Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Concert (and CD) Review: "An ear alone is not a being" - Bonnie Whiting plays John Cage, 4/29/2017

"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.

A Flower
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.

Chatty voice and a loud drumroll startled us into awareness that the music is going in a different direction now, and announced what is by far the longest piece on the concert: “51'15.657" (Realization Of 45' For A Speaker & 27'10.554" For A Percussionist)”. This is actually two of Cage’s pieces performed at the same time. Playing two (more or less unrelated) pieces at the same time is, of course, a feat of technical virtuosity for a single performer; but that is not why we are listening. Bonnie gave a short speech before playing, reminding us that both pieces were drawn from random matrices of possibilities: the speaking part was written (about several topics) and then cut up and pasted together in a new configuration; the percussion part was drawn from imperfections in the paper which Cage was using to compose. There is also leeway as to which percussion instruments are played. Bonnie’s “realization” of the work used a rack of suspended pot lids (Harry Partch, revisited), a gong, two drums, a kalimba, bamboo wind chimes, several noisemakers including a turkey call, and brief (less than a second) samples activated with a foot pedal. The result is a collage of sound. Ricochet-clusters of clangs and bongs bounce around ambiguous words: fragments of observations about silence, sound, composition, Zen, the music of Bach and Debussy, and personal anecdotes. There are momentary breaks in the commentary for throat-clearing (she mentioned beforehand that she actually had a cold, so the audience could guess which throat-clearings were in the piece and which weren't), drinking from a water bottle, striking a match (which failed to flame up) and brushing her hair. The manner of composing and playing, of course, prevents anything continuous or “logical” from emerging; but that of course is the point. Letting go of expectations, we listen in expectation of any sound. Though sometimes strident, sometimes even comical, the overall effect is that of tranquility. Thus it is not all that different from the quiet “indigenous” music at the beginning.

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, 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.

The CD
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.

No comments:

Post a Comment