"Bonnie Whiting, head of the UW's Percussion Studies program, performs music from her newly released Mode Records debut, 51'15.657" for a speaking percussionist, by composer John Cage. ...(This is her) realization of a solo simultaneous performance of John Cage's 45' for a speaker and 27'10.554" for a percussionist. These are vintage pieces, music from the mid-50's and part of a series of timed works that Cage enjoyed mixing together and referred to in notes and letters as "the ten thousand things." -- from the University of Washington School of Music website
Ms. Whiting played three pieces.
Quietly the music begins. Tapping on the closed piano – using it as a percussion instrument – reminds us that this music is “experimental”, but what we’re hearing is indigenous music from another culture. Wordless chanting suggests a lullaby, fading into silence. Near the end, the voice becomes muddied with a couple of “special effects”; thinner, spectral – but this is merely to remind us that it is music from somewhere else. It is quite beautiful.
The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs
The concert concluded with another melodic miniature for singing voice and closed piano (a memorable recorded version of this piece is by Joey Ramone). Here, the harmonic language is rarified to the point of near nonexistence: the voice sings only three notes, variously rhythmed. Cage did a miraculous job of pulling an earworm from these three notes, however; one goes away humming the tune. “Cagean” ambiguity is found in the piano-tapping part and the words: the former suggests but never quite establishes a meter, and the latter are derived from James Joyce’s great experiment in letters, the stream of (un)consciousness novel “Finnegans Wake”. It is one of the most mellifluous passages in the book, describing the character Issy in botanical terms (“wildwoods eyes and primarose hair, ...in mauves of moss and dahne dews / how all so still she lay 'neath of the white thorn / child of tree / like some lost happy leaf”) – but again, the readers are never sure if Issy and her two siblings actually “exist” or are merely fragments of the sleeping narrator’s psyche, and in this passage, Issy may actually be dead. Thus, although the music seems straightforward enough, there is still Cage’s aesthetic of holding back and waiting to experience anything.
After the concert, I bought one of the CDs (it’s also going to be available on blue-ray) and had Ms. Whiting autograph it after seeking a pen for several minutes.
There are two more pieces on the CD. The first is “Music For Two (By One) [Realization Of Music For...]”, another mashup of a speaking piece and a percussion piece; this continues the soundscape of 51'15.657” but uses some different percussion and links the shorter melodic pieces with fragments of singing. The second is “Connecting Egypt To Madison Through Columbus Ohio, Cage, And The History Of The American Labor Movement (Incorporating Music For Marcel Duchamp & Variations 2)”, a third mix, performed by Allen Otte. Here, the two worlds are mixed even more as gamelan-like “prepared piano” undulates under Mr. Otte’s political speeches. The result, however, as often in Cage’s work, is (non-)chaos which leads to extreme refinement to tranquility.