A Centennial, With Toy Pianos and a Coffee Table
By ANTHONY TOMMASINI
Published: September 6, 2012
For a composer who was a true rebel, a pioneering American maverick, John Cage was frequently celebrated in programs and festivals at the world’s most prestigious concert halls.
Wednesday was Cage’s 100th birthday. For the occasion the fourth New York Chamber Music Festival, which runs for 10 days at Symphony Space on the Upper West Side, opened with an all-day celebration of “John Cage at 100!” The evening concert began with “Dawn at Stony Point, New York,” a sound recording from 1974, an inspired way to invite the audience that nearly filled the hall into the world of Cage.
The recording consists of quiet sounds from cars whistling by in the distance, ambient street noise, crickets and chirping birds. “Everything we do is music,” Cage often said, a central tenet of his philosophy. The catch is that a piece like “Dawn at Stony Point” only works if the listeners get into a mind-set to hear it as music. Cage tried to foster that mind-set in his compositions. But his pieces need help from performers, which is what happened wonderfully here.
As we listened to the recording, four percussionists from the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra (Charles Barbour, Robert Knopper, Duncan Patton and Gregory Zuber) sauntered one at a time onto the stage and took a seat on two couches. In front of them was a coffee table strewed with magazines, books, cups and various small items of wood and glass. Saying nothing, the performers just sat quietly, thumbing through the magazines, occasionally picking up and putting down some item from the table, which of course made sounds that became part of the piece.
Then they segued smoothly into Cage’s “Living Room Music.” This 1940 piece has intricately notated, quite sophisticated rhythmic patterns, played here by the percussionists tapping small sticks on cups, glasses, household objects, magazines, cardboard, whatever. In one section, “Story,” the players spoke a line from Gertrude Stein (“Once upon a time the world was round and you could go on it around and around”), breaking it into rhythmic fragments, repeated words and syllables (“ti ti ti ti”), essentially using Stein as a prototype of rap. The performance was exhilarating and sweet. And the living-room setting was perfect.
There was another arresting percussion piece, “Third Construction” from 1941. And for a performance of “Branches” (1976), the four Met players were joined by several more percussionists, stationed throughout the hall, including the balconies, to create a “surround sound” of delicate, restless, rippling percussion music.
The program ended with a rare performance of “The City Wears a Slouch Hat,” a 30-minute radio play from 1942 with a text by Kenneth Patchen, a patchwork of snippets and stories from urban life. The play describes people wandering rainy city streets, ducking under awnings, being held up by robbers and telling tragic personal tales (that may be made up) to strangers. Morris Robinson performed a role called the Voice; Karen Beardsley Peters was Woman; Jon Burklund was Man, MC, Second and Third Voices. The text is full of aural references to street noise, telephones, ocean waves, falling rain and more. Cage backs the text with a varied and rhapsodic score of sound effects, played here by six percussionists.
Of special interest was a short work from Cage’s early 20s, when he was exploring his own kind of music for 12 tones: the Sonata for Two Voices (1933), played by the violinist Cornelius Dufallo and the cellist Wendy Sutter. This skittish piece is the work of a young composer grappling with the modernist currents of his time. Yet even writing in this more formal language, Cage’s quirky mind and rhythmic inventiveness come through. The piece suggests another path he might have taken. Thankfully, he found his own way.
New York Magazine
John Cage Is Still Rattling the Bars at 100
By Justin Davidson
Pause for a moment, and listen: What you’re hearing is John Cage’s world. The buzz of a New York street corner, the complicated quiet of a country road at dusk, the din of TVs from various apartments mingling on a fire escape — Cage claimed it all. He explored the wondrous border zone between the intentional and the accidental, deploying electronic beeps, mathematical rhythms, scratched recordings, nature’s moans, banged-on pots. He wrote for ensembles of randomly tuned radios, guaranteeing music that sounds predictably unpredictable, depending on whether it is performed in Houston or Beijing. And, of course, he most famously recruited silence, or its approximate facsimile, in 4’33’’,
though what really interested him was not the absence of sound but the hum revealed when we’re forced to pay attention. “There is no such thing as an empty space or an empty time,” he wrote. “There is always something to see, something to hear.”
On his 100th birthday (September 5), four members of the Metropolitan Opera’s percussion section ambled onto the stage of Symphony Space, which was furnished with chemical-orange couches, and sat back, rifling through magazines while speakers piped in the hushed, domesticated sounds of Cage’s 1974 recording, Dawn at Stony Point. After a while, the performers began tapping on cups and pens and books that were lying about the coffee table, unspooling the crisply intricate rhythms of Living Room Music. In Cage’s sonic universe, nature, noise, silence, and concert music are always bleeding into one another’s territory, forming alluring hybrids.
