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Cage 100, Part 4: Cage's Influence

The official closing concert of the week's John Cage Centennial Festival came on Sunday night at the National Gallery of Art. A varied program, filling out the festival's retrospective of Cage's oeuvre, was staged in the atrium of the museum's East Building, a space that has not always been successful for concertizing but which suited this performance quite beautifully, especially because of the role of spatialization issues in some of the works featured. I stand by my dividing line for Cage's works at about the year 1960, the point at which, to my ears, Cage became too obsessed with chance determinations and the negation of traditional musical parameters (rhythm and meter, melody, harmony) for his own good. Imaginary Landscape No. 4, a piece for 24 players controlling 12 transistor radios, from 1951, was lighthearted fun, its pulse indicated by a conductor and completely random sounds swooping in and out in crescendos and overlapping entrances. Contrary to what some people might think, given how often he used transistor radios, Cage did not like radios and embraced them as a way to hand over control beyond his own tastes. The goal, he once said, was to "erase all will and the very idea of success."

Technology was also a way to introduce random elements into his music without allowing human associations to creep in, through improvisation. The Cage exhibit at American University's Katzen Arts Center is worth seeing, not so much for the composer's artwork (noteworthy because it was created by Cage, more than for its own merits) but because of the other documents, including the manuscripts and typescript versions of the score of 4'33". Another document in the exhibit is a typewritten letter from October 17, 1963, addressed by Cage to Leonard Bernstein ("Dear Lenny," it begins), who was then performing Cage's music (and that of others) on a concert that incorporated improvisation, as a way to show the freedom Cage introduced into his music. This irked Cage so much that he wrote, rather sternly, "Improvisation is not related to what the three of us [Cage, Feldman, Brown] are doing in our works. It gives free play to the exercise of taste and memory, and it is exactly this that we, in differing ways, are not doing in our music."

Pianist Stephen Drury played Cage's prepared piano piece Music for "Works of Calder", from 1949-50, a spell-binding play of gamelan gong-like sounds and other cymbal-like or bell-like tones, punctuated by stretches of silence, with Calder's enormous site-specific mobile looming overhead. The rhythmically energized section of this piece, with a bouncy ostinato, was a reminder of the loss Cage imposed on himself in later works by eliminating rhythm in favor of duration. Cartridge Music, from 1960, was rendered on all sorts of amplified doodads, including a piece of tape ripped up from the table surface and Slinkys suspended from microphone stands, definitely at the edge of trying as one tried to make sense of the work, determined as it was by dots on star charts. Worst of all was the final Cage work, Ryoanji (1983-92), related to three prints Cage made from tracings of the rocks in the Zen garden of the Ryoanji Buddhist temple in Kyoto (on exhibit in the Concourse). The same chord, slightly altered, is repeated countless times, with amplified cello (and cellist's voice) moaning in the background, the kind of Cage piece that is annoyingly tiresome.

Other Reviews:

Stephen Brookes, Cage festival closes on some fitting notes (Washington Post, September 11)

Cage Festival:
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3
A set of pieces by composers influenced by or who influenced Cage was a nice touch, including Henry Cowell's rather gorgeous Tides of Manaunaun (1917), heard live for the second time this year and played here, somewhat haltingly, by Margaret Leng Tan. Robert Ashley's Resonant Combinations featured composer Roger Reynolds producing overtones on a piano on the floor, with the partials hovering in ghostly ways as instrumentalists placed around the atrium took them up in the distance. Tan also performed a new piece by Reynolds, OPPOrTuniTy, which involved the building up of a cluster on prepared piano and the shouting of fragments of the name "John," which had the effect of a seance summons, a welcome example of whimsy from the normally far too serious Reynolds. George Lewis's new work Merce and Baby attempted to recreate the collaboration of Merce Cunningham and the jazz drummer Baby Dodds, with the catchy transcription of Dodds's spiffy solos stealing the show. Pianist Jenny Lin gave Steve Antosca's evocation, also from 2012, a busy energy, although the piece seemed to evoke Prokofiev's second sonata more than Cage until its eerie, buzzing conclusion, produced by pieces of twine pulled through the piano's strings.

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