Friday, June 1, 2012

John Cage Centenary Percussion / Mark Alburger

All life is about arbitrariness and intention, as John Cage's life in music clearly shows. In this year, marking the hundredth anniversary of the composer's birth, Cage celebrations have been arbitrarily popping up around the country and the world, and one at San Francisco's Community Music Center, on April 29, made clear the joys of taking in events -- sonic and otherwise -- as they unfold.

The joint concert, presented by Daniel Kennedy's Sacramento [State University] Percussion Group and Chris Froh's Percussion Group [U.C.] Davis, offered an overview of Cage's percussive output from 1933 through 77, in a series of committed performances that brought humor, profundity, and virtuosity to the fore.

The oldest work, Sonata for Two Voices, refers to a "two-lined" texture, and was here renditioned by the Noyce Duo of Boyce Jeffries and Nick Micheels on marimba and vibraphone. Its three classically-styled movements of Sonata, Fugato, and Rondo leave a double-edge take-home message of clarity and obscurity.

Living Room Music (1940)
is a personal favorite, the second movement of which has been performed by this writer many times over the years. The score calls for a quartet of unspecified household instruments, in this performance updated to include a plastic 100-CD stack container, as well as a more "period-accurate" old TV set. Sacramento performers Phylicia Morris, Dannie Styles, Isaiah Abdul-Rahman, and the director set up a schtick of ordering pizza on a cellphone and then launched into "To Begin" in an arresting array of exciting rhythms. "Story", a spoken collage in the spirit of Ernst Toch's Geographical Fugue (1930), manifests a very classicist sentiment, despite its hilarious content, in its wealth of variety in contradistinction to its economy of means (everything based on Gertrude Stein's line "Once upon a time the world was round and you could go on it around and around"). The third movement, calling for one of the players on a single-line melody instrument, was here realized on grand piano, with the other performers banging away on the lid. The fourth section was a ternary reflection of the first.

Credo in US (1942), as well as Living Room, are both big enough deals to merit their own articles on Wikipedia. And rightly so. Credo is another romp, with amazing syncopations and sonics derived from tin cans, muted gongs, buzzers, tom-toms, a minimally prepared piano (just hands dampening the strings), radio, and record player -- all wildly delivered here by Kevin's Barr and Sakamoto, Victor Nava, and Lien Do of UC Davis. While records are cued to the other musics in terms of attack-and-release, the content is not specified beyond Cageian suggestions of "Dvorak, Beethoven, Sibelius, or Shostakovich." The only found music that could be made out in this performance was a very funny opening usage of the Prelude to Tristan und Isolde. Wagner was and is spinning...

Amores and She Is Asleep (performed by Andy Davidson, Ian Marci, and others) are both from 1943, and continue to demonstrate that Cage, at least in his early years, knew how to write music and certainly knew what he was doing. The works of the 1950's and beyond have left detractors to believe, not so much so.

But there is much to love. Radio Music (1956), is, along with the more famous Imaginary Landscape No. 4, indeed for radios, but in this case 8 soloists, rather than the 24 duettists sharing 12 machines. For the Community Music Center, the combined group of Sacramento-Davis performers (Serrena Carlucci, Breanna Hale, Ian Marci, Scott McAuliffe, Kaity Roblyer, Danny Zagunis, Morris, and Styles) took on another Cage idea of "sound-sculpture" and walked solemnly around the audience with their boomboxes. The result was one of profound sadness, with most of the stations tuned to various statics (frequencies and durations all pre-determined by the composer), and various random sonic ejecta of popular music floating on the surface.

Possibly least convincing is Child of Tree (1975), for ten plant materials, determined by chance operations, with the exception that one of the instruments should be a pod (rattle) from a Mexican poinciana. Jonathan Raman gave it his all in execution, however, demonstrating that, once again, variety can come from an economy of means. Great tingling sounds from the cactus, for instance.

But Telephones and Birds (1977) is another found masterpiece. Three performers (Hale, Zagunis, and McAuliffe) sit at an electronics-strewn table (a typical Cage conceit) and roll I-Ching sticks, which determine what telephone numbers to call to hear amplified "bird-lover alerts" throughout America (and perhaps the world). Didn't even know there were "rare-bird hotlines", but we heard them in interesting and alarming overlaps.

It was an evening of revelation -- as is so often the case with Cage -- in sound and psychology.