“Can we just stop talking about John Cage?” pleaded Classical Revolution PDX founder Mattie Kaiser. The violist was part of a mostly (with one exception) distinguished panel of performers, writers and composers discussing new music at March Music Moderne’s kickoff event. Kaiser, like me, wanted to talk about new music, and Cage’s most famous/notorious creation, the silent 4’33” was, she pointed out, sixty years old. Kaiser has a point, to which we’ll return anon.
But it’s been hard to avoid talking about Cage (1912-1992) and his colleague/protege Morton Feldman in Portland for the past few weeks. FearNoMusic’s spectacular Cage-fest at Southeast Portland’s immense YU art space brought 600 Cage-curious fans to see a dozen well chosen pieces from throughout the composer’s varied career. The following week, New York pianist Adam Tendler gave a glorious traversal of Cage’s 1949 masterpiece, the Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano. A few days later, the Portland State University Percussion Ensemble performed Cage’s landmark 1941 Third Construction. The same week, Third Angle string quartet performed Feldman’s epic String Quartet #2 — all four hours of it. And Saturday, the group joins the city’s superb Resonance Ensemble for a performance of Feldman’s 20th century landmark, Rothko Chapel, plus recorded conversations between the two composers and more.
The flurry of celebrations was ocCage-oned by the composer’s centenary. Born in Los Angeles in 1912, he was one of the original West Coast musical mavericks (which also included his teacher Henry Cowell and his lifelong friend and early musical partner Lou Harrison) as well as one of the so-called New York School composers. His development (with Portland-born Harrison) of the percussion ensemble in San Francisco, the prepared piano in Seattle, his long artistic and romantic collaboration with his life partner, choreographer Merce Cunningham, and his philosophical and conceptual innovations (as propounded in the enormously influential books such as Silence), including his instruction pieces and advocacy of aleatoric (chance) methods of composing all exerted tremendous influence on 20th century art and subsequent generations of composers.
In his recent autobiography, the most-performed living American orchestral composer, John Adams, noted that he, like every young composer he knew, was profoundly affected by Cage’s work. Although he wasn’t alone, it was Cage and his friends and collaborators in the art and dance worlds who gave artists from Fluxus to Radiohead the creative permission and freedom to expand the parameters of art. Very few artists of any century exerted so powerful a liberating influence. They may not even know it, but artists who perpetrate the kind of “happenings” we still see fairly often owe a big debt to Cage and his comrades, although the roots extend back to the Dadaists at least.
A single Cage work, performed at both FNM’s Cage-fest and MMM’s opening bash, touched off a cascade of lasting artistic consequences and — quite ironically, considering that it was entirely silent — noisy musical and verbal responses that reverberate today, including pianist Maria Choban’s grumpy but good-natured protest of the MMM performance. Here’s what composer/journalist/professor Kyle Gann wrote about the silent piece in his recent book about it, No Such Thing As Silence:
“One of the most common effects of 4’33″ – possibly the most important and widespread effect — was to seduce people into considering as art phenomena that were normally not associated with art…. Its effect was to drive home the point that the difference between “art” and “non-art” is merely one of perception, and that we can control how we organize our perceptions.
“Indirectly, 4’33” led to the developments from which grew the simpler and more accessible new style of minimalism…. Fittingly, 4’33″ cleared the deck for a new American music, freer from European influence than the nationalist streams of music in the 1920s and 1930s. From 4’33″ younger composers imbibed a freer attitude toward sound, adding their own processes into Cage’S emptiness…and leapfrogging over his logical constructs to create the conceptualist and sound art movements of the 1960s and 1970s and the post minimalist and totalist movements of the 1980s and 1990s.
“The rise of experimental American music in the late 20th century can be traced to the lineage of composers who took 4’33″ very seriously indeed. Nor were they the only ones. Yoko Ono and john Lennon paid homage to 4’33″, as have a number of pop musicians and rock bands. Despite all those who still call it the “emperor’s new clothes,” it has become a cultural icon, a beginning point, a permission to dart off into any new imaginative direction.”
