By Ted AYALA
On Saturday night, March 10, my friend and I tried to make our way into Southwest Chamber Music’s concert of works by John Cage held at Art Center in Pasadena. Getting there wasn’t easy. It took us over 15 minutes to navigate a series of hallways and corridors of labyrinthine complexity.
Success! We finally found where they were playing. As we tucked our tickets into our pockets, we traipsed into yet another corridor, this time one lined with paintings and various photographs. As we inched our way through it music could be heard, now coming behind us, now from around the corner.
Lining our path were scattered musicians playing parts of music. A frightening thought: have I just clumsily walked onto the stage? A few more steps reveal another room with musicians playing and some chairs upon which sat some people.
Where was I? Amidst the music making, I glimpsed the face of Jan Karlin, Southwest Chamber Music’s violist and founding executive director. With a smile, she wordlessly showed me where to sit. Then it hit me. That fear of possibly bungling into the concert stage was one where, for a moment, brought to life in vivid fashion a blurring between composer, performer and audience. It was, in my awkward way, a Cage-ian epiphany, one that would surely have made the composer smile.
What also would have delighted Cage was Southwest Chamber Music’s collaboration with music students from Hamilton High School.
“I was born too young in a world too old,” once mused Erik Satie, whose unorthodox and highly original views on music and art left a deep imprint on John Cage. Older adults often have difficulty with Cage, but it has been younger audiences and musicians who have embraced the composer and his aesthetic philosophy.
In their playing of “Atlas Eclipticalis” and Variations IV, there was none of the condescension that can sometimes mar performances of Cage’s music. These kids – though there was nothing childish about their musical ability and technique – approached Cage with openness and freshness, unfettered by preconceived biases. At their side were the musicians of Southwest Chamber Music, among the best in the nation, playing Cage with sincere belief in the music’s greatness.
Their devotion was infectious. Not only did they illuminate the wonder of Cage’s music, they also impressed upon the listener that Cage’s music is so much more than just about music.
That was cemented in the closing section of the program “0’00.” The instructions Cage offers are spare: “In a situation provided with maximum amplification (no feedback), perform a disciplined action.” To this end, Jeff von der Schmidt, Southwest Chamber Music’s founding artistic director, read aloud from a treatise on Buddhist mindfulness meditation. Buddhist philosophy was an inextricable element in Cage’s mature work – something that von der Schmidt’s reading/performance eloquently demonstrated.
The next day Southwest Chamber Music reconvened at the Pacific Asia Museum’s recital hall. A storied place, as von der Schmidt informed his audience. Formerly the site of the Pasadena Art Museum (later the Norton Simon Museum), the museum’s recital hall had hosted such 20th century luminaries as Luciano Berio, Toru Takemitsu, Cathy Berberian, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Cage himself.
Cage explores the very boundaries of the possible in the works presented. Most striking was “Branches,” which opened the program. The artistry and intensity of Lynn Vartan’s musicianship was extraordinary here. Her ability to make music from a vast array of unusual percussion instruments, including the needles of a cactus plant that was hooked up into an amplifier, was nothing short of spectacular.
Joining Vartan on the program’s closing piece was cellist Peter Jacobson in Cage’s “Etudes Boreales I – IV.” The concentration and stamina displayed were remarkable. This was Cage at his most demanding – both of his musicians and audience. But the artistry of Vartan and Jacobson was utterly compelling, gripping the listener from the shirt collar from beginning to end.
Southwest Chamber Music’s celebration of the John Cage centenary continues with a final performance on March 24 at Pasadena’s Armory of the Arts. Make no mistake: their Cage project isn’t merely of local proportions. These are world-beating performances of historical importance that will play an enormous role in how the next century looks upon the music of this American master.