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Music review: John Cage in a motel room as part of PST

January 30, 2012 |  4:55 pm

James Tenney Postal Piece
Welcome Inn in Eagle Rock doesn’t look much changed for maybe half a century. Rooms are $49.95 and have that motel smell. There are more modern motels along Colorado Boulevard, and they had vacancies when I drove by Sunday afternoon. Not Welcome Inn. And for a very good reason.

Room 17, on the second floor, was hot and stuffy, but as many people as possible squeezed in, sitting on the double beds or squatting on the floor while they earnestly focused on the “healing power of Sonic Energy.” They were participating in one of Pauline Oliveros’ meaningful “Sonic Meditations.”

Downstairs, Room 3 also was jam-packed. Listeners strained to hear the slight swells of James Tenney’s compulsively fascinating “Postal Pieces.” Unable to elbow my way in, I stood outside the door, where I also heard wafting across the parking lot insistent chords from a violin tuned to the notes D-E-A-D. That idea came from conceptual artist Bruce Nauman.

PHOTOS: PST Performance and Public Arts Festival

“Welcome Inn Time Machine” was the grand finale to Pacific Standard Time’s Performance and Public Art Festival. And welcome it was as an insightful and amusing consideration of the Los Angeles experimental music scene in the decade between 1955 and 1965. The Society for the Activation of Social Space Through Art and Sound (SASSAS), which produced this six-hour open house (open motel?) of micro concerts, very much lived up to its name.

But most importantly with this “Time Machine,”  along with “RE:COMPOSITION,” SCI-Arc’s PST presentation the night before, a major missing link in PST was at long last inserted. That is the significance of John Cage on West Coast art.

Although I was told it was a coincidence, Welcome Inn, which invites musical activities, happens to be within walking distance of the little house on Moss Avenue where Cage -– the first great and still most influential Los Angeles-born artist -– grew up in the early 1920s. Cage left L.A. in 1938 for Seattle and then New York, which makes him too early for the PST time frame of 1945-80. But much of the conceptual and performance art that proved key to the West Coast scene would not have occurred in the same way, if at all, without Cage’s multi-discipline examples in music, performance art, visual art, literature and aesthetics. With 2012 being the centennial of his birth and the 20th anniversary of his death, Cage’s work will be prominent (indeed already is) this season in New York, Paris, Berlin, London and many other places.

A proper PST Cage piece is Variations IV, which took over two motel rooms. Cage wrote the score in a rented Malibu house on a summer day in 1963 and premiered it a week later at UCLA as the music played along with Merce Cunningham’s “Field Dances.” In 1965, Cage and pianist David Tudor realized a famous six-hour version of the Variations at the Feigen/Palmer Gallery in L.A., and a recording of excerpts became an major addition to the Cage discography.

On Sunday, Anita Pace created new Cunningham-esque choreography for her and Michelle Lai, as they danced up and down the stairs between the rooms in which Scott Benzel and Dave Muller spun real records on turntables and virtual ones with computer software. The score is graphic and indeterminate, and Cage and Tudor enjoyed using records and the radio as part of their sonic material.

The only room not quite Cagean was the one for the Los Angeles Free Music Society’s “Pyramid Headphones,” because it had an element of silliness. You had to put goof- looking black cardboard pyramids over your head. Built in were speakers in which artists noisily wailed away on their instruments.

Two ensembles played on the balcony, and they were revelatory. A jazz quintet did two short sets based on Ornette Coleman’s first record “Something Else!!!!,” which was recorded in L.A. in 1958. A fascinating sidebar to this is that the composer La Monte Young, who would become the founder of Minimalist music and who has been ignored by PST, jammed with saxophonist Coleman, drummer Billy Higgins and trumpet player Don Cherry (jazz legends all) in his L.A. student days not long before Coleman formed his band for “Something Else!!!!”

The Calder Quartet was on the other balcony group and it “re-imagined” a one-page 1949 string quartet sketch Schoenberg left behind when he died in L.A. two years later. The Calders produced gritty harmonic clouds that had a curiously Coleman-like quality. But they were derived by using techniques the Calders gathered from Christian Wolff, the last surviving composer from Cage’s New York School.

Over at SCI-Arc on Saturday, “RE-COMPOSITION” was a performance program produced by Julie Lazar, who had been the curator for MOCA’s extraordinary 1992 John Cage exhibition, “Rolywholyover A Circus.” For this, she invited artists and performers to make work which honored Cage’s sense of liberation.

I was most moved by “Bar Hopping,” which included wonderfully woven cello duets by Joan Jeanrenaud and Paul de Jong and by “INTERRUPTUS,” in which the poets Joan Retallack and Michael Ives kept interrupting each other, Retallack speaking of Cage and Ives entertainingly carrying on about his own peculiar inner life.

In taking its time getting to Cage, PST may have been a little late to the party. But it was in time to help launch the Cage year with style and originality.

RELATED:

PST: Judy Chicago, James Turrell, Hirokazu Kosaka performance art

Critic's Notebook: Igor Stravinsky's connection to PST

Music review: Carl Stone's Pacific Standard Time concert

-- Mark Swed

Photo: Andrew McIntosh performing one of James Tenney's "Postal Pieces" in Room 3 of Welcome Inn Sunday. Credit: Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times.

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