It’s still so unbelievable and so marvelous, that John Cage would be able to perform such a piece on national television, on a game show! It’s the sort of thing that was not supposed to be possible before the Internet, but there it is, and at the time it was shown there was little chance that the federal government knew who was watching it.

“Water Walk” seems to me to be convivial, like a party, with the same aesthetic values as “Living Room Music,” something that friends should enjoy together in an intimate setting. It can be performed by anyone with the time and equipment to prepare and an inclination for quick thinking and good humor. I think Jenny Q. Chai has most of those qualities, but she’s a busy musician with many demands on her time, and in the living room concert venue, Spectrum, on May 7, she was a little flustered and a little rushed as she checked the running time on her iPhone and moved from object to object. Practicing the piano is one thing, setting up and knocking down all the bric-a-brac on tables, and doing it again and again, is a challenge on time that I don’t image Cage expected many musicians to undertake.

But in the context of the concert, and in the Spectrum setting with books lining the walls and easy chairs and couches, it was a convivial encore, a trick at the end of a good party. The party was a collection of old and new pieces, set together into short suites. Chai is known for her playing and her programs that demolish distinctions between past and present and show that the Western classical tradition is an endless flow, no part of it beyond the reach of any composer or the ears of any listener. The program was called Acqua Alta, the music having in some way to do with water.

She’s not the only musician who does this — most prominently in my mind is Marino Formenti — but she does so without didacticism, which is unusual and compelling. She plays the music with great skill, intelligence and commitment, but she doesn’t belabor her points or our need to hear what she hears, and as a critical listener I have utmost respect for that. I don’t think all the music she played in Aqua Alta was successful, but I was left feeling that everything she played was offered as it should be.

The opening suite sandwiched Kurtag’s “Hommage à Scarlatti,”, a couple Scarlatti Sonatas, and Gibbons’ “The Italian Ground” with premieres from Milica Paranosic and Nils Vigeland. Scarlatti’s are some of the finest keyboard works in the literature, and Chai played them with accuracy and insouciance, an ideal combination. All the older works put the new ones in difficult contrast, their combination of craft and the focussed exploration of controlled ideas set an example that Paranosic’s underdone, programmatic and overlong minimalism couldn’t match, Vigeland’s “I Turisti” sounded great, but the result didn’t match his own description, the composition too clear to encompass the sound of chattering tourists that was somehow supposed to drown out the music.

The large scale piece on the program was a new work from Michael Vincent Waller, “Acqua Santa,” that started modestly but grew into an ambitious and attractive work. Waller’s basic pulse both lengthens and picks up the pace as the music moves along, the structure builds from monophony to homophony, and there’s some of the pleasantly mesmerizing quality of watching waves from the shore. It’s essentially minimal without being minimalist in the repetitive sense, and the appearance of whole-tone scales develops an impressionistic aesthetic that elided nicely with the closing set of pieces: Ravel’s “Une Barque Sur L’océan,” Debussy’s prelude to “La cathédrale engloutie,” and Liszt’s “La lugubre gondola,” finished off with Marco Stroppa’s effective adaptation of a traditional lullaby, “Ninnananna.” This whole stretch of the concert was involving and powerful. While even the most sensitive, intelligent listener has to navigate their way through how a brand new piece should go, it’s easy to hear exceptional Ravel, Debussy and Liszt. Chai is great in this music: she has the technique to pull it off, the power to play it with expression and confidence, and the intelligence to make it coherent and meaningful. There are few musicians who can play both Scarlatti and Liszt naturally and convincingly — Formenti is one, there’s Mikhail Pletnev — and Chai does it. She plays Cage well too, and probably no one but the man himself can pull off “Water Walk.”

One Response to “In Waves”
  1. Lawrence de Martin says:

    Thank you your efforts and insight in this referential multi-media review. Some comments:

    John Cage was a performer-composer and “Water Walk” appears to be a piece of performance art. My perception is that Ms. Chai approached this as a pianist where the sound was the message. This fits with the parallel Cageian aesthetic of celebrating everyday sounds. I found the purely acoustical rendition more musical than playback of found sound, justifying the physical preparations. Her close attention to the scored timing was not that of an academic score slave because she was also listening intently. The High Definition audio recording is more compelling than the video footage, so I agree that her physical performance was slightly distracting whereas Cage’s was integral; but she sounds better than his video soundtrack.

    “I Turisti” may have diverged from the composer’s intent because of the experimental Electro-Acoustic speakers unique to Spectrum. They mimic the acoustics of physical sounding boards in temporality, spatiality, and uncompressed peak capability. The clarity yields greater perceptual separation of the audio, and also better blending of pre-corded, processed and synthesized sound with live instruments because they sound acoustic. All PA and stereo speakers generate more perceptual masking from the same signal at the same relative balance. Since Vigeland could only have heard his piece with this distractive function, my sound design differs from the goal you suggest.

    Lawrence de Martin
    Chief Science Officer
    New Spectrum Foundation

  2.