Makrokosmos IV review: screwy, spiritual music for a summer evening

Portland summer modern music marathon’s ‘Dadapalooza’ mixes Cage, Zappa, Crumb, piano, percussion, even cactus into a meditative musical experience

by MATTHEW ANDREWS

Photography by Masataka Suemitsu

Summer evening, Northwest Portland’s Vestas building, next to the Lego wind turbine. A box truck’s worth of vibraphone and xylophone and timpani and chimes and cymbals and crotales and tam-tams and on and on; two grand pianos, interlaced, lidless, ready for anything; a table full of cacti and branches and wires and shit.

Across the lobby, on the other side of the elevators, past the wine and cheese, over by the windows onto a bright sunny NW Everett, sat the other piano. The prepared piano. Tastefully roped off like a museum piece, prepared with screws and tacks and whatnot inserted between the strings to vary the sound, according to the instructions developed by famed American musical theorist / composer John Cage.

DUO Stephanie & Saar performed and directed Makrokosmos IV.

On the back wall, behind the tam-tams, a projection of various visual schemata. Slabs of Sanskrit and Chinese writing. The Makrokosmos Project logo, George Crumb’s iconic “Spiral Galaxy” score (suitable for framing!) The score and preparation instructions for Cage’s 20th century milestone Sonatas & Interludes, which would ultimately close the concert.

Musicians and enthusiasts gather. Chris Whyte and Paul Owen from Portland Percussion Group, sleeves already rolled up like proper percussionists. Oregon Symphony violinist and 45th Parallel Executive Director Ron Blessinger makes his customary cameo. No fewer than six of Oregon’s most adventurous pianists tumble in, ready to play some John Cage: Alexander Schwarzkopf, Deborah Cleaver, Susan Smith, Jeff Payne, Julia Lee, Lydia Chung. I spot audio electronics whiz (and fellow Bonnie Miksch acolyte) Branic Howard running sound and such. Then Miksch herself, then local classical music celebrity Robert McBride, the former classical radio host and Club Mod president, both apparently enjoying their summery freedom to do nothing but compose music and go to concerts. Before too long the whole gamut of Cascadians and Arts Journalists and New Music Weirdos I always see at these concerts has arrived.

It’s Makrokosmos IV: Dadapalooza—five-odd (if not exactly dadaist, as far as I could tell) hours of piano and percussion music by modern and contemporary composers, perpetrated for the fourth year by the New York based piano Duo Saar & Stephanie. Last time, this happened. Here we go.

Tasty Fruit

Music exists in a Platonic atemporal realm where time and causality gets hinky and musical lineages flow in all directions—but from our limited historical perspective, older branches grow newer branches, which then ripen as Good Contemporary Music (nevermind that much contemporary music, in any era, is, like apples, mostly spitters). Makrokosmos IV’s program was all good fruit: the oldest composition on the program was Cage’s Sonatas, composed in 1947-48, a spry 70 this year. George Crumb’s Music for a Summer Evening (Makrokosmos III), a mature and bizarre middle-aged composition born in the mid-1970s. Frank Zappa’s Ruth is Sleeping dates from his Synclavier days, an impossible ‘80s joke resurrected as an outrageously difficulty piano duo for his 1992 orchestral suite The Yellow Shark.

Everything else was totally contemporary, as in these composers are all (by the Muse’s grace) still living among us (Crumb too, in fact). Complementing the concert’s large scale works were an array of shorter piano compositions by Gregory Hutter, Wang Jie, Texu Kim (alas, the only Oregon composer on the five-hour program) and Karen Tanaka, and a trio for piano, violin, and electronics by Missy Mazzoli.

Another Cage composition, 1976’s Branches, opened the show. As always, audients were free to come and go as they pleased throughout the four hourish-long sets, and plenty did. As always, your humble concert correspondent stayed to chow down on the whole enchilada.

Deborah Cleaver performed at ‘Dadapalooza.’

Taken as a whole, this varied constellation of modern musicks somehow formed a cohesive, structured, meditative experience. Cage and Crumb’s music, deliberately hypnotic. Kim’s 300+ Microvariations on a Bach Theme melted time, manipulating and dissecting a single measure of J.S. Bach’s eternal Prelude in C Major, dissolving that signature motif into dribbly drips and slippery slices of atomized arpeggio (it helps that this is the third time I’ve heard this piece performed, and Deborah Cleaver’s interpretation here was revelatory).