More than any other American musician or possibly artist, John Cage expanded the limits of artistic freedom in the 20th century. That’s why we talk about him so much. But Kaiser’s correct: that century is over. Still, Cage’s influence continues to reverberate like the gongs he and Harrison bought in San Francisco in the 1930s and used in pieces like Third Construction. PSU Percussion Ensemble’s performance of that 1941 masterpiece demonstrated both the power and influence of Cage’s early music. From the opening whack on thundersheet to the unearthly sounds of Cage’s water gong, the bell like timbres of tuned brake drums, rubbed piano strings, and more, the highly organized sound converted noise into real music of real power, drawing cheers from the audience. The other, contemporary works on the program all owed a debt to Cage. “The influence of Cage on percussion can’t be underestimated,” said PSU prof and Third Angle percussionist Jeff Peyton, “and it permeates everything we’ll play here.”
Nothing to Fear
FearNoMusic’s amazing happening offered as broad a view of Cage’s achievement as the Northwest has seen in years. James McQuillen’s Oregonian review covers most of the particulars, and Barry Johnson has already expounded on the effect a single performance had on him. That work, Litany for the Whale, was one of my faves, too, along with Fourteen (with FNM pianist Jeff Payne bowing the strings with fishing line), Postcard from Heaven for a squadron of harps, and Apartment House, in which listeners could wander through different areas of the space, hearing different kinds of music, a sort of evocation of what it’s like to live in a place — or an era — teeming with so many different kinds of music. (Duke Ellington wrote an analogous piece years earlier that evoked the sounds of a Harlem apartment building in the summer when all the windows were open.) In a way, FNM transformed YU into a giant Apartment House.
The simultaneity presented some problems, though. Sound and applause occasionally leaked over from one spot to another. The constant movement of listeners sometimes interfered with the ability to hear the music or see the performance. The whole event became more of a phenomenon or tour than a performance — and Cage, who famously wrote that “anything goes,” always wanted his music treated respectfully. He wrote the silent piece precisely to force listeners to focus on the surrounding sounds, but he wanted similar attention paid to his other works.
It’s not unusual for musicians or presenters to take too many liberties with Cage’s music. After one such misguided performance, the young musicians asked Cage what he thought. As gentle and amused as he projected after his Zen studies, the composer looked disappointed. “But Mr. Cage,” one of the perplexed perpetrators said, “we thought you said ‘anything goes.’” Cage paused and replied, “Just because anything goes doesn’t mean you can do whatever you want.” (If anyone can remind me of the source for this anecdote, please speak up.) Another time, he sputtered (after a performer attempted to undress an unwilling participant onstage) “I’m tired of people who think that they could do whatever they want with my music!”
Nevertheless, FearNoMusic’s Cage extravaganza was a noble first attempt that opened a lot of eyes and ears to Cage’s music and also the possibilities available in a field that’s too often pinched by constrained notions of what’s proper, not only in the music itself, but also its presentation: the 19th century formal attire onstage, the stuffy rituals that drive away so many young listeners. These “happenings,” once fairly common a generation or two ago, provide a needed reminder of how rules and expectations can be productively amended, a kind of purgative that produced laughter and relaxed smiles all around.
I hereby propose that Cage-fest become an annual event, perhaps sponsored each year by a different performing group or sponsoring organization (or coalition) and maybe even a different venue, although YU offers a lot of flexibility, and drew a crowd that seemed to be made up of as many visual arts types as musical adventurers, appropriately reminiscent of the demimonde denizens who comprised Cage’s early audiences for performances in art galleries and of course dance performances — not exclusionary concert halls. FNM’s Paloma Griffin, Payne, Joel Bluestone, YU’s Sandra Percival and the rest deserve kudos for conceiving and executing one of the city’s most thought provoking musical performances in years.
