In a city that tends to skew conservative in its classical music offerings, it’s heartening to see the enthusiasm of the audiences turning up for events in this week’s festival celebrating the late John Cage’s 100th birthday.
Thursday night’s concert at the Phillips Collection was, to be sure, a marquee event: a performance by contemporary-music specialist Irvine Arditti of Cage’s complete “Freeman Etudes,” a formidable set of 32 solo violin pieces bristling with four-note chords, quick tonal leaps, and countless variations of pitch and dynamics that Paul Zukofsky, for and with whom the cycle was originally started in 1977, deemed virtually unplayable.
Certainly the cycle — named in honor of the late new-music patron Betty Freeman — is something of an endurance test: a good hour and a half of isolated sound events, with seesawing dynamic changes, squeaks and bops and thick bowstrokes and whiskery harmonics succeeding each other until they merge into a continuum that wraps up different moments into a kind of sameness, like snowflakes, or waves breaking again and again on the shore.
Time was when this kind of thing turned audiences off. But by now, the people who choose to attend are fairly conversant with the language Cage is speaking. They understand about listening to the notes, and the spaces between the notes, and the other sounds in the hall; they understand that part of the point is to drift in and out of different states of awareness, now following the thread of a particularly busy etude, now feeling the hum of ambient noise defining the open space behind and around you. They understand the fiendish complexity of the score, and they understand that Arditti is something of a priest of this kind of music — he knew Cage; he got Cage to return to the cycle and complete it — and are happy to give him the reverence due a phenomenal classical artist.
There’s a cult of personality going on, in fact — a double cult: Cage and Arditti — and Arditti’s approach only bolstered the idea. One challenge for the performer, beyond simply playing all the notes — and Cage himself recognized some of the pieces were impossible to play as written — is to find a way to link the individual episodes into something that adds up to a piece, or doesn’t. Arditti responded to this by plunging in breathlessly, like a swimmer going off a diving board, and remaining in a kind of heightened romantic soloist’s state. He played the works straight through with hardly a break, except for one brief moment when he had to leave the stage to replace a broken E string; there are not many virtuoso etudes that allow the performer to play to the end after losing one string, but Arditti was able to draw sounds from three strings that answered the purpose.
You could say it was seamless, rapid and as legato as such music will allow. You could also say it was a little sloppy. Arditti played the sounds, but he didn’t always seem to inhabit them. His manner was high church, but the result, busy and self-involved, wasn’t always inspired.
Did he intend it to be? Did he care? And does the quality of the performance matter? If you’ve determined that you’re experiencing a performance piece that requires of you an hour and a half of silent attention to a particular set of sounds, is questioning the quality of the sounds you hear even relevant, since those sounds, and none other, are what constitute the experience?
All I can say is that I like Cage, I have appreciated these pieces on record, and going in, I was looking forward to the experience of hearing all of them, live, at one sitting. But although the audience leapt to its feet at the end — a standing ovation for John Cage! — I found myself oddly disappointed.