Hutter’s hand-crossing Fantasia on J.S. Bach’s ‘Aus Tiefer Not’ dipped into the half-millennial well of Lutheran chant, transmogrifying György Kurtag’s arrangement of Bach’s transformation of Martin Luther’s paraphrase-translationhymnization of an ancient Hebrew poem of penitence. Mazzoli’s characteristically omni-directional pan-tonality keeps her blissful and haunting A Thousand Tongues from really going anywhere, a little like that Crumb spiral and a lot like the recursive harmonic sensibility of David Lang.

Wang Jie’s whimsical comments on her mysterious, sentimental, occasionally Gershwinesque Memories of that First Summer include lines like “time is never linear in dreamland” and “distant times visit us in form of dreams.” Tanaka’s Techno Etudes, based loosely on EDM and evoking the whirling stasis of raving ecstasy, completed the timelessness theme.

Something Out of Nothing

The last time I heard Branches performed live, Michael Stirling was singing a different Cage composition over top of it: a few seasons ago, CMG’s Extradition Series mashed up Branches with Song No. 85, itself a mashup of an exploded Satie and a dissected Thoreau. The version of Branches Chris Whyte and Paul Owen performed at Makrokosmos was shorter and sparser than the extra slow version Hannafin, Chasse, and Howard layered under Stirling’s vocals; certainly it was funnier. That twangy amplified cactus stole the show, a spiny diva, bowed and squeaky and uncanny. Dudes in suits at the end of a long meeting were trapped behind glass walls in the meeting room adjacent, popping their heads up like marmots, wtf grimaces on their faces, clueless, helpless, hilarious. Was Owen was aware of them as he closed the piece by slowly, deliberately eating an apple, one labored bite after another, his gratuitous chewing a too long joke?

Chris Whyte and Paul Owen Cagily plucked a cactus at Makrokosmos.

Zappa called Cage “the master of taking nothing and making something out of it.” Stephanie Ho called The Yellow Shark “Zappa’s iconic swansong” and explained how she and Ahuvia had been ”hired to be keyboard slaves, playing piano and celeste” for a recent Orchestra 2001 performance of the beloved iconoclast’s final orchestral work. Ho and Ahuvia gave a brief demonstration of the chains of 4ths and 7ths intervals upon which Zappa constructed his “incredibly complex and intricate work,” Ahuvia joking about Zappa’s “jagged avant-garde sound and jagged personality” and wryly referring to the dissonant stack of major 7ths as “very soothing, right?”

It’s easy for a seasoned Zappa listener to hear layers of irony in a piece like “Ruth is Sleeping.” For one, the music is well-crafted and squarely in that familiar mid-century, post-Darmstadt Babbitt-Boulez tradition, but it’s also a well-crafted pastiche of that idiom—something Zappa excelled in, whether he was lampooning Motown, Disco, Hair Rock, and so on.

Then there’s the little issue of who Ruth is and where she is sleeping: it’s Ruth Underwood, sleeping under the marimba. Close your eyes and summon the image of Zappa’s great percussionist, napping off tour exhaustion and hiding from the boys under the biggest instrument in the ensemble, while this creepy avant-garde music plays like a haunted lullaby in a horror movie—well, that’s about the best synecdoche for the Zappa Phenomenon I can think of.

Blessinger and Ahuvia played Mazzoli at Makrokosmos.

When Ahuvia and Ho heard Jennifer Choi and Kathleen Supové give the 2017 NY premiere of this trio version of Mazzoli’s A Thousand Tongues (originally composed in 2009 for solo performance by cellist/vocalist Jody Redhage), “the first thing Stephanie said was ‘woman power!’” Ahuvia recalled. “So here are two guys to play it for you!” After taking a moment to get earpieces in place for Branic Howard’s electronics, violinist Blessinger added, “in keeping with the woman power theme, I want to dedicate this piece to my wife Ann.”

Mazzoli’s music has been on my radar for awhile, having been featured on a concert by Sound of Late last year. She’s been busy, sure, but so far the results are mostly premieres (including a bass concerto and yet another opera), youtube videos (oh, those youtube videos though), and lovely but brief performances like Blessinger and Ahuvia’s. Oh well, at least we do still have youtube (more or less), and maybe I can hope for Sound of Late, 45th Parallel, Fear No Music, Third Angle, or one of Portland’s other various new music organizations to program more of her music.

