Sunday, September 9, 2012

Cage, Cage, and Cage Again (Part One) - Neal Kosaly-Meyer (and friends) @ Jack Straw Productions

The title of this posting refers of course to three tribute concerts of music by John Cage on the occasion of his centennial, all three during last week in Seattle.

First of the three: Jack Straw Productions, 9/4/2012, Neal Kosaly-Meyer performing Cage’s epic (12-hour) text-into-music transformation titled “Empty Words”. The idea is to take fragments of Thoreau’s “Walden” journal and use various techniques to bit by bit remove all meaning from the words (i.e. one section has only syllables, one has only individual letters, etc.). Neal “acted” the composition in a dreamlike, half-speaking, half-intoning voice, assisted by slight amplification and subtle stereo manipulations. I agree with another blogger that removing meaning from words is like removing the ego from the author or the performer (a very Cagean concept), and the “why” is rather vague in the same way that attempting to remove my ego doesn’t render me innocent; however, I will add that the “why” in this case could also be nothing more than the reduction of speech into pure sound – akin to Alvin Lucier’s “I am Sitting in a Room” though achieved purely through live speech. The result is rather hard to pin down. Is it music? Or, is it performance art? Is it theater? Or, is it poetry? The answer is both “yes” and “no” in all four cases; and it transcends these categories anyway into something that is also somehow both profound and trivial. I found that I could both listen intently and completely ignore the proceedings at the same time, which I’m sure was a state of mind similar to what Cage had intended.

Neal did not perform the entire twelve hours without a break, of course. “Interruptions”, in the form of other (shorter) Cage pieces, punctuated the concert at regular intervals. I only heard one of these since I did not stay for the entire piece (the audience was encouraged to come and go – a necessity for such a long work). William O. Smith played the Sonata for Clarinet (solo), an early piece in a serialist-souding style. It fit right in – the bare acoustics of the hall caused every sound of the clarinet to stand out sharply (and sometimes very loudly!) against the background quasi-silence – as if the clarinet “notes” were being reduced to pure sound, in the same manner as Neal’s recitations.

Other “punctuation marks” included Neal’s sung rendition of a brief part of Cage’s “Writing for the Second Time through Finnegan’s Wake”, without the amplification (though it sounded, probably intentionally, like more of “Empty Words”) and, during later parts of “Empty Words”, Roger Nelson reading from Cage’s “Indeterminacy” stories. Cage’s anecdotes are as well-known as his music, and listeners familiar with Cage’s work have probably heard at least some of these particular tales from the classic 1960’s recording. Some are funny, some are bizarre, and some seem to have no point at all – interspersed here they emphasized the idea of speech into pure sound, providing an understandable (until one listened too closely) counterpoint to Neal’s abstract vocalizations.

Altogether the performance was interesting and surprisingly relaxing. I listened to about six hours of it (on and off) and found myself refreshed.

Signing off for now – Cage Part Two will be posted shortly.

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