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Music review: John Cage amid the Rauschenbergs

February 7, 2010 |  2:02 pm


John Cage never tired of describing art as imitating nature in the manner of her operation, an idea he got from Indian philosophy. Accepting the sounds of the environment, he also explained, allowed him to enjoy sounds of the city. For many years he lived and worked in what seemed to be about the noisiest block in Manhattan. Yet he composed with the window open, the deafening 6th Avenue traffic putting him at peace.

Saturday night, three quiet and beautiful Cage pieces, nature themed, were performed in a cosmopolitan gallery space, Pasadena’s Armory Center for the Arts. But listeners weren’t necessarily shielded from the outdoors – the low rumble of a police helicopter sometimes became a pedal tone.

There was urban visual stimulation as well. The concert, which was part of the Southwest Chamber Music series, was held amid a Robert Rauschenberg exhibition of his work made at the Gemini G.E.L. printmaking studio in Culver City between 1966 and 2001. Like Cage, Rauschenberg was a collector/gatherer who brought the outdoors into art. For him, prints could be assemblages, and he welcomed objects and images from the street.

The marvelous show, which runs through March 21, has offered an occasion for Southwest to be the first group in the nation to begin a celebration of the Cage centenary in 2012, since composer and artist were longtime friends and collaborators. The first program of its Cage 2012 was two weeks ago and concerts will continue over the next two seasons, Southwest artistic director Jeff von der Schmidt told Saturday’s audience. The focus, he said, will be specifically on the music as music, since that is often what is missing when Cage’s name comes up. But his revolutionary ideas on how chance operations can produce art and how silence and noise are essential to the mix of music were not dreamed up in a vacuum.

Hence, this program began where it is common to begin when demonstrating that there is more to Cage than chaos. “In a Landscape” -- a short dance accompaniment written for piano or harp in 1948 and played here by harpist Alison Bjorkedal -- uses scales and restricted pitches in what now sounds like proto-Minimalism. It is reminiscent of Satie (whom Cage admired) and immediately puts an audience at ease.

Litany “Litany for the Whale,” a transfixing vocalise for two singers, which followed, was written in 1980 and is ecology-minded. The singers perform a series of calls and responses on six pitches associated with the letters w-h-a-l-e. No vibrato is used and the voices are meant to reveal little expression. One can hear this as a work of worry (over the fate of the whale) or as a nonthreatening call to a mysterious behemoth in a tongue it might find appealing.

Sopranos Elissa Johnston and Kathleen Roland stood before the audience and sang to us pleadingly, as if we were whales. More indirection would have been useful. Cage had intended that the performers be separated across a room and have their backs turned (but, as he said in interviews, he forgot to put those instructions in the score). Still, the sopranos' pure tones were entrancing, and the performers immediacy provided a moving sense of vulnerability. The serendipitous helicopter added the frightening effect of whales threatened by man and technology.

The third work was “Postcard From Heaven,” intended for from 1 to 20 harps. It is a rarity and, when done with all 20 instruments, an event. Nature, in this case, is evoked by considering its whimsical heavenly antipode. But Cage being Cage, he makes room for impurities.

Cage instructs the harpists (there were three on this occasion) to begin and end by placing small electronic devices (the EBow) on the strings to set them vibrating. After that the players must realize their own melodic and percussive materials and apply them to Cage’s raga-like structures. They also have occasion to hum.

Bjorkedal, Andrea Puente and Allison Allport relied on fairly predictable harp effects, and the glissandi were more pleasing than the arpeggios. But three harps doing just about anything is enthralling and the players did effectively capture Cage’s radical vision of heaven as not so much apart from Earth but rather an even more blissful version of nature and her anarchy. The Rauschenbergs in the background appeared to shimmer approvingly.

