Here we were on Thursday night, in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s sexy red cube—Chris Lydon called it “a cock-fighting pit” —all set for the Avant Gardner leg of Drury’s Cage centennial, when Steven Drury announced that his Callithumpian concert of Cardew, Wolff, and Cage might serve as coda to the end of the world. He talked of ushering in an apocalyptic adieu, quoting texts of Confucius on anarchy (Cardew), Tom Hayden on our brain-twisting governmental system (Wolff), and passages from Thoreau and others (Cage).
Though his Doomsday prediction sounded tongue-in-cheek, it seemed as if through the quietly tense Cardew and Wolff pieces, that our musical universe might devolve through entropy. When the Cage kicked in, I thought, we might just sidle into genteel chaos.
Three 20-minute pieces were performed with neither break nor applause. Nor conductor, for that matter: the ‘60s were, after all, the Epoch of Happenings and The Age of Indeterminacy. Drury rightly stood back and let it all happen.
Cornelius Cardew’s The Great Learning (Paragraph 7) was incanted by 16 voices in the round, most of the singers individually shifting places in a stately procession. The chorus, with many untrained instrumentalists recruited as voices, wove a spooky but not sinister sonic tapestry of blurred pitches, rising and falling in slow sustains. Single voices projected in sudden outburst (“Be in confusion!”, “Cannot be swept away!”) then subsided back into the gauzy morass. Though dissonances reigned, occasional passing tones of perfect fourths and fifths hinted to the distant and recent past: Ars Antiqua, Renaissance motets, Stockhausen and Berio. As the voices trailed away into quiescence, we were shocked back to the present with a final forceful quasi-unison sentence, in Ezra Pound’s translation: “Take not the cliff for morass and treacherous bramble!” (“Aha!, I thought, momentarily relieved. “It’s not the Mayans, after all! We’re going over the fiscal cliff!”)
For Christian Wolff’s Changing The System, eight instrumentalists lined up in two opposing quartets: bass flute, tenor sax, bass clarinet, and string bass faced across the floor cello, bassoon, trombone, and euphonium. They first played slow sustained chorales, resonant but murky, then more jagged lines.
(Having just come from the MFA, I was reminded of Uri Gersht’s video images of Roman coin dissolving under mercury, or his sinister green swamp. From the first (of three) balconies, I could see that the scores had line graphs opposite individual pitches. We’re half an hour in at this point, and everything’s still pretty slow and soft. Not quite sluggish, but shy. I looked across and above (fine sight lines of audience) and saw a couple of patrons dozing and one or two ostentatiously yawning.
Then things picked up steam as the quartets began not quite randomly “trading notes.” Then as Quartet 2 began a conversation in single syllables on Hayden’s text (that begins “Well don’t make the same mistake that we made…”) Quartet 1 put down their horns and rapped out basic hand percussion, tapping sticks on glass, metal, wood. Wolff breaks down components of language and of musical line into discrete fragments that he then sequences slowly and methodically. If not very engagingly.
Finally, after the students came the master. John Cage’s Song Books has eight voices, roving throughout the gorgeous cube, alight briefly in strategic spots and sing quite attractive melody lines. At a corner seat, I was lucky to have the thrilling soprano of Dominique Eade trilling beside me one minute, and later the smoky contralto of Patrice Williamson. A tenor sang melismatic lines of an Orient tilt, like a cantor and/or muezzin, and a baritone had some pleasant muted moments. The overall effect was that of a magnificently antiphonal potpourri.
Instead of instruments, two laptop keypunchers manipulated subtle tissues of electronica: parrot calls, splash cymbal crashes, and clinical hums. And a Cagean sideshow of camp theatrics added visual bemusement and more unobtrusive sound effects: the plunk of cards in a solitaire game, the click of chessmen on a board, the plink of pennies tossed on score-sheets on the floor, the munch of apples on a picnic blanket, and the clatter of handschuhe on a hard-hat (don’t ask). You might think that these various components had a random quality to them, but I saw performers checking their cell-phone time-lapse clocks, the last mathematical moments in the Mayan’s 5215 year long cycle.
The voices gradually fragmented and faded, the audience applauded in hazy gratitude, and many of us traipsed off to the Garden Bar in the Spanish Cloister to sip our final flute of bubbly, admire Mrs. Gardner’s pointsettias, and await the knell of impending doom.