Pianist Bruce Brubaker’s “John Cage at 100 – Philip Glass at 75” program on Saturday, June 30th at the Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport was a captivating exploration of all that minimalism can encompass, from the familiar repetitions of Philip Glass to the John Cage’s enigmatic economy of means.
Brubaker opened the program with Philip Glass’s Mad Rush, a 14-minute work that has served as both a dance piece for choreographer Lucinda Childs and an organ introit for the Dalai Lama at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Manhattan. This piece was built on the undulating consonant harmonies typical of Glass’s music. No matter how beautiful his material sounds, I find that Glass always takes its repetition too far, and I end up asking myself “is that all there is?” After about the seventh iteration of theme, I became impatient, and not even a transfer of the melody into the high register could pull me back into the piece.
Like Mad Rush, Cage’s A Room builds on a repeated figure, but rather than smooth consonance, Cage employs a wickedly playful chromatic figure with small melodic gestures popping out above and below. Unlike Glass’s whose consistency is unrelenting , Cage disrupts his rhythms, keeping all his gestures off-kilter, thus maintaining interest amid repetition.
In TV Köln, Cage achieves “minimalism” through a sparse distribution of economical musical materials, beginning with a jarring crash of the keyboard cover. Amid lush piano clusters, mysterious notes plucked inside the piano, beguiling fragmented gestures, and percussive sounds created by striking various parts of the piano, Cage incorporated visual and audio static from the video component. Despite its collage-like, non-linear arrangement of sonic gestures, TV Köln is evocatively atmospheric, conjuring a late-night, not-quite-sober, sprawled-out-on-the-couch search for something to watch before drifting to sleep.
One with Fontana Mix combines a solo piano work with Bruce Brubaker’s own rendering of Cage’s graphic score for electronics. Brubaker’s choice of slowly shifting drones created an artificial resonance for the sharp colors of Cage’s perfectly placed chords, clusters, and single notes. Throughout the piece, the piano and electronics moved various levels of consonance and dissonance in tandem, each pushing or pulling the other through cycles of tension and release. Its placement after TV Köln brought to mind an unsettling yet welcome dawn after the malaise of a lost weekend.
The second Glass piece on the program, Metamorphosis Two, is part of a larger piece, Metamorphoses I-V, taken from his soundtrack to the Errol Morris documentary The Thin Blue Line. The melancholy melody nestled amid the bustling arpeggios had something of a Romantic spirit, with moments of dramatic rapid arpeggio work in the upper register. Brubaker made the absolute most of every expressive possibility in his performance. Too bad Glass did not do likewise in his writing.
After the intermission, Brubaker resumed with Philip Glass’s Etudes No. 4 and 5. These shorter works, which ran together with little break, had more interest than any of the other Glass works on the program. While the level of repetition still bordered on the sonically numbing, there were moments of syncopated rhythms, dark colors, and some bolder contrasts.
Boston University alumn Missy Mazzoli’s Orizzonte, for piano and electronics, began simply then bloomed into rich sororities and elongated melodic gestures, culminating in lovely high register swells. Similar to Brubaker’s realization of Fonatana Mix, Mazzoli’s electronic track created something of an artificial resonance for the piano part, but also provided some rhythmic impulses that seemed to keep the piece from getting stuck in its still moments. Brubaker’s sensitive touch and attentive expression rendered the piece not as solo and accompaniment, but as an organic whole.
Brubaker concluded his program with Alvin Curran’s Hope Street Tunnel Blues III, a piece that tested both the performer’s and the audience’s stamina. A single, middle-register chord is rapidly attacked and re-attacked while little flourishes and accented bass notes interject, creating a mechanistic and cartoonish perpetual motion. Just when the listener, and perhaps the pianist, fear that there is no escape, Curran pulls out a stereotypical blues riff that is then subjected to enough repetition to render it abstract. Once this abstraction is achieved, the piece abruptly stops, leaving the natural decay of all the accumulated resonance to form a coda. The audience wonders if this is a magic trick, a practical joke, or maybe a bit of both. That’s the kind of sleight-of-hand of which John Cage himself would approve.