By Ted AYALA
The axles of time inexorably grind away, with the old year – it does not seem very long ago that 2012 was the “new year” – now having only a few scattered grains of sand in a spent hourglass, its surface painted with the residue of memories accumulated over the months that have passed.
It is usually this moment that a writer sits and weighs the moments experienced over the past year, attempting to compile a “top 10” list of some of the year’s best concerts as if one could, after all, compare chalk and cheese. Even I have written such lists – and will likely compose another one of the sort again before I set my pen (or rather, laptop) down. Instead this year, though filled nearly to bursting with brilliant and transcending musical moments, I would prefer to speak about one series which ended this past spring that left an impression that will likely remain to the moment I draw my last breath.
Though I have been a devoted and ardent lover of “avant-garde” since very soon after I discovered classical music when I was 12, the music of John Cage remained for a good portion of my musical life an insoluble – and it must be said, unpleasant – mystery to me. Encountering his work for the first time shortly before my 13th birthday, the sensation the music elicited from me was sharp and immediate – one of total disgust. Despite experiences such as this, I am usually hesitant to dismiss the work of an artist outright, especially one whose legacy is as profound as that of Cage. In the intervening years I attempted again and yet again still to understand his music – or at least understand why I disliked it so much. Yet every time I tried grappling with his music anew there resulted fresh frustrations; new inscrutable knots that defied untangling.
Then, in 2011, I discovered Southwest Chamber Music’s “Cage 2012,” an exploration of the composer’s life and work spread across three years, finally culminating this year, the composer’s centenary.
What had repelled me from Cage’s music in the past was what I felt to be his passivity as a composer, a submissiveness I felt to the vagaries of fashion and the desire to flout the shock of the new. Instead, the man and composer that Southwest Chamber Music presented was a man who, if anything, was himself repulsed by trendiness, deeply averse to the increasing mechanization of existence, and possessing of an exacting ear that gripped Cage in a single-minded quest to obtain just the sonority he wanted.
In the concerts that Southwest Chamber Music laid out was presented a body of work that had, at least to me, a hitherto unimagined breadth, both stylistically and expressively speaking. Among the most moving moments in my concert-going experience was the inaugural concert of this year’s Cage retrospective – the last in the series: performances of the composer’s late period “One6” and “One10.”
Surrounded by the glass atrium of the Japanese American National Museum were violinist Shalini Vijayan and her partner: an organic, audio-kinetic sculpture designed by Mineko Grinner consisting of wood, piano strings, and stone. Below it was a rectangular pond, suspended above was a frozen upside-down pyramid of pebbles that would randomly drop its small stones, creating unexpected counterpoint. Unexpected because of the aleatory nature of its aural contributions. Also unexpected for the surprise I felt at the beauty of the sculpture itself and the sounds its free-falling pebbles would produce.
The meditative quality of both works – comprising of long, drone-like notes interspersed with moments of silence – had an expressive force the equal of a Mahler symphony. At the programs, I was left staggering, shaken to my very core by the music’s lonely and loving contemplation of life and poignancy from which twilight years are colored.
Speaking of Mahler, I could not help but recall the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s much vaunted Mahler cycle from earlier this season. As superb as those performances were, would it not have been a worthier tribute for the hometown orchestra to have paid tribute to the centennial of the birth of one of the hometown heroes? Mahler, whose music is the most often performed in the symphonic repertoire today, hardly needs the advocacy he warranted half a century ago when it was largely maligned. Cage, whose richness of utterance is still largely unknown and unappreciated by the general public, is still in need.
“Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes,” said Walt Whitman. And it was that kaleidoscopic richness that proved to be the most striking revelation of all of Southwest Chamber Music’s retrospective, the multi-faceted expansiveness of Cage’s vision. He was modern; he was ancient. He was a master of the large canvas as much as of the miniature. He was a global citizen; he was (surprisingly!) a nationalist.
After the dust of the musical 20th Century finally settles down, it may be the work of John Cage that will emerge as among the most significant and enduring – if not the single most. For this epiphany I will be forever grateful to the loving and respectful advocacy of the composer’s work by Southwest Chamber Music.