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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