Cage (who died in 1992) was born in Los Angeles just as the movie industry was establishing itself there, and at one point he pleaded for access to the MGM sound department, the perfect playground for an avant-garde composer. Even after he moved to New York, he dreamed on a Hollywood scale, though he became adept at extravaganzas on a budget. He turned a piano into a one-man ensemble by festooning the strings with felt, paper, and bolts. One of his most magnificent pieces for “prepared” piano is The Perilous Night, in which familiar timbres mix with bleak tollings, crackling, and harsh desert sounds. When CBS hired him to score a radio play, he wildly overestimated the station’s technological capacities. “I wrote 250 pages of score for instruments the timbre, loudness, and relative pitch of which I described, but the existence of which I only guessed,” he later recalled. When the engineers balked, he started again. The resulting work of surreal drama, The City Wears a Slouch Hat, closed the Symphony Space concert, which kicked off the New York Chamber Music Festival.
It’s still easy to laugh at Cage. He courted mirth, often at his own expense. In a YouTube clip of his appearance on the game show I’ve Got a Secret in 1960, he parted the curtain to reveal an elaborate setup of noisemakers and a bathtub. Gangly and deadpan before a studio audience, he clinked ice cubes, released steam from a boiling pot, squeezed a rubber duckie, placed a vase of flowers in the tub then doused it with a watering can, spritzed seltzer, and produced a range of other liquid percussion sounds.
Cage’s whimsy was strategic, his playfulness serious. To look back on his lifetime is to observe a revolution take shape, dazzle, and spread. His innovations were thrilling and multifarious. He liberated noise, provided an intellectual framework for electronic music, and gave percussionists a repertoire for which they remain profoundly grateful. Gregarious, accepting, and perpetually curious, he became a genial guru of the downtown avant-garde, perhaps the only artist of that time equally comfortable in the worlds of music, dance, and visual art. (The National Academy Museum has just opened “John Cage: The Sight of Silence,” an exhibit of his prints, drawings, and watercolors.)
That cerebral impishness can sometimes obscure the visceral allure of his music, especially the work that flowed from his 50-year personal and professional partnership with Merce Cunningham. In a 1948 lecture, Cage explained that he rarely began composing until the dance was ready, an inversion that would have driven most composers bonkers. “From a musical point of view,” he admitted, the dancer’s count was “totally lacking in organization: three measures of 4/4 followed by one measure of 5, 22 beats in a new tempo, a pause, and two measures of 7/8.” From this collection of beats, Cage derived an organization that was both rigorous and radical: He made every level of music — from tiny phrases to groupings of measures to large-scale structures — conform to the same irregular proportions. Today, we might call that approach fractal, emulating the nonlinear patterns that emerge in leaves, ice crystals, clouds, and mountain ranges.
Using chance procedures, he struggled to liberate his music from his own clutches, forcing his creative will to dissipate into the exquisite chaos of noise. For Atlas Eclipticalis (which can be played by an ensemble numbering between one and 86 players), he superimposed staff paper on a map of the heavens so that the brightest stars become the loudest notes. Some scores consist only of instructions that read like scavenger-hunt tasks: Improvise, using only instruments made of plants.
Yet of all his immense and imaginative output, his most durable pieces are those in which the element of chance is constrained — Caged, you might say. Provocations do not age well, especially those neutralized by their success. He craved technology that would allow a composer to make and manipulate any sound; now free software lets children hammer together symphonies of cat mewls or doorbell chimes. Cage preached the beauty of accidental musical collisions; today, the streets are alive with ringtones, symphonies, and snatches of hip-hop exploding out of pedestrians’ pockets. The critic Alex Ross elegantly described the feedback loop between reality and the radical imagination: “Because Cage made his music sound like the world, the world sounds like Cage.” Which is true, but makes me wonder: If the world sounds like Cage, then what do we need him for?
We remember John Cage at 100 not simply because he was an iconoclast but because he was a traditional creator, too. His Third Construction, for percussion quartet, is a marvelously expressive machine, a kaleidoscope of changeable timbres and simultaneous rhythms that wander away from each other, meet up, and then part again like intertwining streams. Though it has no fixed pitches, no harmonies or tunes, it’s one of those works — like a Beethoven piano sonata, or a Monteverdi madrigal — that draw you deep into their bewitching complexities. It makes you want to shut out the world’s cacophonous chatter — to retreat into music, in the most archaic, pre-Cageian sense of that word.
New York Chamber Music Festival -- Forecast: Thunder, with Scattered Democracy
Wednesday, 05 September 2012 18:27 Gene Gaudette
The fourth annual New York Chamber Music Festival opened today, honoring the centenary of John Cage.
I managed to break a way from the office to take in one of Cage's unique text-based pieces, "Lecture on the Weather" -- a setting of selected writings by Henry Thoreau, focusing primarily on issues of governance and democracy.
