The John Cage Centennial Festival in Washington — which continues through Monday — began as a discussion about a Wednesday lunchtime concert at the National Gallery to mark the centennial of the composer’s birth. It became an eight-day cornucopia of talks, exhibits, and performances all over the city; but the lunchtime concert, as originally planned, was held Wednesday afternoon on the birthday itself.
And a lovely concert it was. Cage remains a controversial figure, 20 years after his death, but listening to “Living Room Music,” the 1940 piece that opened the program, I wondered how many of the people who have written to me to say Cage is a fraud have actually listened to his music.
Like much music, it rises and falls with its performers, who, in “Living Room Music,” get to choose what instruments they want to play, all of them supposed to be objects normally found in a living room. Since three of the performers were crack percussionists (two of them from the ensemble Red Fish Blue Fish), the piece took on a sharp-edged rhythmic authority even in its second movement, a vocal quartet breaking down the text of Gertrude Stein’s poem “The World is Round.” This was interrupted by a mute outburst from the cellist, Alexis Descharmes, who got up as if in a huff, dragged his cello to a corner of the stage and performed the optional third movement, “Melody,” with his back to the other players, who harmonized his gorgeous singing lines with gentle tinkling plinks on coffee cups. No melody in Cage? Think again.
But it’s a trick, people complain, as if letting a performer select his instrument were somehow not a legitimate form of composing. Yet is using the I Ching to plot out your scores, or working out a specific if unconventional set of directions for a performer, any more random than, say, deciding to give equal importance to all 12 notes of the chromatic scale, as Arnold Schoenberg did?
Schoenberg, who briefly taught Cage, was represented on this program with the atonal “Sechs kleine Klavierstuecke” (“Six Small Piano Pieces”), written in 1911. Offered in intense pairs by the pianist Jenny Lin, they sounded lovely and, to my ear, dated. They were interspersed with six of Cage’s stories from “Indeterminacy,” 90 texts each intended to be read in exactly 60 seconds, presented in recordings of Cage himself, presiding over his own birthday. There’s a smile lurking in his light voice, which is almost certainly a reason people are so quick to believe he’s laughing at them, but the laughter is much deeper and more integral to the work than that.
The Cage Festival has commissioned 10 tribute works by living composers, and two appeared on this program, both offering Cage-like ideas with extremely un-Cage-like results. David Felder, the artistic director of the contemporary festival “June in Buffalo,” provided, in “Green Flash,” his own take on Cage’s prepared piano, electronically processing acoustic piano recordings into a lush, enveloping carpet of layered sounds. Christian Wolff, who gave Cage his first copy of the I Ching in the 1950s, wrote a “Second Serenade” that started with fragments of sound from flute, violin and clarinet (Lisa Cella, Lina Bahn and Bill Kalinkos) and stirred them up into an American melting-pot of styles that briefly evoked less Cage than Copland.
The program’s tour de force was Cage’s “The Perilous Night,” a prepared-piano piece from 1944, commandingly played by Lin, that through objects inserted under, between, and atop the piano strings transformed the instrument into something between a proto-synthesizer and a Javanese gamelan. Driving rhythms and a sense of the unexpected lurking at every turn made it at once dark, anxious and catchy.
The “Concert for Piano and Orchestra,” a work from the late 1950s, is a complicated set of instructions offering a wide range of performance possibilities for up to 13 instruments; Wednesday’s excerpt included flute, clarinet, violin, and the percussion quartet (but no piano). This particular performance evoked beginnings rather than endings, as Kalinkos gargled, Bahn tuned her violin, and a clock-radio, intermittently a source of white-noise sound, blinked out the passage of time in random numbers as it counted off the minutes since it had been plugged in (an unintentional event of the kind Cage might have loved). The percussion quartet then took over for a dynamic close. Some audience members spent part of the program dozing, leading me to wonder if there is a qualitative difference to sleeping through Beethoven (a frequent sight at classical concerts) and sleeping through Cage, and if, perhaps, the fact that people are comfortable enough to nod off to him was a sign that Cage has truly been accepted into the canon. But the percussionists projected such a kinetic energy that they roused the audience to genuine applause.
Festival continues Thursday with a complete performance of the Freeman Etudes by Irvine Arditti, and offers a sequence of percussion happenings and performances Friday night. For complete listings, go to www.johncage2012.com.