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Sound Like John Cage: Simply Itself

August 17, 2012


Apotheosis of the Note“Apotheosis of the Note” would have been a good title for sfSound’s commemoration of what would have been John Cage’s 100th birthday, presented Saturday at Old First Church. He died 20 years ago on August 12, but he has remained an inspiration for many musicians. Does his then–avant-garde music sound hopelessly out of fashion today?

Not the way Tom Chiu and Christopher Jones play Cage. Yet to appreciate their aesthetic, you should adapt an adage from the Age of Aquarius days, and listen to each note “as the first note of the rest of the piece.” The order of notes is immaterial, however complicated Cage’s algorithm may be for their random selection. Each note is simply itself.

As Cage once remarked,

A sound does not view itself as thought, as ought, as needing another sound for its elucidation, as etc.; it has not time for any consideration — it is occupied with the performance of its characteristics: before it has died away it must have made perfectly exact its frequency, its loudness, its length, its overtone structure, the precise morphology of these and of itself.

For the performers, the individual characteristics of each note, often specified in great and literally graphic detail by Cage, may be hard to produce on their instruments. But, at times, to go from one note to another when the specifications are radically unrelated in their physical production, playing the music correctly becomes close to impossible. For the likes of musicians like Chiu and Jones, such conditions are merely an Everest. They are “there,” and must therefore be summited.

The order of notes is immaterial … Each note is simply itself.

As far as I could tell, they did just that, with amazing aplomb. Chiu conquered five of the Freeman Etudes, Nos. 1, 2, 16, 30, and 32, in the first half of the concert. Jones took on the 1951 Music of Changes, Books I and IV, in the second half, the latter involving numerous extended techniques such as playing interior strings of the piano, slapping the dust cover, and using both ends of a small mallet on various parts of the poor Steinway.

Tom ChiuSeven other soloists joined in for the Concert for Piano and Orchestra (1957–58) in the first half, and 14 for the Atlas Eclipticalis in the second. For the most part, the additional musicians neither enhanced nor detracted from the experience: All the notes played could be heard and appreciated for their unique “thereness,” simultaneities be damned. I must say that the mixture of Solo for Voice 1 (1960) with Concert did cause a distraction from the thereness of the instrumental notes, but the mixture of Solo for Voice 48 with Atlas seemed a slight enhancement to its multithereness.

Who can tell the right way to handle these choices? Was the I Ching consulted? The chief interest in Eclipticalis, in which the notes were determined by characteristics of star charts — other than the unique, individual notes themselves, of course — was Christopher Jones’ conducting. His arms moved, one at a time, like the big and little hands on a clock face at a varying pace of 1 to 2 minutes per 180 degrees of movement. This form of direction was necessary, considering the nature of Cage’s notation, and the fact that the 14 musicians were scattered about the church and in its balcony.

The river of the music and Chiu’s performance were sublime.The first half of the concert featured Chiu in two other note-individuated works, 59½" for a String Player (1953), and Cheap Imitation, Part I (1969–77). The first I timed at 55 seconds, but maybe my watch was fast. The second’s title came from the fact that Cage, instead of designing all compositional parameters to be chosen by chance, was forced to match a choreography based on the phrase structure of part of Eric Satie’s Socrate. Despite the ghost of the Frenchman in the work, note-focused, it superficially sounded little different from the rest of the music on the program.

After intermission, the concert continued with Cheap Imitation, Part II (1969–77). I was shocked. Alone among the works on the program, Chiu’s performance of the notes of this piece sounded like it depended on the relationship between notes! He played with his mute on. The work consisted of a quietly unfolding melody of smoothly connected notes. Legato, in other words. In the language utterly foreign to the rest of the works. The river of the music and Chiu’s performance were sublime.

As for the rest of the program, if I were on a different life path, I’d follow Cage’s dictum:

If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.

Jeff Dunn is a freelance critic with a B.A. in music and a Ph.D. in geologic education. A composer of piano and vocal music, he is a member of the National Association of Composers, USA, a former president of Composers, Inc., and has served on the Board of New Music Bay Area.