The composer Ernst Krenek diagnosed the problem of modernism in the 1950s. As translated into English a decade later, he wrote: “Performances of new music take place in an atmosphere dominated by specialists . . . [who] do not go to an art-work for a total emotional experience; they are interested in the demonstration of new materials, new principles of composition, procedures, methods. . . . This creates a danger of a radicalization that will accelerate continuously.”
Nowhere does Krenek seem to have hit the nail on the head more squarely than with the music of John Cage, which is being celebrated this week in a centennial festival at small museum venues throughout the city. As demonstrated by a brief survey of Cage’s work for piano, played masterfully and elegantly by Stephen Drury on Saturday afternoon at the Kreeger Museum, Cage’s compositions became more radical, enthralled to more-stringent theory, and less tolerable to the ear over the course of his career.
The evanescent, Satie-like “In a Landscape” (1948) dovetailed nicely with the equally direction-less “Modern Love Waltz,” composed by Philip Glass in 1977 and revised in tribute to Cage this year. The spare notes amid zen-inspired silences of “Prelude for Meditation” (1944) and “Music for Piano 1” (1952) rang with unexpected sounds due to changes made to the instrument, in the “prepared piano” technique that Cage helped pioneer. Later pieces did not go down as easily, like the amplified string-scratching of David Tudor’s realization of the noise experiment “Variations II” (1961) and the truly unpleasant “Etudes Australes” (1974-75, third book only), in which each individual note or chord, created by a complex series of chance operations, is unrelated to everything around it.
“4’33” ” is often held up as Cage’s most outrageous work, but this is a position one can maintain only if one has not heard anything that he composed from the 1960s on. The piece is really just a whimsical, silent bagatelle, and even the infamous duration of its title is part of the joke: Cage specified in later instructions, now on exhibit at American University’s Katzen Arts Center, that the piece “can last any length of time.” Drury performed it without a whiff of humor or outrage, sitting silently at the keyboard and obediently timing the three “movements,” while the audience provided some rustling of programs and an office phone rang in the distance.
The reviewer is a freelance writer.