From Chaos to Peace

After the break, after Stephanie & Saar’s hopeful take on Hutter’s Bach Fantasia, Owen and Whyte came back out to join the pianists for Crumb’s Music for a Summer Evening, eagerly demonstrating Japanese temple bells, an African log drum, tom-toms (“of Chinese origin”), bamboo wood chimes, crotales from Turkey. Ho reminded us that “Crumb was inspired by, if I may use the word, the Orient” (demonstrating with a brief bit plucking in the piano, a zheng-like pentatonic lick), and connected Crumb’s work with Cage’s: “chaos and distortion leads to peace and solitude.” Ahuvia showed off his mbira: “I had to tune it—more like out-of-tune it, per Crumb’s directions.” Everyone took a deep breath and braced themselves.

Crumb’s ‘Music for a Summer Evening’ at Dadapalooza.

Music for a Summer Evening starts with that familiar avant-garde cat-on-the-piano sound (apparently Ruth is still sleeping), pedal down for a nice washy acoustic effect. The pianos were quickly joined by tam-tam, bowed vibes, and those signature bowl-bells.

Bartók’s ghost watched over the whole thing. Tone clusters, night music,

George Crumb. Photo: Becky Starobin.

xylophone bursts straight out of Music for Strings, Percussion & Celesta and the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, which inspired Crumb in the first place. I’d been waiting all day to hear the crotales played on the timpani, having seen them resting there when I came in. The result was a ghostly warbling, the distant wailing of some phantom banshee. I’d listen to a whole composition of just that (maybe I should write one).

Then Owen and Whyte got out the slide whistles, playing them into the piano strings, glissing through eldritch harmonies like a couple of toy theremins singing a post-apocalyptic requiem, like Aeolian harps on hills that have eyes. Messiaenic medievalism and flashes of Baroque anguish followed, sequences of chords strummed zither-like, chimes playing a tritone-inflected melody that sounds like a plainchant, which the quartet then proceeded to sing. Taiko-like chants of “Ha! Hai! Uhnnnnnn! Kakoka!” accompanied rippling toms, blown beer bottle glissandi, bowed tam-tam, bowed vibes, bowed everything. More Bach, lifted from the D# minor fugue in the second book of The Well-Tempered Clavier, a bit of normalcy popping back up periodically, obscured by paper on the piano strings. Musical ideas dissolved into each other, a lovely Lydian melody on vibes transformed into a whole-tone infinite descent, black-key pentatonics on xylophone and piano cascaded into Cowelly clusters. Right near the end it was like Chinese opera or a Harrison finale—then back to the haunted house, sparse tinkly piano, bowed crotales, the sound of someone whistling, shimmery high spinning vibes. In the silence, a cup clattered obligingly to the floor.

Interlude & Ordeal

Part three is where some listeners drifted away, along with my attention, diffusing like vapor in the late afternoon. Nothing wrong with the music or performances; Schwarzkopf, Cleaver, and Smith did a wonderful job with the three delightful compositions by Jie, Kim, and Tanaka. Maybe the Jie and Tanaka pieces were too whimsical and breezy for the third hour of a music marathon, though Kim’s weird alchemical meditation was just right in this regard. It wasn’t the clattering dishes in the ersatz kitchen as Ho’s family cleaned up the cheese plates and wine bottles. And honestly, it wasn’t really the length of the concert either. I can’t put my finger on it. It’s rare for me to get bored, so I don’t always understand it. Maybe it wasn’t boredom at all, but the growing sense of time-displacement that would come to full bloom in the almost sadistically final quarter, with Cage’s Sonatas & Interludes.

John Cage

The crowd unthinned (back up to closer to the hundred-odd audients we started with), folks flowing back in and gathering round the prepared piano for the Cage-dominated fourth and final segment. An ebullient Ahuvia, evidently relieved at being done with his pianistic duties, introduced the work before letting Payne, Lee, Chung, and Schwarzkopf take over the prepared piano over by the potted plants and the windows opening onto a darkening NW Everett. “I’m not going to talk about the music too much,” Ahuvia promised, “because I really feel this music speaks for itself: prepare to be taken to a different place.”

