The John Cage concerts last Friday and Saturday were an auspicious way for the music program at the Kitchen to open its new season and to inaugurate its Walter series. The large second-floor gallery space at 59 Wooster Street was packed both nights, and both performers and audience seemed genuinely enthusiastic.
For once I had the feeling that Cage’s music was being presented not as a token gesture to left-wing music, not as a publicity stunt, and not as some solemn dutiful hommage to the notorious 61-year-old composer, but simply because some people wanted to perform his music and others wanted to listen to it.
The most engaging work for me was Cage’s ‘Speech’ (1955), in which two speakers read recent news clippings against the accompaniment of five radios. Cage’s use of radios as musical instruments is one of his most widely discussed techniques, and I had always thought of it as a kind of early form of conceptual art. Just an idea. A kind of Dada game, just turn on a bunch of radios, fade them up and down according to the score, and listen to whatever happens to be on the airwaves. Easy to imagine. Simple. Right?
Wrong! Now that I have actually listened to one of Cage’s radio scores for 40 minutes and observed audience reactions, I have changed my mind radically. There is much more to his radios than I had ever imagined simply by reading about them. I would even go so far as to say that these radio pieces are among the strongest statements of our time, both sociologically and musically.
Cage’s radio scores are really mirrors which reflect the environment whenever they are performed. They put a frame around the world we live in and force us, through the medium of radio, to look at it. I saw more than I really wanted to see.
The idea is also valid musically, especially now, since so many composers have been writing eclectic music, using quotations from many different styles. The mixture of musical styles which results in one of Cage’s radio pieces is just as musical, and far more natural than those fancy deliberate mixtures worked out by composers such as Luciano Berio or George Rochberg.
‘Twenty-six Minutes 1.1499 Seconds for a String Player’ (also 1955) is one of the many Cage scores in which the sounds were determined largely by the random flaws in his manuscript paper. Jon Deak, who normally plays with the New York Philharmonic, worked out a wonderful interpretation of this score for his double bass. Along with all the standard virtuoso tricks, which he does with great ease, Deak utilized several special effects which I had never heard before. Perhaps the most remarkable of those were the loud raspy sounds produced by bowing on a piece of styrofoam. A pre-taped performance of the piece was shown on monitors while Deak played a slightly different performance live. The recorded sounds and the live sounds blended unusually well, and the technicians kept the performance lively by switching the live Deak and the taped Deak back and forth on the monitors.
‘Water Walk’ is a short theater piece which Cage premiered on Italian television in 1959. At lightening speed the performer must perform a great many actions, most of which involve making sound with water. In this newly videotaped interpretation, Jim Burton pours, sprays, splashes, and squirts his way through the piece quite amusingly, though he never hams it up. As in most of the best interpretations of Cage’s theater pieces, one felt that the performer was simply following a score, rather than acting a scene.
The earliest work in the two concerts was the unaccompanied ‘Sonata for Clarinet,’ which was excellently performed by Jan Coward. This is an atonal piece in three short movements, with some nice melodies, but with none of the intense originality which was to enter Cage’s music later on. It is extremely well
made, though, considering that the composer was only 21 when he wrote it. For my money, the piece provides more than enough proof that Cage could easily have become an outstanding mainstream composer if he had wanted to take that route.
There were four of those extremely simple white-note pieces which Cage wrote in the late ’40s as a reaction against atonality. I particularly appreciated Philip Corner’s almost impressionistic rendering of the piano piece ‘Dream.’ ‘Bird Cage’ was one of the electronic pieces included. It was composed just last year, and utilized eight different tapes derived from bird sounds, street sounds, and Cage’s voice. The music is relatively sparse, and quite pleasant in comparison with Cage’s harsher electronic pieces such as ‘Cartridge Music.’ The audience was encouraged to mill around while Joel Chadabe sat at the mixer switching the music sporadically between the eight different loudspeakers.
Also on the program were a lively precise interpretation of ‘Water music’ (1952) by pianist Don Gillespie, a pop music interpretation of ‘Imaginary Landscape No. 5’ (1952) spliced together by Harvey Matuso, other pieces for piano and prepared piano played by Philip Corner, songs sung by Judy Sherman and Connie Beckley, the electronic ‘Williams Mix’ (1952), and the ensemble piece ‘WBAI,’ which incorporated, among other elements, a four-channel recording of Cage reading his fascinating lecture, ‘Where Are We Going and What Are We Doing?’ Completing the roster of capable and dedicated performers were percussionists Roy Pennington an Andrew Lubart, trombonist Garrett List, violinist Linda Quan, flutist Rhys Chatham, and last but not least, Phill Niblock, who played the radio.