-- Mark Swed

Photo: (above) Andrea Puente, left, Alison Bjorkedal and Allison Allport perform Cage's "Postcard From Heaven"; (below) sopranos Elissa Johnston, left, and Kathleen Roland singing "Litany for the Whale." Credit: Ann Johansson / For The Times

Comments () | Archives (21)

Music is a language without borders. Through music affected one's soul.

However, on the road to becoming a good musician to be able to drill your music in other people's deepest inland, many musicians die prematurely!

Some have perfect pitch, Cage was clueless about pitch.
A little craft once in a while, would be nice.
I wonder when artsy-crafty became the real deal for these folks.
You too can be a composer. And if you really suck at it, don't you worry about it, We've got a reality show for you: classical music for dummies: the more you suck at it, the more they'll love you.

There are 17 people in the picture: 3 performers and 14 audience members.
Now look closely, and note the average age of the patrons by measuring the hair-color, density, and fashion statement. What you get? a concert with Grandpa's Looney Tunes.

Three superb pieces. It sounds like it was a beautiful concert that had the added extra of the Rauschenberg exhibition. This was clearly an homage to two of the most important and creative artists of our times. Thank you for the review.

I wish I could have been there. Litany for the Whale and In a Landscape are two of Cage's most gorgeous pieces; they are sonic baths. The ambient noise of the helicopter sounds like a fantastic counter-drone. Excellent review, Mr. Swed!

Imperial Clothing in music. As with Miminalism in art, this is sub-minimalism, below the threshold of a living thing. Its dead. Stillborn, all self important mental, no body or soul.

Listen to Miles Davis, he was light years beyond this silliness, try In a Silent Way, 1969. Or Coltrane's A Love Supreme for pure spiritual intensity, and rhythmic dynamism.

art e musica collegia delenda est

Apparently one can't enjoy both Miles Davis and John Cage; or John Coltrane and John Cage. One must choose. You heard it hear first, folks.

Do you really think Miles and Trane enjoyed Cage?
They are so far superior and advanced beyond his silly academic noodlings and vacuousness how could they? Ravi Shankar is one thing, or even Sondheim, but Cage?
really? Really? REALLY?

"The singers perform a series of calls and responses on six pitches associated with the letters w-h-a-l-e."

There are six pitches but only five letters in the word. I don't understand. Please explain.

It doesn't matter which notes. It's an association to make you thing the howling taking place means something other than nothing.

wow people - were you all at the concert? Is that you in the picture, with the "density and fashion statement"?

If you weren't, I wonder what you actually know about Cage, besides nothing; or besides thinking you understand his work based on some idea about 4'33" that you got in a Music Appreciation class 30 years ago. Cage studied with Schoenberg as a young man, and spent some of his early years composing in a rigorous 25-tone system of his own devising - hardly the work of someone who was "clueless about pitch".

But by all means, blather on. LOL indeed, Frazell, what a surprise to encounter you here.

Cage is to music what Noland, or even that fool Duchamp is to art, and Miles is the Matisse of music, Why waste time with hacks. Who cares who he studied under, obviously has no feeling for life. Hell, Kiefer studied under Beuys, so throw that theory out the window. By the way, keep at it, all theories need to go. They are the autopsies by hacks trying to learn of those who do.

In response to Cate's question:
There may be two explanations.
One - the reviewer has made a mistake. It is possible.
Two - there were indeed six pitches "associated" with five letters. This is possible too. More than one pitch can be "associated" with one letter. For example, B-natural that is an "H" in Germanic notation, can be sung in two (or more) different octaves (as can any other note for that matter) - this would mean two (or more) different pitches that are nevertheless "associated" with the same letter.

Well, Mr. Frazell, your advocacy of Mr. Davis and Mr. Coltrane does those two musicians no favor. Thankfully, their music is untarnished by your fevered display.

Mr. Davis and Mr. Coltrane's music need no favors. That's why it's great. Mr. Cage, on the other hand, more than favors needs some ear-training.

