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Cage 100, Part 1: John Cage sans champignons

Wednesday evening for a full house, the Contemporary Series at La Maison Française, in conjunction with the John Cage Centennial Festival, presented a tribute evening led by French cellist Alexis Descharmes. For the most part, contemporary works by Cage, Beat Furrer, Pierre Boulez, and Klaus Huber were paired with Descharmes's own instrumental arrangements of piano music by Erik Satie, a composer Cage held in high esteem. There is an apparent "proximity to silence" that these composers share. High points of the program included a 1982 letter from Pierre Boulez to John Cage, recorded in French and English by French actor Michael Lonsdale, that spoke of "keeping freshness for times to come." This letter was followed by Boulez's own tour-de-force Messagesquisse for cello and cello ensemble (though Descharmes recorded their parts himself), where the patron's name, Sacher, is spelled both melodically (E flat-A-C-B-E-D) and rhythmically through vivacious morse code.

A visual dimension was added when Descharmes shared 200 closeup photos of Gerhard Richter's series of six paintings titled Cage on a big screen overhead. Descharmes rigged the slides to change whenever he tapped his foot on a pedal -- every 7 to 10 seconds on average -- while performing Cage's extended Music for Two with violinist Irvine Arditti. The colorful, visibly raw brush strokes paired cogently with the bow strokes of the string players, who used stopwatches to pace their respective periods of silence and movement. While pianist Jenny Lin's approach to the Satie Gymnopédies and Gnossiennes was refreshing to the overall tone (or lack thereof) of the program, Descharmes idea of adding string and clarinet parts often undermined the works. In these slow works, Satie masterfully combats the decay of the piano by having accompanimental chords subtly sustain melodic notes. The expressive clarinet (Bill Kalinkos) and string players (Lina Bahn with Descharmes) tended to push the intensity of long notes in a way that moved the character of these pieces away from the proximity of silence.

Other Reviews:

Stephen Brookes, Cellist Alexis Descharmes and friends pay tribute to John Cage (Washington Post, September 7)
Program note writer Erik Ulmann quoted Descharmes, writing that he spent a July evening "eating mushrooms" while preparing for this Cage evening, and that it was then that he came upon the Richter retrospective at the Centre Pompidou. There is an authenticity in Descharmes's magic mushroom consumption when planning a Cage evening, though who knows if Descharmes actually gently picked the shrooms off of cow dung in green farmland as Cage, a renowned mycologist, may have done, or obtained them from less earthy sources. No matter the caliber of one's ears and listening experience, this repertoire is challenging. Imagining the aid of having consumed magic mushrooms prior to listening to seemingly randomized cello scratches by Descharmes interspersed with snare drum stick taps on the stick holding up the piano lid by and other interesting techniques by Steven Schick in Cage's Etudes Boréales gives one the feeling of hope that it is possible to be in the know. Indeed, we too may be able to understand Cage's music, and even the painful fingers scratching-down-the-chalkboard, spine-twinging disharmony of Klaus Huber's ...ruhe sanft... for cello, recorded cello, and a few recorded words, by listening after eating magic mushrooms. The key being to be mentally distorted by an organic drug before experiencing the intentional aural brutality of some of this repertoire. I look forward to comments from readers who have experimented with Cage avec champignons.

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