Friday, April 13, 2012

Digging deep into John Cage this weekend

Posted By on 04.13.12 at 08:49 AM

John Cage
  • John Cage
A couple of weeks ago I wrote about an event this weekend called A John Cage Festival, a four-concert program curated by Chicago composer Nomi Epstein. Cage might be the most famous experimental composer of the 20th century, but his philosophy and personality are far better known than his actual music. As Epstein said in my piece, "In America his works are often presented briefly on the day in class that graphic scores and 4'33" are discussed." For the festival's preview concert on March 30, pianist Eliza Garth performed what's probably Cage's most frequently heard piece, Sonatas and Interludes (1946-'48), an early masterpiece for prepared piano. For the concerts happening around town this weekend, though, Epstein dug much deeper into his vast repertoire, not only programming pieces from all phases of his career but also emphasizing those that embrace indeterminacy.

All four programs are exciting—and Saturday's two evening performances of Cage's ambitious multimedia work Variations V (1965) should be a feast for the eyes as well as the ears, to say nothing of the gray matter. But I'm most looking forward to the solos and duos that open the festival at PianoForte on Friday night and to the Sunday-afternoon program of percussion music that closes the fest at Curtiss Hall.

Most of Friday's concert consists of piano music Cage wrote in the late 40s and early 50s, including Six Melodies for Piano and Keyboard (1950) and the harmonically biting Suite for Toy Piano (1948). The brief 59 1/2" for String Player, composed in 1953, got an impressive reading by cellist William Jason Raynovich of Maverick Ensemble at a press preview a couple of weeks ago, and he'll play it again here. Despite its title, Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1957-'58) can actually be performed by any number of instruments. As pianist Stephen Dury wrote in his liner notes for a Mode Records release, "Not every instrument for which Cage wrote a part need be represented in a given performance. In extreme cases, a version may be performed by, say, a solo flute, leaving out even the 'solo' piano part. Cage explores the widest possible array of sounds that each instrument is capable of producing—not only using the entire range of standard techniques such as tremolo, flutter tonguing, playing on the bridge of the violin or with the wood of the bow, and various mutes, but also (for example) singing through the flute, bowing on the violin's tailpiece, even to the point of 'deconstructing' the instrument—e.g., removing and playing only the mouthpiece." Where earlier piano works on the program deal more clearly with melody and harmony, this knockout composition is about exploring new sounds and techniques.

Sunday's program doesn't focus on a specific period but instead spans more than five decades, from Double Music (1941), an early quartet piece written with Lou Harrison, to Four6 (imagine that numeral as a superscript), which Cage composed just six months before his death. The most exciting part of the program for me is the solo Child of Tree (1975) and the group piece Branches (1976), both of which can be transformed dramatically by input from the performers; some parameters, including choice of instrumentation, arrangement, and length of rests, are determined using the I Ching, which Cage often employed in his aleatoric work. As Cage conceived of the piece, it was played on amplified cacti (they also turn up in the performances of Variations V) by plucking their thorns with toothpicks. I have no idea what the particulars of this performance will be, but that's one of the things that makes it exciting. We'll probably get plenty of chances to hear Cage's music performed this year, since it's his centennial—I've already noticed a May 25 concert by Third Coast Percussion at Mayne Stage—but it could be a very long time before anybody in town returns to some of the works Epstein has programmed.

Today's playlist:

Nancy Elizabeth, Wrought Iron (Leaf)
João Donato, João Donato (32 Jazz)
Stacy Dillard, Good and Bad Memories (Criss Cross Jazz)
Seu Jorge, Musicas Para Churrasco Vol. 1 (Caifune)
Rob Brown, Unexplained Phenomenon: Live at Vision Festival XV (Marge)

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