Which piece by Mr. Cage, exactly, are you unimpressed by? You treat his entire oeuvre as made of the same piece of whole cloth. Are you familiar with the differences between his Litany for the Whale, the Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano, the String Quartet in four movements, and so forth? Wholesale blasts at Mr. Cage's music don't impress those who actually are familiar with the man's works; frankly they sound as ignorant as someone would sound if he were to opine that Mr. Coltrane's music was merely cacophonous or Mr. Davis's music was nothing other than tortured and tortuous.

If you picked Tranes music after Kulu Se Mama, you might be right about both the tortuous and cacophony, Miles never was, but kinda boring with Gil Evans except Sketches of Spain, a classic. You could say Miles sold out after his second comeback about 1980, but his tone was more pure than ever as Wynton had come on the scene and he wasnt gonna let some young pup steal his thunder, simply didnt have musicians like Trane, Cannonball, Herbie, and Shorter around anymore.

But purpose is everything, and one could never doubt their sincerity and passion, unlike Cage. Heard much of his stuff with his boyfriend, and some of this you mentionned, and my anti schyte radar went up immediately, even Philip Glass is better, god help us. Academic nonsense, since when does spelling out whale in music mean a damn thing, how cute and clever. When whales begin to speak in english, then it might mean something. even then words are but sympbols, they mutate and evolve, and mean nothing in themselves. Holow, self absorbed, pseudo intellectual pscho babble. Retarded.

Bet Rhame Emmanual would agree.

art e musica collegia delenda est

Donald, You're critiquing the method, not the result. A critique of JC's methods is silly. What matters is the work that gets produced.

One could also say that Jackson Pollack's methods are odd and bizarre and even silly; indeed, such was the unthinking and reactionary response that he received by many of his day. And yet, his works are acknowledged masterpieces. You can call modernist art works nonsense, but such criticism is worth little if it has not dealt with the actual work itself. Have you even heard Litany for the Whale? Do you know the performance by Paul Hillier and his ensemble on Harmonia Mundi? It's beautiful and transcendent. This is ethereal music from which you have closed your mind merely because the methods strike you as odd. That's fine if it makes you happy, but it strikes me as incredibly parochial.

His strike me as terrible childish and wannabe clever. Its dull, dull, dull. Cant sit through the tediousness. It's irrelevant to well, everything. Life and art are all about relationships, line/melody, color/harmony/ sturcture/rhythm into a whole taht reflects,a dn reveals, life. His are weak in all three layers of building, and so also in feeling and purpose. Its Duchamp dropping rods and then outlining them. So? For decadent old types with no cares about the world. Academic games. Dull, dull, dull. zzzzzzz
And incredibly decadent. We are back to meaning and purpose again, the age of meism and excess over. No time for vanity of supposedly being seperate from the masses, artists are no more, nor less, than anyone else. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. And trash to trash can.

Recycling we hope.

art e musica collegia delenda est
the Bastiles of the Pharisees and Sophists must be destroyed.
Save the Watts Towers, the greatest work of man to god, nature and mankind in California. Tear down the Ivories.

LOL!!! Just the opposite. If Cage had come up the way all true artists do, apprenticing at with their mastes, while in the act of creation, as Miles did with Bird, and Trane later with Miles, and Monk was everywhere, we never would have heard of Cage. He is completely and totally a child of the academy. One does not lsiten to it outside of its literal confines. Sterile environments, not of life. No kids, no bills, no struggle, not blood sweat and toil. No hate, no sex, no passion. Compeletely of the mind, and so strangled and limited. Mind, body and soul feed and nourish one another to become more.

No, outside of academia he is a joke. If not for Cunningham, a nobody. He relied on the system, and a child of it, not the world as a whole. And so, not a serious artist. Just a dude with a gimmick. Take away all the stories and literary nonsense, and its nothing. Context over content. A wannabe Duchamp. Duchamp had a good ole time, he was tweeking the system, a sociopath who truly didnt care. In his own world, and laughing all the way to the bank. And back to his precious games.

art collegia delend aest

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