By Ted AYALA
John Cage, for all the controversy this towering figure of 20th Century music left in his wake, was at heart a quiet man. In his still audacious reinterpretation of what music is and can be, one will search in vain for the self conscious pose of the enfant terrible. With self effacing artlessness Cage tore down barriers and pushed the boundaries of sound in a manner totally opposite that of the aggressive modernism of his European contemporaries like Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez. More than anything, one feels beating in this music a gentle heart that sought to attain peace; a peace attained by dissolving the barriers between what we perceive as music, noise and silence.
No other composer since Anton Bruckner ever explored the musicality of silence so profoundly and extensively as did John Cage. But beneath this gentle sensibility, there is also strength and resolve. There is throughout his work a single-mindedness in achieving his goals at whatever cost – even if it meant abandoning the road oft-trodden to carve out a completely new path for himself.
When his teacher Arnold Schoenberg chided Cage for his lack of feeling for harmony and told him that it would stand like a wall in the path of his career, Cage famously replied, “In that case I will devote my life to beating my head against that wall.”
It was this John Cage that Southwest Chamber Music (SWCM) presented the weekend from April 8 to the 10 at the Pasadena Armory of the Arts. Not the childish musical anarchist his critics often depict him as nor the curious musical philosopher whose works are dismissed as mere games, but as a serious and great composer who saw himself as part of the European tradition. This series of performances celebrated the forthcoming centennial of John Cage’s birth in 2012 and will continue in the spring of next year.
It’s difficult to believe that had he been alive today, Cage would have been 98. Not so old when you consider that Elliot Carter still enjoys a busy career even as he pushes 103. Ditto Henri Dutilleux, a relative spring chicken at 94 years of age. Yet there is something uniquely ageless in Cage’s music. Even into his late years it remained ever verdant; still charting new courses of sonic possibilities.
Though often sounding serenely simple for the listener, Cage’s music very often poses brutal demands on the performer. Not only does it require technical virtuosity on the part of the musicians, it also requires total emotional commitment, even devotion, from its players. This is music that demands that its players be part scholar, part shaman and part street corner preacher. All these qualities and more are possessed by the peerless musicians of SWCM. In fact, I cannot imagine more powerful advocates for John Cage than SWCM.
From first note to last, the superlative musicianship of the SWCM musicians left no doubt of not only their total mastery as musicians, but their sincere and total commitment to Cage’s muse. Their playing, without drawing attention to their own mastery, revealed the composer’s art in a resplendently honest light. Theirs is an art that disguises art.
SWCM’s Cage 2012 series covers the entire span of composer’s career: from the period shortly after his tutelage under Arnold Schoenberg to his very last years. Amidst all this music, elements that one never contemplated before came to the surface in the hands of the SWCM musicians. Who would’ve thought, for example, that John Cage could be such an eloquent musical patriot?
Closing Saturday’s concert was Cage’s late suite from 1986, “Thirteen Harmonies from Apartment House 1776” (itself derived from an earlier orchestral work that was commissioned for the American bicentenary by the Boston Symphony Orchestra), Cage distilled the essence from a set of Revolutionary War era songs into a set of gentle, yet curiously sad duets for violin and piano. Hymns and songs by William Billings, Andrew Law, Supply Belcher and James Lyon float by in half forgotten reminiscences along a twilight musical landscape. Violin and piano tread wide-eyed under a glittering canopy of stars that point the way to horizons yet to be explored. Yet beneath the wonder and hope of the frontier, there is also the melancholy realization that the virgin frontiers will not remain so forever; that all journeys are destined to end. The work’s underlying vein of profound sorrow become more obvious when one remembers that Cage bitterly lamented the marginalization and corruption of art and culture that had occurred over the span of his lifetime; deeply disappointed by what he saw as the coarsening of public discourse and thought via the media. “Thirteen Harmonies from Apartment House 1776” stands as an introspective meditation on what America has become – and what it had lost. A brave and very sober reflection on our nation.
Standing at the head of the Saturday night program were the “Nocturne for violin and piano,” the “Seven Haiku for solo piano,” and “Six Melodies for violin and piano.” The “Nocturne,” an early work from 1947, was filled with an awestruck wonder at the breadth of the vistas opening up before the composer and listener. The brittle “Seven Haiku” were terse, aphoristic etchings of powerfully concentrated musical thought that required some use of unorthodox piano playing, including the muting of the piano strings by hand.
The “Six Melodies” of 1950 were quiet fragments characterized by a Stravinskian sensibility straight out of “The Soldier’s Tale.” In all these works, the duo of violinist Lorenz Gamma and pianist Ming Tsu were nothing short of stunning. Lorenz Gamma’s quiet eloquence was matched in full by Ming Tsu.
As they played, one forgot that we were listening to musicians – all one could hear was the direct and genuine voice of the composer.
Following on Sunday afternoon was a mixed program of works for violin, double bass, tape and percussion. Cage’s One4 for an array of tuned gongs and various other percussion instruments introduced the program. Soft shimmering sounds pulsated gently in the superb acoustics of the Pasadena Armory of the Arts. Percussionist Lynn Vartan’s magical playing almost gave the impression of the building itself coming to life, breathing and exhaling as Vartan’s instruments rang forth.
Perhaps most memorable of all in the final Cage concert was the performance of Cage’s “But What About the Noise of Crumpling Paper?” Using not only traditional percussion instruments, but also non standard instruments like bags, wrappers, plastic lids and even the slapping of water, this piece was perhaps the most revealing of all the Cage works performed at the series. Here perhaps most directly was Cage’s drive to make music out of silence. The sounds – with the performers placed Gabrieli-like in different sections of the recital hall – radiated and flickered; ebbing and flowing with the silence. The final gesture was especially telling: Lynn Vartan slowly crumpling and tearing an egg carton until it completely disintegrated into nothing; the sounds returning to the void from which they came.
The playing of musicians of SWCM members Lynn Vartan, Shalini Vijayan, Jan Karlin, Tom Peters, and music director Jeff von der Schmidt were throughout ideal. These were, if one could imagine such a thing with John Cage’s music, definitive performances. SWCM outdid itself once again and proved decisively that it stands as one of – if not the foremost – exponents of modern music today.
John Cage would have been proud.