Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond
February 18, 2012
John Cage performs Walter Walk in 1960 on TelevisionThe centennial anniversary of John Cage’s birth is upon us. Live music loves an anniversary, and considering Cage was a native Los Angeleno who spent critical formative years studying with the likes of Schoenberg at both UCLA and USC, revisiting his work here with local forces seems appropriate. In this vein, the faculty and students of CalArts assembled a two day John Cage festival this past week at the REDCAT downtown. Headed by music faculty members Mark Menzies and Ulrich Krieger the expansive 6 plus hours of programming covered an amazing amount of territory. But like any consideration of Cage’s work, it also barely scratched the surface: Cage’s interest in chance and process leaves his music open to so many interpretations that any selection can seem like a very small window looking out onto a huge sea.
The performances of the CalArts faculty and students that make up the New Century Players and the CalArts Orchestra touched on the most important aspects and themes of the composer’s sound world. The first evening clocking in at four hours focused heavily on Cage’s interest in microtonal sounds and Eastern music traditions. The evening was bookended by two versions of Ryoanji from the early eighties with Rachel Rudich playing the shakuhachi, a Japanese end-blown flute. In between were larger ensemble works including Hymnkus (1986), Etcetera (1973), Renga (1975), and Fourteen (1990). Some of the works were marked by a halting pace of repeated bursts of sound like some microtonal dirge. Others hinted at the process games that underlie their performance but aren’t always immediately apparent to the audience.
Etcetera was a particular highlight in this regard with it constantly reformatting ensembles. The 26 players, arranged themselves in three groupings, appeared along the back of the stage area with three performers including Menzies, seated at the front, each facing a different number of empty chairs. These empty settings included a duo, trio and quartet. Periodically, players from the groupings would leave their seats to take one of the stations up front. When a particular grouping was filled, the “conductor” of that ensemble would stand and lead the players in a brief interlude played simultaneously with the sound emanating from the back of the stage. Horns, violins, car parts, or tuba mutes would find themselves unexpectedly alongside one another. Periodically, players would abandon their assigned instruments to percussively tap on a variety of empty boxes. It was a sort of contemporary chamber music speed dating whose results were surprising and fluid capturing a real sense of playfulness.
This sort of playful theatricality came to an even fuller realization on the second night of the series when the players returned for two and a half hours devoted entirely to Cage’s 1958 Fontana Mix. Fontana Mix isn’t so much of a prescribed piece of music as a template by which a wide variety of other music can be composed using its charts and overlays. All the works in the program were composed using the template whether or not they were Cage’s. The show started with a four-channel recording of Cage’s original audio collage with the work from 1958. With all of its caught radio signals, whirs and beeps it sounded like an invitation to nearly all of the electronic music of the later 20th century. There was also a prerecorded version of a similar piece from Max Neuhaus from 1965 that replaced some of these original sound artifacts with falls of audio feedback. Vocalist Carmina Escobar performed Cage’s ARIA which was further processed through another Cage composition/tool WBAI with the kind of shouts, trills, and other non-word sounds that would litter the works of so many other composers over the next several decades.
Perhaps the most fascinating moments for me, though, were the ones where the sound elements almost completely broke down to give way to a performance piece. Cage was intimately involved in making music for dance in a unique way and in works like 1959’s Water Walk. The Fontana Mix process is fed physical actions as much as sound. On Thursday, Kristen Erickson, arrived in a theatrical, red outfit and activated reel-to-reel machines, submerged gongs, mixed cocktails, activated the pressure cooker, and plucked at a prepared piano like a mid-20th Century avant-garde Betty Crocker. (You can see Cage perform this piece from 1960 on TV's I've Got a Secret above.) 1960’s Theater Piece, also receiving the WBAI treatment, was dramatic in a similar fashion true to its name. There were string players doing yoga, and a bassist bowing the pages of a paperback, all held together by Menzies whose arrangement of papers on an office desk provided a particular rhythmic structure.
The young musicians who make up the CalArts Orchestra availed themselves with an enthusiasm that nicely mirrored the adventurousness of Cage’s work. The music is still shockingly different, but there is a sense of wonderment and playfulness that should never be lost despite some of the elaborate music theory and procedural mechanics behind it. There is something rather American and rather Californian about this kind of exploration and the unexpected mingling of forces, and hearing this particular tribute at this particular place and this particular time made for some wonderful listening.