Monday, September 10, 2012

Cage, Cage, and Cage Again (Part Two) – Pacific Rims Percussion Quartet @ Good Shepherd Center, 9/5/2012

The second of the series of John Cage tribute concerts was the Pacific Rims Percussion Quartet performance at Good Shepherd Center, 9/5-2012. I missed the first part of the concert – concerts here usually start at 8:00 so I waited in the car until about 7:45 (listening to the Ravel string quartet on the radio) and when I walked in they were wrapping up the first piece. The concert had started at 7:30…

At any rate, the first piece was the (supposedly satirical) “Credo in US”, for percussion (including coffee cans), piano (slightly modified, with a piece of metal laid across the strings to give it a more percussive sound) and a radio (static turned off and on to provide another texture). Mostly the piece was about rhythms, with a frenetic drive toward the climax. The title refers to both the U.S. and to “us”, and provides an ironic comment on American society (“I believe in US – forget anybody else!”, or “I believe in my country, not any higher purpose or goal, or even God…”) These are certainly damning statements, though nothing in the music itself indicates this level of venom. Whatever, it’s a fun piece to listen to (and, I’m sure, to perform, though like a lot of “modernist” music it takes intense concentration to get all of the counts right).

The much longer second half of the concert consisted of the 70-minute “Four4”. This is one of Cage’s late “Number Pieces” – which, in my opinion, are some of the most profound musical expressions of the later 20th century. Most of these pieces give time frames within which the performers are to play (or act out) certain pre-set musical ideas; these can often be chosen by the performers themselves but – because of the complexity and planning of the time-frames – always work together into a harmonious (and usually tranquil) whole. This particular piece, the fourth “Number Piece” for four players, is (in a recording by the Amadinda Percussion Ensemble) one of the more beautiful of contemporary works in my CD collection. They play it mostly on metallic instruments (gongs, bells, and steel drums) with an occasional (deliberately non-beautiful) intrusion by a bullroarer. This live performance was quite different. I had told another audience member that I’d heard the piece before, and it only had one loud passage (where the bullroarer builds to a climax and then gets abruptly silenced by a huge tam-tam) – now, the passage in question was played quietly as a delicate shimmering of metallic sound (gongs and a waterphone) and many other parts of the piece were loud – sometimes startlingly so. As the piece thins out toward the end, the Amadinda recording trails off into peaceful silence; this live version got funnier instead. The humor began about halfway through (there’s something inherently comical about seeing someone violently agitating a beat-up suitcase full of rocks) – and then continued with rolling a tam-tam on the floor, opening a bag of potato chips (for its sound!) and eating the chips (again, for their sound), breaking a light bulb (it took three times of dropping it in a bucket), blowing bubbles in a cup of water, and an occasional ear-splitting sound emerging suddenly from nowhere. All in all, it was a fitting tribute to Cage, the composer at the forefront of both deep and comical experimentation for several decades.

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