And speaking of rituals, the closing performance of 4’33” felt like singing the national anthem at a Blazers game — maybe it’s the ideal anthem for avant garde performances, to be invoked in the way Terry Riley’s 1960s minimalist classic In C has in recent years.
Prepared for Beauty
Pianist Adam Tendler definitely understood that Cage’s ideas evolved. In a post-performance response to questions about his beguiling PSU performance of Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes, perhaps the signature keyboard work of the 20th century, he noted that Cage wrote these lovely works before committing to chance music, during the late 1940s period when he was actually attempting to communicate his emotions rather than distance the creator’s ego from the work, as so many post World War II artists tried to do in the aftermath of that global disaster they thought stemmed from controlling egomania gone wild.
(When I covered Cornish’s wonderful Cage/Harrison/Cowell concerts a few years ago, the college’s Jarrad Powell recounted a lovely incident on a Cage visit many years later. They brought him to the abandoned little theater in which “Bacchanale” had been performed, and pointed to a dusty piano there. Was this the very first prepared piano that Cage had used in that historic performance four decades earlier? The old composer peered at the instrument. “Well, it’s been a long time,” he mused, “but if it would be useful, then ‘Yes!’)
The pianist noted that Cage intended the Sonatas and Interludes to evoke the Hindu rasas (roughly, aesthetic themes such as love, laughter, anger, compassion, terror, wonder etc) that Cage was studying at the time, all tending toward tranquility. Tendler played from memory, occasionally with nearly flamboyant gestures, and with persuasive nuance, delicacy and feeling, bringing out the prepared textures by contrast with the unmodified keys, astutely using the pedal to create shimmering auras of sound at times, then producing soft clavichord style clarity in other moments. In his committed hands, the preparation is far more than a gimmick but rather an essential part of the music’s beauty. Ironically, it was those very preparations that made us listen so closely to the actual timbre and sound of the piano itself, sometimes more than the music it was playing. Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes are a compelling testament of love to the instrument.
“People who know Cage only by his wild reputation and from his post 4’33” music are generally dumbfounded when confronted with the gentle beauty of his music the late 1940s,” Gann wrote. “He later gained a dubious notoriety for being the ‘anything goes” composer, creator of shocking, bewildering, yet often boring works, in which any group of actions might occur simultaneously and notes bounce around forever at random. In contrast, however, his music of the late ’40s, most of it for piano or prepared piano, is typically delicate, meditative, and lyrical. In the ‘Lecture on Nothing,’ he would write, ‘half intellectually and half sentimentally, when the war came along, I decided to use only quiet sounds. There seemed to be no truth, no good, in anything big in society. But quiet sounds were like loneliness, or love or friendship. Permanent, I thought, values, independent at least from Life, Time and Coca-Cola.”’
Cage’s adoption of chance and other conceptual creative methods has regrettably overshadowed the beauty of his earlier works. I once accompanied Harrison to a concert at the University of Oregon that featured the fine pianist Art Maddox playing an early Cage sonata. After a scintillating performance that utterly demolished the idea that Cage’s was incapable, at least in that period, of emotional expressivity, Harrison sighed quietly. “That’s the John I loved,” he muttered to himself. Harrison — himself one of the century’s paramount musical innovators – refused to follow Cage’s journey into aleatoric compositional methods: “I rather chance a choice,” he said, “than choose a chance.”
The only sour note accompanying Tendler’s appearance was the fact that the free performance was confined to a small basement classroom, resulting in a number of would-be listeners being turned away and making Tendler’s performance difficult for others to see, although the intimacy of the space contributed to the performance’s power. The faculty member who arranged his visit said that authorities refused use of either of the two concert grands in the school’s recital and concert halls, for fear of damaging the instrument — a fear that Tendler declared utterly unfounded. I hope Portland Piano International or another organization will sponsor a return visit and give this fine musician and this magnificent music the proper Portland showcase both merit, and that Oregon music lovers deserve.
