In the final weeks of 2018, it’s beyond cosmic fate – perhaps even a bit too on the nose – to return to two questions that fueled a 1961 lecture by John Cage: Where are we going? And what are we doing? On the other hand, using these two questions as a focal point for a concert held on the longest day of the year, as Tenth Intervention did with pianist Adam Tendler in a pairing of Cage and Messiaen works on Dec. 21 at the Rubin Museum of Art, gives us a moment of surrender to those questions—as opposed to our normal human reaction of clawing around in the dark for answers.
Performing at the Rubin added an extra level of inquiry in 2018: For those following news of #MeToo and Buddhism in the United States, it was hard to take in the Tibetan Buddhist focus of the museum’s collection and shop without considering the decades of abuse within this same Buddhist tradition that came to light over the summer. In the museum shop, books by teachers such as Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who now have confirmed histories of clerical misconduct, and Pema Chödrön, who enabled said misconduct, are still sold. In the case of Pema, her book When Things Fall Apart has become a Rosetta Stone for those of us navigating uncertain times. For many who have viewed Buddhism as a more virtuous alternative to the problems of Judeo-Christianity, the question “what are we doing” has begun to rear its head.
For Tenth Intervention, loving the questions seems more crucial to its mission of connecting art to social issues than offering answers – an idea driven further home by conductor Dorian Wallace leading Cage’s Concert for Piano and Orchestra in a shirt that read “Ni dieu, ni maître” (“No gods, no masters”).
Much of Cage’s music favors chance and divination; in this concerto, the I Ching provides guideposts for an ever-evolving structure still regarded, 60 years later, as one in progress. The piece reached a new stage of progression in this account, presented simultaneously with a tape recording of “Where Are We Going? And What Are We Doing?”
Trying to make sense of either work as a whole is about as foolish as trying to find a larger, definitive reason for any of what’s going on in our world right now. But diving into some of the moments from both concerto and lecture provide aphorisms that we may cling to among the wreckage. “It is at this crossroads that we must change direction, if, that is, we are going where we are going,” Cage states at one point. “(I know perfectly well I’m wandering but I try to see what there is to see and my eyes are not as good as they were but they’re improving.)”
Likewise, Cage’s mutable score for his piano concerto moves in a roundabout way – literally, in the case of Wallace’s conducting pattern, which relied on his arms moving in a clocklike circular pattern. Amid these revolutions were the sort of happenstance revelations we stumble across in life: a comforting warmth from Tendler’s prepared piano, a gasp from Hajnal Pivnick’s violin.
Performing on the Winter Solstice also meant performing in the depths of Advent, a season characterized in Christian texts as a period of being in the wilderness. Much as Buddhism posits a duality of thought and two sides to every story, interpreters of the Scriptures see the wilderness as being both a dangerous, unpredictable space and also one that can lead us to revelation and wonder. For ancient astronomers, the solstice signified a point in which the sun stopped at its furthest limit before reversing direction. Even with Copernicus subverting the notion that the sun revolved around the Earth, this moment of stillness holds up in both the natural and spiritual worlds. Amid the wilderness of Advent is a sense of perpetual yet impermanent waiting for illumination.
The stillness at the end of Cage, mirrored at the end in the darkness and stillness of the closing of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, generously spent the Janus coin of stillness—both ephemeral and eternal. Most visibly held with Wallace’s arms both raised in a sort of sun salute, it created a thick snowbank of quietude, of surrender to the present moment versus projections of the future.
Conversely, Messiaen’s inspiration for his quartet of piano, cello, violin, and clarinet was the Book of Revelation and its vision of an angel straddling sea and earth, hands lifted up to heaven, declaring “that there should be time no longer” and “the mystery of God should be finished.” Messiaen was 32 when he premiered the quartet he had written in the German POW camp Stalag VIII-A. Yet even with the specter of World War II hanging over the work and premonitions of the Bible’s final chapter swinging Damocles-like over its eight movements, one part of the quartet’s enduring brilliance is in the idea of stepping back from solid answers and allowing more space for questions. Even with a fully codified score, the structure allows for chance and inquiry, for Tendler and cellist Alexandra Jones to tug on the same strings in the ecstatic slowness of the “Praise to the Eternity of Jesus,” or for Mark Dover’s breathless earthquake of a solo in “Abyss of the Birds.”
In introducing Cage’s Concert for Piano and Orchestra, Tendler noted that a student of his had asked what to listen for in the work. He responded – to the student and, by extension, to the audience – to “surrender” to the work, versus attempting to parse it out. He could have easily said the same for Messiaen’s Quartet, a work that served here to remind that the longest night of the year can be seen as an end of time—but also that in time’s end is its beginning. We end in this performance, which closes with a dawning, searching diptych for violin and piano that ekes out into silence and the stage lights going out, illumined by the work, but still in the dark.
“The less we hold onto our going, the more death, deafness, and blindness, surrounds us or comes our way,” Cage wrote in his lecture. Taken in the duality of Christianity and Buddhism at the Rubin, it would be enough to question our going in the moment and move on. In this time of year, it’s especially easy to move on without thinking about it — travel, last-minute shopping, family affairs, all of the to-dos that get shoved aside in the barrel towards New Year’s Eve.
But the last few days have practically forced the questions back into the driver’s seat. Their reflection was in those questions about the West Bank barrier wall, asked by three adults who subsequently were kicked off a Birthright trip on Sunday. (To be Jewish is to ask questions perpetually.) They arose again on Christmas, when news broke of an eight-year-old Guatemalan child who died in U.S. Border Patrol custody. It’s hard not to map the blueprints of Messiaen’s prison camp onto the circumstances of thousands being detained at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Where are we going? And what are we doing? Is it, in fact, the end of the world? In a space with no answers, we’re able to more fully embrace these questions. Knowing that no one has it right – that there are no gods or masters – levels the playing field. Because there are seemingly fewer sources for us to trust, we can return to the questions themselves, and hold onto our going and our doing. Art, in the hands of artists such as Tenth Intervention and Adam Tendler, provides a holding container for those questions, a crucible of humility and hope. While it’s easy to let the dismay of dystopia take the wheel, we still can aim for illumination.
Olivia Giovetti has covered music and arts for Paper, the Washington Post, NPR, VAN, and beyond. She’s previously served on staff at Time Out New York and WQXR/Q2 Music, and her writing has been heard onstage at the Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of the Next Wave Festival. She combines her love of the arts and meditation practice on The Meditation of Art.
Classical music coverage on National Sawdust Log is supported in part by a grant from the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation. The Log makes all editorial decisions.