If you weren’t there in that different place with us, or if such silence it doesn’t speak loudly enough for your tastes, you can read all about the music’s technical and mathematical features; Cage was into that sort of thing before he threw up his hands and started throwing coins instead. A quick consultation with Internet (All Hail Internet) will yield dozens of articles on its musicological and historical importance (here’s one). And of course there are many good recordings (I love Vicky Chow’s rendition, which Andy Akiho turned me onto) and youtube concerts and so on.

What excites me is that the Sonatas & Interludes are percussion-ensemble music written for an advanced pianist to play alone. When we think of Cage merely as a theorist or a maverick percussion ensemble innovator or as the guy who “wrote” the notorious 4’33’’, we miss the point that he was a highly original composer was who was supported and championed all through those experimental years by some of the finest pianists and composers of his day: David Tudor was one of those oddball virtuosi who could do anything and so chose to do crazy shit instead. The Sonatas’ dedicatee, Maro Ajemian, was no slouch either, and the support of Messiaen and Boulez can’t have hurt.

Consider the difference between the yard sale block parties of First Construction and Third Construction with the spry, ghostly goofiness of “Sonata V” or the complex, lonely intimacy of “Sonata X.” It’s not exactly piano music, it’s not exactly percussion music, it’s not exactly one-man-band music: it’s some sort of hybrid (the only kind of musick there is, according to Cowell). A new world, emerging from the intersections of the old ones.

Four Portland pianists played John Cage’s ‘Sonatas & Interludes’ at Dadapalooza.

“What would have been amazing is if we all had couches,” Ahuvia continued. Yes, Saar, that would have been amazing as well as musicologically authentic. When you are administering the musical equivalent of mushroom tea and pot brownies (no brownies again this year, just whine), it’s good to give the roomful of trippers a place to crash when the trip gets too otherworldly and intense.

Chairs were no real impediment though, and more listeners began arriving (or returning) to occupy them. By the third or fourth sonata I had mostly forgotten my surroundings, having become fully absorbed in Cage’s deceptive music. “That old Irish rogue,” I think inappropriately to myself as a fit of giggles threatens to escape me and ruin everyone’s evening. “He wants us to think he’s simple!”

One of the lessons Cage learned from Arnold Schoenberg: repetition is so central to music that even variation is repetition. (In fact, repetition is so central to everything that even variation is repetition.) Consider Satie’s vexing, prankish furniture music, ancestor to Cage and Zappa alike. Cage the rascal, the absurdist salesman, the American at Darmstadt, internalizing all that mathematically determined music and finding a way to simplify it all, to streamline it and sell it, to embrace chaos, to make nature do your work for you. And then, underneath all that, under the manifestos about Silence and The Future—to have the audacity to actually mean it! To then intentionally compose an hour or so of shockingly lyrical, delightful, beautiful music for a piano with screws in it. It’s like something out of O’Brien.

Cage, seated, with Lou Harrison and their percussion ensemble in San Francisco ca. 1939, shortly before he invented the prepared piano.

Listening to this repetitive and non-directional music all in one go is a bit of an ordeal, not unlike listening to the entirety of Bach’s Cello Suites. That is, it was a religious experience, precisely as Cage intended: he composed it while studying the work of Ananda Coomaraswamy, and intentionally constructed the music to create specific spiritual states. You ever read those old Buddhist scriptures, or do intensive spiritual exercises, counting rosaries or breaths, visualizing deities or red triangles, that sort of thing? It’s like that. There’s beauty in it, sure, and rapture and even delight. There’s also physical discomfort, boredom, anxiety, frustration, and all the other things that happen to us when we challenge our monkey minds to sit still and pay attention. You know the saying: “if something is boring after two minutes, try it for four.”

The ordeal ended. Our asses hurt, our stomachs grumbled, our ears and brains had that loose, shaking, rubbery quality your muscles get after a nice long leisurely swim in the lake. And it was totally worth the journey: that ecstatic, exhausted, middle-of-the-night feeling, so like the end of a good fast or a long float, worked even better for Cage than it did for Reich last year. Out on Everett Street a car honked, a dude shouted, the spell broke. The silence was over.

Matthew Neil Andrews is a composer, singer, percussionist, and editor of Subito at Portland State University, and serves on the board of Cascadia Composers. He and his music can be reached at monogeite.bandcamp.com.

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