Cage’s friend Feldman was also a gentle revolutionary (musically if not personally), as last week’s performance of his spare, haunting String Quartet #2 by Third Angle’s Ron Blessinger, Gregory Ewer, Brian Quincy and Hamilton Cheifetz, revealed. In the appropriately ghostly setting of the Armory’s intimate Ellyn Bye theater, set for Portland Center Stage’s production of Shakespeare’s Amazing Cymbeline in monochromatic grey tones with blasted concrete, the black clad musicians, lit by cold fluorescent lights and the computer monitors that projected the score, made the music breathe for four hours. Much of it evokes inhalation and exhalation, with the cello providing a bass heartbeat.
”It’s like a jigsaw puzzle that every piece you put in fits,” Feldman said, ”and then when you finish it, you see that it’s not the picture. That was the idea. The jigsaw puzzle, everything finishes, and it’s not the picture. Then you do another version, and it’s not the picture. Finally you realize that you are not going to get a picture.”
The quartet’s vast scale makes every change in texture, dynamic or rhythm startling, just as the later minimalism (of a very different kind, though both use repeated gestures) of Steve Reich and Philip Glass does. Every footstep was audible as listeners came and went. The devoted musicians occasionally paused for a stretch and gulp of water. The piece could actually extend to six hours, a predecessor of long-form performance epics like Robert Wilson and Glass’s Einstein on the Beach or long theater pieces we’ve seen here at the TBA festival — the 24 hour Gatsby, the day-long Mike Daisey monologue etc. The washed out colors (and lower house lighting would have been even more dramatic) and dream-like atmosphere made it feel like a Beckett play — and in fact Feldman dedicated a piece to the Irish playwright, who actually wrote a libretto for a Feldman opera. How about it, Portland Opera or Opera Theater Oregon?
Hushed solemnity gave way to increased urgency and dissonance as the quartet built to a gentle conclusion, if not a climax. Like the Cage works, it felt like much more than a gimmick — the scale and low volume actually were the essence of the piece.
Here’s what New Yorker critic Alex Ross wrote about Feldman and this music.
“The often noted paradox is that this immense, verbose man wrote music that seldom rose above a whisper. In the noisiest century in history, Feldman chose to be glacially slow and snowily soft. Chords arrive one after another, in seemingly haphazard sequence, interspersed with silences. Harmonies hover in a no man’s land between consonance and dissonance, paradise and oblivion. Rhythms are irregular and overlapping, so that the music floats above the beat. Simple figures repeat for a long time, then disappear. There is no exposition or development of themes, no clear formal structure. Certain later works unfold over extraordinarily lengthy spans of time, straining the capabilities of performers to play them and audiences to hear them. More than a dozen pieces last between one and two hours, and “For Philip Guston” and “String Quartet (II)” go on for much longer. In its ritual stillness, this body of work abandons the syntax of Western music, and performers must set aside their training to do it justice. Legend has it that after one group of players had crept their way as quietly as possible through a score of his Feldman barked, “It’s too fuckin’ loud, and it’s too fuckin’ fast.”
A few years ago, I heard Feldman’s music performed by the Seattle Chamber Players in another ideal location: the modernist wing of the Seattle Art Museum. There among the Gustons and Rothkos — friends of the composer’s — puzzled museum patrons wandered in and out while fans (including composer John Luther Adams, who was part of the music festival that sponsored the event) reclined on the floor for minutes or hours, immersed in his elusive yet insistent sounds. I suppose the ideal place to hear Rothko Chapel (whose performance this weekend by Third Angle is, alas, sold out — please repeat it!) is in the Houston devotional room of Rothko paintings of the same name, where I once spent an unforgettable hour absorbing the painter’s famously paradoxical soothing intensity, feeling that the dark murals were somehow irradiating me with some emotion I couldn’t quite grasp.
As Ross wrote in the New York Times, “this half-hour soundscape for viola, wordless chorus, percussion and celesta is among the loftiest and loneliest utterances in 20th-century American music. Isolated chords and melodic fragments hover like shrouded forms, surrounded by thick silence; a few minutes before the end, the fog abruptly lifts and the viola sings a heartbreaking Hebraic melody in simple harmonic garb.”
