Concert Review: John Cage Centennial Celebration
September 29, 2012
2012 has been chock full of celebratory events marking John Cage’s centennial year. There have been a number of performances in Mr. Cage’s honor, several of them including his Sonatas and Interludes (1948) for prepared piano; there have also been a steady stream of new recordings and reissues of this work. What fascinates me is the durability of the piece, which withstands numerous interpretations; alongside a pliability in which each performer can supply an individual take on the piece. This is not so remarkable when one is considering a piece by a canonical composer, say, a sonata by Beethoven. But when one considers the dampening and percussive character brought out by the piece’s requisite preparations, the variety of interpretations seems striking.
Vicky Chow’s performance of Sonatas and Interludes at the Cage Centennial Celebration on the Arts at the Park series shared yet another way of performing the piece. Chow’s attention to details of dynamic nuance included delicately shaped hairpins and fastidious attention to the numerous markings in the score. The pianist also reveled in the gamelan-like textures that the preparations produce, gearing her articulations to render the maximum amount of percussiveness from the instrument. Thus, this was a Sonatas and Interludes that provided delicacy balanced by a zesty tang: an impressive and engaging performance.
Composed in 1978, Etudes Boreales is one of Cage’s pieces created using chance operations; its title comes from Cage’s use of a star chart from the Atlas Borealis as a chance element to determine some of the registral parameters of the work’s piano part. It may be performed either as a solo cello piece, solo piano piece, or as a duo for both instruments. Cellist Jay Campbell presented a solo version in which he inhabited the work with intensity, negotiating wide leaps and angular lines with pinpoint placement.
Supply Belcher’s book The Harmony of Maine (1794), a collection of part-songs in the vein of Billings, Read, and the other “Yankee Tunesmiths,” is the generating material for Cage’s Some of the Harmony of Maine (1978). The piece requires an organist and three assistants – one for each manual of the organ tasked with changing stops for the organist (sometimes rapidly!). Paul Vasile, along with three dutiful deputies, gave a short talk about what the audience would hear – quite an unconventional composition, especially when compared with service music – and then forged ahead. The piece’s frequent shifts between tunes from the book and stop combinations created a resplendent display of the timbral capabilities of the organ at Park Avenue Christian Church. And while their fragmentary deployment would cause one to struggle to pick out the tunes, Cage’s Harmony retains some of the grandeur and rhythmic swagger that exemplifies Belcher’s music.
27’10.554”, a piece for solo percussion, was played by Payton MacDonald to close the concert. One of Cage’s earliest chance pieces, its structure is derived from a poem by Lao Tzu. Instead of specifying which instruments to use, the battery of instruments is divided into wood, metal, skins, and “others,” creating the possibility of numerous interpretations of the piece. Thunderous drumming, thrown objects, crashing cymbals, and snippets of playback from a recording of a soprano singing were interspersed with moments of silence (made all the more palpable by the saturated musical passages).
Like the other pieces on the program, 27’10.554” demonstrates Cage’s penchant for taking materials, or enabling performers to choose them, and placing them in unexpected contexts: screws inside a piano, a cello leaping through a star chart, Supply Belcher played with a kaleidoscope of sounds, and a Lao Tzu poem banged out on percussion instruments. Besides the composer’s ingenuity, what makes the music work is due in no small part to the dedication and imagination of its interpreters, which was abundantly evident here.