Saturday, October 06, 2012

John Cage, Pauline Oliveros

ANOTHER QUICK REPORT: another concert last night at Mills College, this one celebrating two epochal birthdays: John Cage's hundredth; Pauline Oliveros's eightieth. John, of course, was not in attendance; Pauline was, pretty as a button, full of health and quickness.

We heard a fine performance of a pivotal piece of Cage's, the Sixteen Dances he composed in 1951, at exactly the time he was giving up writing music that was "about things," as he explained, and was turning toward music that simply allowed — encouraged, I would say — the sounds to be sounds, to be free to express the sounds they felt like being, rather than something a composer felt they ought, or might, or could be.

These Dances were composed to accompany, and for once this is exactly the correct word, choreography by Merce Cunningham; set for an intelligently chosen instrumental ensemble of piano, four percussionists, and four melodic instruments (flute and trumpet, violin and cello); and made with the help of an elaborate chart generating 64 cells each containing "aggregates" of pitches, intervals, or chords. Sometimes he overrode this precompositional machine, sometimes not. Clearly he was in transition between taste and egolessness, the egolessness that would come to depend on increasing degrees of evasive methodologies — chance, the I Ching, computer routines.

Twenty-five years ago I engaged to write a little book about Cage; it is one of my many major failings that I abandoned the assignment — at the time it seemed unnecessary; plenty of books were appearing about him; another would hardly be missed. I do think there are things still to be contemplated, and one of them is precisely this point, when he moved from "music that is about things" to music that is not. (The phrase set in quotes is taken from a letter he sent me responding to a query: maybe I should simply find that letter, reconstruct its context, post the result here, and let it go at that.)

The Mills Performing Group performed these Sixteen Dances admirably, I thought, dancing around their title-subjects — Anger, Humor, Sorrow, the Heroic, the Odious, the Wondrous, Fear, and the Erotic, the Hindu "eight permanent emotions" that seized Cage's mind in those days, and Tranquility, the fixed center to which they all tend. (The remaining seven dances are Interludes: this composition has affinities with the Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano, as well as the String Quartet in Four Parts; and an ideal concert program would present all three works, preferably on a warm afternoon and evening, with good Indian food and beverage at appropriate moments.)

After the Dances the audience, which had completely filled the Mills concert hall, moved across the road to the Dance Pavilion to see a performance by the Mills Repertory Dance Company, who made a persuasive case for Merce Cunningham's Event with Canfield, for which Pauline Oliveros had provided, in 1969, her score In Memoriam: Nikola Tesla, Cosmic Engineer.

Well: the event was to celebrate the composers, after all, and my attention was fixed first on the sound. John Bischoff, Chris Brown, James Fei, and Maggi Payne managed the electronics, the casual speaking, the balloon-inflation-and-popping, the clapping — and, most importantly, researching the resonant capacity of the geometrically interesting pavilion, whose acoustics provided Pauline's equivalent of John's charts.

Within that sound, and alongside the slowly moving lighting sculpture Ethan Worden provided to Robert Morris's original design, the Mills dancers gave a credible account of Merce's unforgettable moves. Sixteen dancers were credited on the program, and I don't know which of them were the two whose duet was the highlight of the evening. It was fascinating to see a company of students and, I suppose, journeyman dancers taking on choreography familiar from the highly disciplined Cunningham Dance Company. It was a particular pleasure to see that the choreography survives the death of the master.

The program repeats tonight, Saturday, October 6, with Jonas Braasch's System Test and Returning by Oliveros and Stuart Dempster replacing the Sixteen Dances, along with a performance of Cage's Variations IV. I don't know if I can make it; it's a busy day today. I will if I can; it's an event that shouldn't be missed.

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