Feldman’s connection to visual artistry makes the piece the ideal complement to the Portland Art Museum’s Rothko exhibit, not to mention PSC’s play about the Portland-schooled painter, Red. In The New Yorker, Ross later elaborated:
“The example of the painters was crucial. Feldman’s scores were close in spirit to Rauschenberg’s all-white and all-black canvases, Barnett Newman’s gleaming lines, and, especially, Rothko’s glowing fog banks of color. His habit of presenting the same figure many times in succession invites you to hear music as a gallery visitor sees paintings; you can study the sound from various angles, stand back or move up close, go away and come back for a second look. Feldman said that New York painting led him to attempt a music ‘more direct, more immediate, more physical than anything that had existed heretofore.’ Just as the Abstract Expressionists wanted viewers to focus on paint itself, on its texture and pigment, Feldman wanted listeners to absorb the basic facts of resonant sound.”
Hearing the pathbreaking music of these two midcentury masters makes an appropriate context for March Music Moderne, which, despite the protests of Choban and Kaiser, can’t help but channel their spirit of reinvention and reconsideration. Even last month’s “Be Gone Dull Care” concert at Northwest Portland’s Trinity Episcopal Cathedral tried to creatively transform a conventional performance space into something different, something that evoked even spiritual feelings. Like the FNM concert, it also failed occasionally. The music was uniformly beautiful but unbeautifully uniform, resulting in an occasionally tedious sameness of mood; low lighting provoked at least one trip and fall and difficulty in reading the program; the offstage opening number and presence of performers onstage when not performing proved confusing and distracting. But these are niggles and can be improved next time out. Trinity’s Michael Kleinschmidt and his producer, Stephen Marc Beaudoin, deserve credit for rethinking the concept of performance space, performers Cappella Romana, In Mulieribus, and the rest delivered convincing performances, and the closing secular hymn in which the audience joined, “How Can I Keep from Singing,” provided a genuinely moving moment.
Would this experiment and similar nontraditional performances have happened without the precedents or at least attitude set by Cage and Feldman? Maybe. But it’s hard to imagine us being as open to them without those predecessors. Sorry, Mattie: I don’t think we’ll ever stop talking about John Cage, or listening to Morton Feldman.
Speaking of music and art, Portland’s Friends of Chamber Music brings Minnesota’s Parker Quartet to town for performances Monday and Tuesday night at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall — and also in free downtown performances at the Portland Art Museum and Multnomah County Central library, and open rehearsal at PSU. FOCM’s audience outreach programs really bring listeners closer to the music.
If you can’t get into Third Angle’s sold-out Feldman show Saturday, Consonare Chorale’s collaboration with FearNoMusic pianist Payne and music by contemporary Latin American and other composers at downtown Portland’s First Congregational Church makes a promising consolation prize, as do Portland Viol Consort’s performance of English Baroque music and poetry at Grace Episcopal Church and Portland Youth Philharmonic’s performance of Mahler’s bucolic Symphony #4 at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, where, on Tuesday, the great opera star Renee Fleming joins the Oregon Symphony to range far beyond the usual operatic standards, performing music by contemporary composers, Ravel and more. In Springfield, Chamber Music Amici reprises its delightful family friendly program, The Emperor’s New Clothes, with music by Peter (PDQ) Schickele, at Wildish Theater on Saturday. Conventional presentations of classical music will always be with us, and that’s fine, but thanks to pioneering artists like Cage and Feldman, we know there’s room for more. Given Portland’s openness to such unconventional music and ways of discovering it, as evidenced by March Music Moderne, it’s no wonder that this month’s tributes to two of America’s modernist legends have found such welcoming audiences here. Keeping their music before our eyes and ears is a way of maintaining their spirit of exploration alive and kicking down the barriers of conventionality.