The traveling John Cage Show lies somewhere between the 19th and the 21st century -- in character, that is. And somewhere between hilarity and madness, though the gap may not be so distant there.
In its loose, unpolished, antic and sometimes disorderly way, the Cage Show sometimes seems straight out of vaudeville. Cage alternates his favorite modes of art -- both of which he calls "nonsense" -- with the assurance of a figure who is both one of the most formidable in art today and one of our master showmen.
He has that vaudevillian's feel for the crowd, knowing just how much an audience can take of some of his close-to-catatonic aural outrages before he has to come out and mollify the listeners with his cherishable little "stories," written with the irony of a Woody Allen and delivered with the finesse of a Jack Benny.
This was how Cage kept the large crowd at the Pension Building in the palm of his hand Saturday night during the festive "Tribute to John Cage," honoring him on his 70th birthday. Part of the "9th Street 1982" festival, this particular evening of esthetic disruption was modest on the Cage scale -- nothing like the 12-hour event this writer luxuriated in a little more than a year ago in Hartford. Reminded Saturday night of that evening-and-into-the-morning performance, Cage observed dryly, "No one has asked for that one again," as if censorship of a masterpiece were the overriding issue.
Still, Saturday night's shorter time span allowed for a good ride through many of the musical manifestations of Cage's central thesis: That everything is admissible to in the musical universe, for the sufficiently liberated listener, at least.
At times, as in pianist David Tudor's nerve-racking and aurally desensitizing performance of "Variations II (1961)" on his electronically doctored Yamaha grand, the music is hard to take. That, of course, is just the idea. But some of those jolting blasts of static and clashing steel seem better suited to the deck of an aircraft carrier than to even so cavernous a hall as the Pension Building. Something that actually hurts the ears gets so close to the brink of sound that it just may not be musical by any definition. Such experiences may be inevitable in a thunderstorm, but who ever paid to hear a thunderstorm. One noticed Cage didn't stand particularly close to the speakers himself.
But that was not to say that Cage's experiments with doctored piano are all abrasive. "Etudes Borreales (1978)," which was having its American premiere, was as much an exercise in delicate sonorities as the Tudor performance had been in the opposite -- so much so that Cage had feared it would not be heard in so huge a space. Beautifully handled by percussionist Michael Pugliese, it was an exercise in exquisitely juxtaposed bumps and thumps and twangs administered directly to the piano strings. Occasionally the keyboard came in for a chord or two, but not often.
One part of the program was a disappointment, but Cage wasn't involved. It was a rather intriguing twist on the idea of the music of chance, Earl Brown's "Calder Piece: Chef d'Orchestre." Calder was persuaded to design a modest, red-colored mobile as the "conductor" of this work for four percussionists placed in four corners around it. The sculpture's twists and permutations determined how the players would organize their parts. Sometimes the sonorities were fascinating, but the piece was too long. And when the four players left their spots to run in circles and turn the object as they "played" it with their mallets, etc., they looked just a little too much like kids playing cowboys and Indians.
Finally, the redoubtable New York Bowry Ensemble did two more familiar and major Cage works, the oratorio (for lack of a better word) "Apartment House" and, to end the evening on the right note, the zany Concerto for Piano and Orchestra with Aria -- undoubtedly one of the most hysterically funny pieces of music in existence. Soprano Isabelle Ganz's madcap mugging as the soloist made the whole five-hour wait worth it. The sound gags and sight gags may have been madness, but they were wonderful.