in: Reviews

March 2, 2012

Cage’s Indeterminacy and Irreverence

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It was a stunning evening last night — the celebration of the 100th birthday of American icon John Cage (born September 5, 1912) by Callithumpian Consort, which presented the first of a three-part series in Calderwood Hall at the Gardner Museum. Opening with cartoon music of John Zorn boisterously illustrating the influence of Cage and continuing on to a deeply affecting Calder-like music-mobile by a Cage contemporary, Earle Brown, the concert concluded with a piece by “the man who changed music,” according to Artistic Director Steven Drury.

The evening began at 6:45 with the Callithumpians tuning instruments, warming up — even practicing — all of this producing quite a din. A half hour later, 15 minutes after the announced start of the concert, it was finally underway. There will inevitably be any number of reasons offered in response to my complaint. For a time, I wondered if making such a racket was intentional, another manifestation of aleatoric music, or perhaps a bit of “theater of the absurd.” To be perfectly honest, I was annoyed — to put it mildly.

Seated very near the harpist, some 15 feet from the conductor, and not that much more from any one of the 20 or so instrumentalists, my irritation gradually began to subside. In the end, I succumbed to Zorn’s For Your Eyes Only (1989), an extravagantly boisterous, self-contradictory, far-fetched, bracing and sustainable work whose objective could have been to outfox its listeners. Drury and his Callithumpians outsized their responsiveness to Zorn’s score, boggling minds and sensibilities. Cage’s crazy Piano Concerto kept popping up in my mind. However, instead of experiencing Cage’s freewheeling mazes of notational graphics, listeners found themselves more sheltered in Zorn’s well-controlled environment.

As was the case with Zorn, Earle Brown’s Available Forms I (1961) grew moment by moment, unfolding with uncommon naturalness. This outcome had to have been a combination of Brown’s open-ended score, Drury’s poetic insights into its nature, along with a keen alertness on the part of every single Callithumpian. The remarkable sublimity in Brown’s music-mobile contrasted by the goofy realm of Zorn should bring raves for their having been programmed together.

“Shhhh. Don’t tell a soul!”

That’s what John Cage responded in 1976, after I excitedly called out his name from far across the room, this, upon meeting him for the first time. I would be driving him to Symphony Hall for a rehearsal of his bicentennial commission, Renga with Apartment House. (A Renga is a collaborative composition of poems, originating in Japan over 700 years ago.) I was not surprised when Steven Drury told us that he was also at that same concert in 1976, which was for him, as it was for me, a momentous occasion. Just after its Boston premiere that following evening, a woman tapped me on the shoulder and asked, “Do you know what all of this means?”

That was not at all the case at last night’s one-hour-long foray into the realm of indeterminacy and irreverence. The reenactment of John Cage’s Apartment House 1776 would have seemed to be a perfect fit for the multi-tiered seating arrangement in Calderwood Hall. With Steven Drury, who is among the few truly great interpreters of Cage, one wonders why this performance did not connect. Listeners appeared less puzzled than disappointed. No Renga for one, no big orchestra sounding out drawings of Thoreau. Four vocalists delivering songs of the Protestant, Sephardic, Native American, and African American dominated timid instrumentalists. None of them sounded indigenous enough in their songs, dance tunes, hymn harmonies, and drum rolls out of early America. Could it have been a case of too much music for the Cage? Calderwood’s four tiers came up short as an apartment house.

These are the perils of Cage. John Adams once demurred “…without the benevolent presence of Cage himself, the result of all the coin tossing and chance operations was more often than not emotionally cold and expressively indifferent.” Yet, what a tribute it was — if only to catch glimpses of Cage’s spirit and spiritualism.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former Chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University. www.notescape.net.

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