Howard Wershil | 14 OCT 2022
For many composers, myself included, John Cage is one of the most iconic composers of the 20th century, if not the most. In a world where musical standards were changing, new musical languages being created, new compositional methods were being considered, and the entire idea of what constituted a valid aesthetic was being questioned, we see John Cage at the center of the storm: smiling, laughing, and treating the storm as nothing more than a gentle breeze.
I can offer a personally experienced example of Cage’s affability and life view. As a CalArts graduate student, I was fortunate enough to meet him during his brief residency there. After an hour or so of lively discussion between Cage and CalArts music students, someone suggested that it was time to end the session and get something to eat, to which John Cage glowingly answered, “Why do we have to eat?”
And so, let the stage be set for an exploration and appreciation of his music and attitude, and their marvelous expression through insightful performance.
The inaugural John Cage Festival was presented Sunday, October 9, 2022, sponsored by Eyedrum Music and Art Gallery, and Elevate ATL 2022, a public arts program that seeks to invigorate the Atlanta area by providing visual art, performance, and cultural experiences highlighting Atlanta’s unique cultural and economic vitality.
It is incredibly fortunate for Atlanta to have resources such as Bent Frequency and Eyedrum to present and promote contemporary music, and exceptionally auspicious for Bent Frequency to launch a celebration of John Cage’s music to keep his legacy alive.
The programming for this inaugural event aptly displays the range of John Cage’s compositional talents, from simple, lovely standardly-composed music (Dream (1948); In a Landscape (1948); Suite for Toy Piano (1948)) to pieces more representative of his approach towards indeterminacy, chance and improvisation (Cartridge Music (1960); Ryoanji (1983-5)).
Unfortunately, I was only able to attend the final performances, but these last three performances of the festival certainly did not disappoint.
In that hour, we were treated to two realizations of Composed Improvisation (1987), one of several John Cage compositions that consist of written instructions for how to create a piece of music using chance procedures. The score for this particular example requires three time brackets, one of which is variable, surrounded by two that are fixed. Each time bracket contains one to eight events and one to 64 downbeats. Chance operations determine the number of each, as well as specifics concerning the use of instruments and durations of sounds.
The two realizations yielded very different and equally satisfying results.
The first, for amplified snare drum, utilized not only snare drum with conventional implements (sticks, brushes, etc.) but various other objects in conjunction with the snare to create a dramatic exploration of transformational sonic effect through vibrational interaction. One of the objects used was a medium-sized metal disk, smaller than the circumference of the snare itself. Another was a simple rubber ball. Yet another used was a wooden square from which several keys were suspended at equal lengths within a short distance of each other.
The effect of this “keychime” was, of its own accord, pleasing when jostled, yet, as with the metal disk, even more interesting when suspended above the vibrating snare, lowered to interact with that vibration as the performer was coaxing various rhythms and sonorities from the stationary snare with conventional implement, or even used as a performance implement itself.
The performance provided by Jeremy Muller was thoughtful and virtuosic, and clearly benefitted from his perspective as both performer and composer.
Muller is active as a percussionist, composer, and multimedia artist and has performed as a featured soloist at many venues throughout the United States, Canada, and Australia. At the 2022 installment of NYCEMF, Recently, he performed his composition, Blackwater for snare drums, mobile phones, and animation, at the 2022 installment of the New York City Electroacoustic Music Festival.
Wait. I’ve been saving old keys for much of my entire adult life. I’ve wondered why. Aha! Now I know why.
The second realization was provided by Klimchak. Klimchak is a well-known, admired percussionist and composer, appreciated for his unconventional utilizations of an incredibly wide variety of percussion instruments and sound-creating objects to our delight, astonishment, and amusement. He is certainly a veteran musical icon of the Atlanta area, but well-known in other parts of the world as well, both as an innovative performer and a composer of theatre music.
Klimchak’s realization of Composed Improvisation (1987) utilized a number of single-sided drums (various-sized tambourines, with or without jangles) and various implements, conventional and not, to excite various kinds of vibrations of varying lengths and volume — vibrations very different than those achieved on snare drum from the previous performance.
There was a particularly jubilant moment when Klimchak swirled and juggled several sonorous metallic objects (jangles, perhaps?) inside of one of the larger one-sided drums. Another moment of whimsy occurred when Klimchak blew through a tube with its expanded endpoint attached to a side drum, producing various cries and wails. We were even treated to a brief Kalimba performance as an implement of excitation on yet another, larger side drum.
His use of the tubing reminded me of someone lovingly blowing on a child’s stomach or neck, with the child squealing in delight. The association amused me. It brought back warm and pleasant memories.
The overall effect of Klimchak’s performance provided more of a sense of abandon and jubilation than seriousness and sobriety (despite the fact that seriousness and sobriety might actually be necessary to achieve the opposite effect). But I think that’s all part of Klimchak’s charm as a composer and performer. Here again, the ability to interpret the piece as both performer and composer certainly provides beneficial perspective.
The final piece on the Cage Festival program was Third Construction (1941), energetically performed by percussionists Stuart Gerber, Jeremy Muller, Khesner Oliveira, and Victor Pons, all of whom are stellar performers with exceptional accolades. The performance showcased well the sonic ranges of the various instruments performed (rattles, drums, tin cans, claves, cowbells, lion’s roar, cymbal, ratchet, teponaxtle, quijades, cricket caller, and conch shell) and the ensemble encased these sonorities in Cage-prescribed lively rhythms creating a result just ambiguous enough to imply any number of contemporary world music implications — sounds cloaked in Cage-prescribed rhythms extracted from a piece written well before the term “world music” was in wide use.
I think this may have been the first time I heard a John Cage composition that you could easily dance to. I wanted to dance to it. I didn’t. Quite fortunate, for all concerned, I think.
It could be argued that the goal of every exceptional performer is to bring every nuance, every detail, every ounce of expression of the composer’s voice to the attention and benefit of the public for their appreciation and enlightenment. Given that supposition, John Cage’s repertoire’s use of chance and indeterminacy allows gifted performers to shine in ways that the conventional repertoire cannot provide and invites open-minded audience members to experience sound, art, and aesthetics in new and revealing ways.
Indeed, the Cagean aesthetic is an invitation to performers to make mindful and sacred choices. In the hands of gifted and insightful performers, these choices yield magic.
In addition to composing, John Cage also provided us with much writing that expresses his philosophies in many areas, not just art and music, as well as many interesting quotations. In conclusion, let me leave you with one of his classic contributions for our consideration:
“If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually, one discovers that it is not boring at all.”
And that, you see, is why we don’t have to eat. At least, not just yet. ■