Last night's recital at the University of Maryland was a musical event of some significance. Pianist Grete Sultan, for whom the music was composed, gave the first American performance of John Cage's "Etudes Australes," Books 3 and 4, as a single, unified composition. The significance of the event was largely that the music should not be performed in this way. The audience after intermission was about one-third of the rather small group assembled for the beginning.
It's not that the music was unpleasant, but that it communicated no readily identifiable meaning, structure or feeling. Occasionally, there were some ravishing sounds--particularly when a long-held tone blended into those that followed, or overtones were excited in a held-down key by notes from other parts of the keyboard. And there were some enchanting little phrases that seemed to--and, in fact, did--pop out at random from the overall texture.
But when one spends more than two hours listening to a single opus, one hopes to detect some connections among its parts, some sense of its functioning as a unified whole. Cage works hard to eliminate such trivia, and in this music he worked with great success.
If there could be a definitive performance (there can't), presumably it would be Sultan's, even if she does not play all the notes in the printed score--a feat that seems impossible to humans with normal hands.