Celebrating John Cage’s centennial seems a natural turn of events for the Summer Institute for Contemporary Performance Practice, [SICPP, affectionately aka Sick Puppies] now an awaited solstice series at New England Conservatory. With artistic director and tireless pianist Steven Drury at the helm, this sleepless weeklong series at Jordan Hall — ending with Saturday’s “Iditarod” (six-hour marathon of modern madness) — draws an encouragingly keen crowd. The energetic Drury hosted Cage himself for a memorable residency in 1991, in which he urged audiences to listen reverently, child-like, with the third ear cocked to absorb with devotion every wisp of sound. Many are still listening.
Tuesday’s performance (BMInt‘s David Patterson reviewed Monday’s concert here) struck a classic simplicity, mirroring two introspective pieces that reflect Cage’s abiding interest in both Hindu philosophy and antique musical forms. In thrall of Indian art historian and critic Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, Cage endowed both works with the Hindu philosophical underpinnings of eight permanent emotions: the four light moods (Heroic, Erotic, Wondrous, Mirthful), the four dark moods Sorrow, Fear, Anger, Odium), and their common tendency toward tranquility.
The String Quartet in Four Parts premiered in 1950 and Cage dedicated it to fellow Orientalist composer Lou Harrison. Its four movements — marked Quietly flowing along, Slowly rocking, Nearly stationary, and Quodlibet — ‘depict’ summer in France, autumn in the USA, winter, and spring. The philosophical underpinnings parallel the Hindu concept of the seasons as fomenting creation, preservation, destruction, and quiescence. So the piece evolves from simple, bright vernal lines in consonant harmonies (fifths and octaves with harmonics and grace notes) flowing gracefully despite unexpected sforzandi to a slowed quietus of summer night, with pure insect tones (cicada leg-rubbing, the see-saw repeats of tree frogs, firefly blinks). Fall, still smooth but gradually pianissimo approaching atrophy, fades into winter’s suspended animation, and re-emerges with a lively shape-note shout-out at rebirth. John Cage is hardly Antonio Vivaldi – and he’s all ours!
Those vexed by Cage’s sere themes, vibrato-less tone, repetitive motifs, archaic references to Colonial shape-note hymns, and rare if sudden dynamic outbursts, might have taken visual solace in admiring the peachy frocks and dazzling pumps of violinist Gabriela Diaz and violist Karina Fox. (Their male Callithumpian confreres, violinist Ethan Wood and cellist Ben Schwartz, if less colorfully attired, were their equals in adept phrasing and observing Cage’s deft conceptual flow.) Yet I suspect that the sartorially distracted were a minority, judging by the 250-strong enthusiastic audience’s not only whooping it up at the bows but animated discussions at intermission.
The hour-long Sonatas and Interludes stand as Cage’s masterwork for the ‘prepared’ piano, with half the keyboard, especially the upper four octaves, damped and muted by temporarily inserting screws, bolts, nuts chunks of rubber, erasers, and plastic. Pre-concert preparation takes hours, but the effects are subtle and pervasive. Louis Goldstein, guest pianist and acknowledged master interpreter of this work, never rose an inch from the bench nor made any dramatic swoop under the lid to achieve, during the hour-long set of Scarlatti-length (2’-4’) mini-sonatas and four interludes, an astonishingly intimate panoply of sounds. Indeed, he appeared the epitome of poise: as placid and focused as if he were playing a small clavichord — most of his focus was on the upper half of the keyboard — and some sneaky pedal work.
The sounds coming forth, never above mezzo-forte, encompassed an ocean in a drop of seawater! My scribbled reactions include: tiny bells, spooky wind-chimes, muted kalimba, glass harmonica, tinny toy piano, Balinese gamelan, Messiaen’s cup gongs, pizzicato cello below the bridge, mechanical buzzers, mini wood blocks. Bird songs are approximated: chickadee song, blue jay alarm calls. What a complex buzzing backyard of miniatures is Cage’s microcosm of eternity! I was especially riveted when pedal sustains grasped an eerie reedy decay, evoking a mole’s death rattle, or that chilling cell-door clunk on LA Law. As Goldstein gently unrolled and rerolled Cage’s universal scrolls, he stopped the clock, left us calmly ecstatic, with a transcendent glimpse into a quizzical afterlife.
Earlier Tuesday afternoon, I’d seen the Jasper Johns crosshatch print and painting exhibit at Harvard’s Sackler Museum, urged there by Sebastian Smee’s alert analysis in The Boston Globe. The one-room show, like Cage’s compositions, drew overarching parallels to past generations (Durer’s etchings, Mesopotamian stone seals) and conceptual obsessions and delights (dynamic multi-layering, unconventional three-dimensional textures, intricately patterned series of visual rhythms) and perhaps unintentional references to nature (ant colony structures, turtle carapace shapes, snow covering underlying complexity). Wow.
Sic ‘em, Sick Puppies, mush on to the Iditarod!