Washington’s John Cage centennial festival opened on Tuesday with a reading of one of Cage’s theater works, and really got underway on Wednesday, Cage’s actual birthday, with a lunchtime concert at the National Gallery of Art, which I reviewed.
I enjoyed the concert a lot, which in itself is something to think about. There are people who simply don’t enjoy this kind of music — who get actively angry at the feeling that they’re not getting it. There was a great turnout for this concert, but sitting in the fairly full hall, I thought that the enjoyment of music is perhaps the hardest thing to communicate that. You can make converts of someone who enjoys a new experience, and wants to know more, but someone who hated an experience is less likely to be motivated to find out what lay behind it. I found the concert a lot of fun; this is music speaking the same language as contemporary art, and it's a mode I respond to. But if someone doesn’t respond to it, I doubt I could change his mind — any more than I could have convinced the squirming woman sitting in front of me at a Beethoven violin concerto, some years ago, that what she was hearing was a gorgeous and sublime piece, if she would only sit still and open her ears.
On further reflection, I wished I had talked in the review more about the performers — less the excellent Jenny Lin than the disparity between the performanes in the Concert for Piano and Orchestra excerpt, in which the percussionists stole the show. This was, I think, because the percussionists felt they could be fully themselves in this music, while the flutist and the violinist were donning a bit of a straitjacket, doing the Cage thing, game, but not quite on their home turf.*
However, before writing about this I made the mistake (for a critic) of reading a piece my husband, Greg Sandow, wrote about Cage performance in the Village Voice back in the 1980s, and he said it all so well that I’m simply linking to his piece. In addition to being an admirable piece, it can serve as a little gift to those who believe that, because we’re married, I must simply parrot everything he thinks.
A final note: the violinist used her iPhone to generate a couple of sounds, including the quack of a duck. I couldn’t actually see what she had on her music stand, but that duck-quack happens to be something my husband uses a lot as a timer, so rather than a new or startling sound, it was one that came loaded with a whole weight of daily familiarity. I thought for a long time about whether Cage would have approved, or not. What do you think?