Written in 1975 for twelve speakers with musical instruments, Cage had suggested the work be performed "preferably [by] American men who have become Canadian citizens" (in a nod to the post-Vietnam era). The title is certainly a nod to a "climate change" in American political culture, including the oft-maligned Weather Underground; Thoreau's writings were no less radical in their era than the views of many 1960s and '70s radicals, particularly antiwar activists.
Cage would likely have been tickled by the dozen performers: prominent composers Ned Rorem, Joan Tower, David Amram, Jose Serebrier, Tania Leon, David del Tredici, Laura Kaminsky, Arturo O'Farrell, David Leisner, Sean Hickey, Jon Deak, and Noel Zahler.
The "lecture" begins shortly after prerecorded sounds of nature and a rainstorm filled Symphony Space, followed by the composers entering in small groups and reading their parts. Visuals occasionally appeared for a few brief seconds at a time on a screen behind the performers, renderings of sketched symbols in white on a black background that suddenly flashed, strobed, or turned black-on-white. The musical "intrusions" are notated into the texts, and the variety of instruments on the stage -- from Jon Deak's double bass on the bottom of the musical range to David AMram's and Sean Hickey's recorders on the top -- would emerge with aural commentary both tonal and abstract. The twelve voices formed an aural panoply from which words would occasionally pop out of the texture -- almost all of which referenced government ("Democracy"... "legislature"... "representative"...). At about the midpoint of the half-hour performance, the performers slowly united in a not-quite-tonal, inventively irreverent rendition of "Happy Birthday." As the work approached its end, sounds of thunder from the prerecorded "background" acted as an ominous coda.
In a year of tributes to Cage, this was far and away one of the most memorable, harnessing Cage's maverick spirit with humor and the feel of a "happening."
NY Chamber Music Fest: Violinist Gary Levinson
By Diana Barth
September 11, 2012
NEW YORK—Part of the 4th New York Chamber Music Festival was the delightful and elegant concert by violinist Gary Levinson and his accompanist, pianist Daredjan Baya Kakouberi, on Sept. 9.
After the two musicians took their places onstage at Symphony Space’s Peter Jay Sharp Theatre, on the Upper West Side, Mr. Levinson began with Ernest Chausson’s “Poeme,” playing with both delicacy and ardor. His tone was lush, as is to be expected since he performs on a 1726 Antonio Stradivari violin (loaned to him by the Dallas Symphony Association).
The choice of pieces on the program indicated great versatility on the part of Mr. Levinson, as we were later to be treated to works by such varied composers as Prokofiev, Beethoven, and Ravel.
Mr. Levinson performed the Prokofiev “Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 1 Op. 80 in F Minor” with passion and verve, the Andante assai flowing effortlessly to the Allegro brusco, then to the andante, and finally the Allegressimo. The performer does not resort to flamboyancy, as do some other artists. His approach stresses the music, in a pure sense. One can arguably hear it better that way.
It must be said that Levinson is an attractive figure on stage, dressed simply in a black suit, Ms. Kakouberi in a subdued but appealing gown.
After a brief intermission, Prokofiev was again the order of the day, featuring “Five Melodies Op. 35bis.” The two performers gave a lovely, sensitive rendition of this not so-well- known piece by the noted Russian composer.
Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 9,” commonly known as the “Kreutzer Sonata,” is a major work, and Mr. Levinson and accompanist Miss Kakouberi accorded it their full technical and emotional skills. The piece is exceptionally long, approximately 40 minutes, and has a particularly demanding violin part, with movements featuring a placid approach, followed by greater liveliness, then a darker level, then a slower and more dramatic quality, and ultimately a burst of passion and speed in the final Presto movement.
The performers acquitted themselves so favorably that when they had finished shouts of “Bravo!” came from the audience.
To cap the performance was Maurice Ravel’s “Tzigane.” The French composer, noted for his melodies and texture of tone, here portrayed Gypsy musical themes. It was a delightful close to the afternoon, and beautifully played by the two musicians.
Mr. Levinson was chosen by conductor Zubin Mehta to join the New York Philharmonic at an early age. He went on to earn top prizes at major international competitions. He has recorded CDs of the complete Beethoven sonatas with Miss Kakouberi, and he also performs internationally with Eugenia Zuckerman and Adam Neiman as Trio Virtuosi.
Miss Kakouberi has been awarded prizes at numerous competitions and has been soloist with various orchestras abroad. She made her Carnegie Hall debut in 2002 and will perform at Carnegie’s Weill Hall this fall.
The New York Chamber Music Festival offers excellent programs and outstanding artists. Its president and artistic director, Elmira Darvarova, former concertmaster of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra (the first woman concertmaster in the Met’s history), will perform at this season’s penultimate concert on Sept. 15.
All performances are held at the Peter Jay Sharp Theatre at Symphony Space on the Upper West Side, 2537 Broadway at 95th Street.