Last night the Callithumpian Consort and friends, convened in Calderwood Hall to continue celebrating John Cage’s centenary. Compositions by Cage, Nono, and Feldman explored what Stephen Drury, in his remarks between works, called “Contemplative Cage.”
First up: John Cage, Postcard from Heaven (1982). A dozen harps positioned around the hall and on all levels began playing when the hall opened. The piece takes inspiration from classical Indian music and is structured akin to an Indian raga, a tonal framework within which the harpists have aleatoric latitude to explore sonic, harmonic, and melodic possibilities. Mark Swed finds the messiness and anarchy of nature in Cage’s whimsical, antipodean heaven. This rarity was a good programming choice for the hall, and made effective use of the various sonic possibilities of the cube and its four levels. Programmed as it was, Postcard also explored the boundaries between music and soundscape, concert and happening – our gathering in the venue coterminous, contiguous, consubstantial with Cage’s composition.
Gabriela Díaz joined Ethan Wood for Luigi Nono’s Hay que caminar’ soñando (1989). Taking its title from a Medieval inscription in the monastery of San Francesco di Toledo, “Caminantes, no hay caminos, hay que caminar” (Travelers, there are no roads, but we must go on), the title of this violin duo translates as “We must go on dreaming” while having about it something of the sense of sleep-walking. This ultimate work from the Italian avant-garde composer is a summation of his compositional philosophy, which in his last years he encapsulated in this Medieval Spanish graffito and a trilogy of compositions taking titles from it. The violinists called and responded to one another, declaimed and echoed each other, as they made a pilgrimage around the venue (ground floor and first balcony only). Focusing on timbre, Nono plays with the quietest possible dynamics and the ends of a violin’s sonic range; Díaz and Wood demonstrated controlled, smooth bowing at these quiet dynamic levels and made great use of antiphonal effect. Nono’s sonic dream in space is a lengthy pilgrimage, a walk with the composer. Drury rightly characterized this music as rarefied; I am less certain I agree with his statement that this is like “a voice from beyond the grave.” The composer’s imminent death seems present in this work, but the looming shadow upon which he meditates strikes me as more of a philosophical quandary masquerading as a Zen kōan: Is it music if none hear it?
Morton Feldman, like John Cage, worked, toured, and performed with Merce Cunningham and his dancers. Drury related an anecdote John Cage told about Morton Feldman, between naps on the road, saying “Now that things are so simple, there is so much to do.” That set up Feldman’s Two Pieces for Clarinet and String Quartet (1961), short works that are subdued, fine-tuned and stark in their simplicity. The first was quieter than a sneeze, emphasizing the sonic texture of a clarinet while pizzicato from the strings provided spikes in the pared-down sonic environment. The second piece was similar, but had more flirtation with tonal harmony. Both bring into focus the question: When does the music end?
Concluding this Avant Gardner concert was Cage’s Cheap Imitation (1972). An aleatoric work, it began as a two-piano reduction of Erik Satie’s Socrate,“a symphonic drama,” for which Merce Cunningham created choreography; copyright issues prevented that from being performed. Cage used the melodic and rhythmic form of Satie’s original three-movement work for orchestra and voice, but changed the pitch based on use of the I Ching. Cheap Imitation presents a single melodic line, an abridgment abstracted from the harmonic plurality of Satie, as, to quote again from Drury, “sustained exercise in devotion to sound.” Socrate becomes Cheap Imitation, and Cunningham’s choreography became Second Hand. There is originality in these derivations, and if Socrates got lost in the transformations it does not lessen the music’s impact. Cage’s work is an exercise in ensemble-playing, which the Callithumpian Consort executed with polish and poise. The contemplation of the performers became a meditation; it seemed fitting at the end that the circle of musicians rose and bowed into the circle, to one another and the residual sound waves of Cage’s evanescence in the middle of the hall.