This venue was the location of this past Sunday’s concert featuring Iktus Percussion (Cory Bracken, Chris Graham, Nicholas Woodbury, and Steve Sehman), pianist Taka Kigawa, and toy pianist Phyllis Chen. According to Iktus member Cory Bracken, one of the missions of the evening (focused entirely around composer John Cage) was to take some of his pieces that are almost exclusively performed in academic settings, and begin to inject them into the public concert repertoire. What the audience encountered, therefore, was a healthy mix of both often and not-so-often performed pieces by John Cage.
The tremendously gifted members of Iktus Percussion took the stage to perform But What About The Noise of Crumpling Paper. It is rare today to hear a group of musicians like those of Iktus. They came to this performance with a rich understanding of the score, a fact that was evident in the hypnotic sound to which they gave life. It takes the ear a minute or two to adjust to the sound of John Cage. This adjustment, however, is a sign of great musicianship, and should be met with satisfaction from the audience and the artist(s). To adjust to Cage is to come to an understanding of the pitter-patter that is his multi-layered, pitchinfluenced rhythmic structures; and from it, to find a soothing sense of order and design.
Next Double Music was featured, and pianist Taka Kigawa joined the stage for Amores. All of the players involved in both pieces found a groove by which the music became a cohesive structure. The music flowed out of these brilliant artists as easily as an endless exhalation. The musicians played off of each other succinctly, delivering a truly breathtaking and exciting performance of both pieces. This open camaraderie between them was admirable, and showed a shared agreement in both personality and musical ideas.
Phyllis Chen owns fifteen toy pianos. She only brought one with her on Sunday evening, however it was asked to be both a toy piano and the world’s smallest carillon as Ms. Chen performed the Suite for Toy Piano and Music for Carrillon #2. Ms. Chen showed an innate understanding of the instrument. She presented a range of musical ideas that, frankly, I did not know were possible on the Toy Piano. I say this not to belittle the instrument, but rather to recognize the true talent of this player. Ms. Chen also spoke to the audience before her set. She gave insightful background on her instrument, and the pieces she would play. She mentioned the popular idea that the Suite for Toy Piano is quite possibly influenced by the music of Satie. I urge the listener to also remember, however, that if we are going to talk about a “Suite”, we must also talk about Johann Sebastian Bach. The Suite for Toy Piano reminds me more of the static rhythmic and metrical characteristics that are identifying features of the dances Bach writes in his suites. This is not to discard Satie at all, but to simply include a great writer of Suites into the conversation.
Taka Kigawa performed three pieces, And the Earth Shall Bear Again; In a Landscape; and “Ètudes Australes no. 1”, as the penultimate set of this concert. Mr. Kigawa is a renowned pianist, and is known for his performances of adventurous and varied repertoire. He did not disappoint, and performed with distinction and absolute beauty. Both the first and last pieces of this set were sensibly amplified (as they both required a prepared piano), though continuing the amplification of the instrument during In a Landscape gave the piano a tinge of two-dimensionality that I feel was not intended by Cage. Having written the piece for either Piano or Harp, it seems Cage may have wanted a purely acoustic effect (especially since this piece truly harkens images of Satie, and the great tradition of French dance). Live amplification of any acoustic instrument does, though slightly, distort the sound, even under the careful hand of the best engineers. This is a tiny point, however, and Kigawa played all three pieces with great depth and consideration.
Credo in US is a rockstar moment, literally and figuratively, for the musicians. Written originally for “pianist; 2 percussionists on muted gongs, tin cans, electric buzzer and tom-toms; one performers who plays a radio or phonograph”, the piece was updated for the 21st century by having one of the percussionists use a foot pedal to cue recorded music, rather than surfing through the radio or playing a record. Cage is now overlaying his own musical ideas onto an indeterminate series of recordings. What makes this piece, funnily enough, is not the recordings, but the use of the electric buzzer. It provides a sense of stability in a musical soundscape that is the epitome of ordered chaos. Both the members of Iktus Percussion, and their pianist counterpart Kigawa played, again, with a sense of ensemble that is to be rivaled. The performance was fearless and flawless, with some of the most exciting playing I have ever heard. It perfectly tied together that evening’s exploration of John Cage. It reminded the audience that Cage’s works are a fragmentation of music on the elemental level, ripping apart the particles that make up Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Chopin, Mahler, and the music of every composer who has ever lived. It is, in its sound, a gaze back at the invention of music, where we can imagine primitive humans banging on rocks, trees, and other natural elements of our world, simply to indulge themselves in sound. In this way it is old, and not all fresh or new. Great performances, however, come when the music, no matter how old, feels as if it has never been heard before. That is what the audience encountered during Iktus Percussion’s concert at Le Poisson Rouge.