folks around me even more. I suppose I was expecting mostly philosophical ponderings on the nature of randomness, or the randomness of nature, but many of the stories ended with a sardonic twist (especially, surprisingly, the ones about monks)._cage

Perhaps my favorite moment was hearing the story from Indeterminacy that I know best, because it’s featured in the Peter Greenaway film that I use when I teach Cage. Although I never realized until hearing it in the context of a complete performance, I had my own meta moment of happy accident because this story, about Cage’s trip to an isolation chamber at Harvard, includes the line “anybody who knows me knows this story, I am constantly telling it.” Here I was, listening to a performance of Indeterminacy, and realizing that I knew this story, because I know Cage, and he is constantly telling it. That’s the real beauty of a performance of this sort. I became part of the narrative of indeterminate nature that the piece reveals is part of all life. It’s entirely random that I show that particular clip of the Greenaway film, and of all the stories from Indeterminacy that he could have chose, the director uses this particular one, which is a comment on how many people know this story. It was like hearing that one familiar riff in a long improvisation, or somehow recognizing a song during a random band’s performance. It made me exceedingly happy.

Despite my harping on about the wonderful musical content, one other personal highlight was an aspect of the performance that was, in some way, more philosophical than musical. With the house lights up and stage lights down, and the audience still milling about in their pre-concert drone of conversation, Schick walked on stage and began to play. Because 27’10.554″ is a collection of singular hits, scrapes, and other weird percussive noises, it seemed as though he was warming up, or soundchecking. But in fact he was beginning the piece. And just like that, Cage managed to prove provocateur again. The audience, without their realizing it, became part of the performance. I realized this within about a minute, and sat with a grin as I listened to the piece: a combination of carefully conjured percussion noises intermingling with the melody and percussion of the audience, their voices, footsteps, tappings, and seat adjustings. The man next to me started shushing people, itself becoming part of the soundscape. Eventually but very gradually, the crowd realized what was happening and became silent, by which point the piece had been going for over 5 minutes. It was glorious.

The other half of Tuesday’s performance was a world premiere of virtuosic violin pieces by David Lang, called Mystery Sonatas and based on the mystically captivating pieces of the same name by Baroque composer Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber. Thematically connected to the Cage works by the evening’s theme of “Memoir,” the music was a stark juxtaposition in genre, timbre, and style to the Cage, but a welcome one. Violinist Augustin Hadelich played his face off, too, pouring his emotion into both the music and his facial expressions. All seven movements featured the post-tonal diatonicism and repetitions of melody that are hallmarks of Lang’s style, I guess they call it “post-minimalist,” or whatever.

“Joy” opened the piece with delicate harmonics, establishing the higher register of the instrument as the primary one for most of the work. This slow and reflective movement gave way to a fiery display of tremolo bowing in “After Joy,” Lang outlining chords as Hadelich moved up and down the neck with precise breakneck speed. The three middle movements, “Before Sorrow,” “Sorrow,” and “After Sorrow,” all used a similar motive, with slow but steady arpeggios and a vaguely Jewish melodic character, like the minor key chanting of a cantor. Especially impressive was Hadelich’s ability to continuously bow a triple stop while changing notes all at the same time. It provided an eerie, droning pedal-point effect that was wonderful and virtuosic without the ostentation of “After Joy.”

“Before Glory” returned to the speed and precision of its inverse pair in the set, this time with scotch snap rhythmic figures rather than tremolo, while “Glory” provided a sort of major key, blissful meditation that complemented both the melancholic “Sorrow” and the ethereal, other-worldly “Joy.” Lang has created a masterful work for solo violin, still, Hadelich’s emotional display of talent was the star of this piece.

Oh, and they gave out free drinks. The “Langonade,” with bourbon, triple sec, lemon, and sprite, was delicious.

Advertisements

~ by Jake on April 30, 2014.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

 
%d bloggers like this: