We don’t talk enough about the sheer beauty of John Cage’s music. Pretty much all of us accept that Cage was a supremely influential artist whose impact caused innumerable creators following in his wake worked in response to him, whether accepting or rejecting what he said and did and made. We’ve read about chance operations and Zen Buddhism and silence and whatnot. We can hold up our end of a bar chat concerning Cage, even one that calls up the hoary line about how he was a better philosopher than composer.
On that last point, though, there’s plenty of evidence to the contrary, in the form of pieces that hold up in performance years after their supposed novelty appeal has abated (or been eclipsed by newer composers with more unconventional ideas). What struck me most about 9/5/FIVE/105 – a concert event presented on Sept. 5,, marking the 105th anniversary of Cage’s birth with renditions of his five FIVE compositions – was the plain, simple loveliness of everything I heard.
The concert was produced by Avant Media, a New York non-profit new-music organization run by the composer and installation artist Randy Gibson. Avant Media previously had proved its affinity for Cage with, among other ventures, an extraordinary realization of his Apartment House 1776 during the Avant Music Festival in 2013. (I reviewed that performance for The New York Times; read it here.)
Compared to that elaborate undertaking, 9/5/FIVE/105 seemed relatively straightforward: a roughly 90-minute span featuring five of Cage’s late-period “number pieces” (the titles of which derive from the number of players involved) written for five performers, organized by Gibson and lighting designer Kryssy Wright with the help of chance operations.
The concert program indicated five performances of FIVE – the first work of the sequence, a five-minute piece with no particular instrumentation determined – surrounding FIVE2 (English horn, two clarinets, bass clarinet, timpani), FIVE3 (string quartet and trombone); FIVE4 (soprano and alto saxophones and three percussionists); and FIVE5 (flute, two clarinets, bass clarinet, and percussion). The music proceeded in a near-constant flow, the duration of each piece and the gaps between them displayed with digital timers projected on one wall. Players appeared as needed, and either lingered or disappeared when inactive.
I’d presumed initially – correctly, it turned out – that chance had determined the instrumentation of the various accounts of FIVE. Via email, Gibson provided further details:
I made a list of players and their ability to play certain parts (violin can’t play the fifth player of FIVE for example). But additionally the timing between each piece was chance determined (between 1 and 64 seconds) as were the timings of each performer’s entrance and exit from the stage. … The lighting was also, naturally, a very complicated set of chance operations and practical concerns. The video clock was also totally chance determined in terms of position, font, size, and color.
There’s a line of thinking, one to which I subscribed many years ago, that suggests Cage wrote his loveliest, most appealing music early in his career, before the epiphany of 4’33” and the adoption of chance operations resulted in a turn toward unpredictability, inscrutability, and noise. The truth is that beauty runs throughout Cage’s oeuvre — not just intellectual or conceptual appeal, but actual sensual pleasure. The FIVE pieces, composed in 1988 and 1991, are among the best examples, plainspoken intimacies that revel in sound at its most elemental level. The basic methodology for FIVE is explained thusly on the official John Cage website:
Pitches and dynamics are set, and while instrumentation is free, performers must be able to play or sing the tones within the given ranges. There is no overall score, only 5 parts, each consisting of 5 lines, each line containing a maximum of 3 notes, placed within a time-bracket notation system.
Here, were it not for the illuminated clocks, I’m convinced time simply would have dissolved for the duration. Instantly and throughout, you were transported by an exquisite balance of hushed tones and silences; each timbre distinct and sharply etched, yet all congenial in combination. Projected lights in subtle shades shifted in loose assent with Maya Bennardo’s violin, Meaghan Burke’s cello, and Liam Kinson’s clarinet in the initial FIVE; one percussionist, Al Cerulo, plucked a guitar; another, Jude Traxler, applied what looked like an electric toothbrush to his vibraphone, eliciting a soft metallic chitter.
Because the methodology varies slightly among the FIVE pieces, the overarching tone was one of serenity and stability. That turned the emphasis toward striking instrumental combinations: both those devised by Cage – Nathan Mills’s plangent English horn among a clarinet chorale in FIVE2, for example – and new mixtures resulting from Gibson’s chance conjurations, like the hypnotically throbbing concords in a FIVE featuring violinist Leah Asher, saxophonist David Lackner, trombonist Will Lang, and percussionist Chris Graham with Gibson’s own ghostly electronics.
Surrounded by brief works like feathery haiku in swift succession, FIVE3 emerged as a comparative epic, its 40-minute span at first surprising (“did they forget to stop?”), then perhaps ill-advised (“this should have been shorter…”), and finally mesmerizing (“this shouldn’t ever end…”).
The following FIVE, with Mills on English horn, Carlos Cordeiro on bass clarinet, Ford Forqurean’s clarinet, Kallie Ciechomski’s viola, and Al Cerulo on melodica, was lovelier than anything that had come before it. FIVE4, with Cordeiro’s clarinet in the soprano-saxophone role and a broad variety of percussive textures, was the night’s most playful span.
The three percussionists, all members of Mangobot, lingered for the next FIVE, bowing a single vibraphone in splendid accord with violinist Leah Asher and cellist Meghan Burke (of string quartet The Rhythm Method). Traxler’s twinkling music box, scraped gong, and hushed siren (!) lent variegated colorings to FIVE5, otherwise an airy blend of flute and clarinets.
The last FIVE – Lang’s trombone, Cordeiro’s bass clarinet, Lackner’s alto saxophone, Ciechomski’s viola, and Burke’s cello – suggested with its dramatic voicings and urgent beating patterns that Cage’s formula likely contained potential for novelty yet untapped, and proved conclusively its capacity as an endless wellspring of beauty.
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On June 12, National Sawdust hosted the culminating event of its inaugural Hildegard Competition, which seeks to encourage inclusivity in the arts through the mentorship of women and non-binary composers.