Friday, May 26, 2017

Cage Tudor Rauschenberg MoMA

Pianist & composer David Tudor on the program cover
"Both those who love 4'33"and those who hate it probably agree there's something provocative about it," composer David Lang (co-founder of Bang On A Can) told the audience at MoMA, referring to John Cage's most notorious piece. He's certainly right, and as I don't mind being provoked by art, I am firmly in the "love" camp. Another point he made was that Cage created the piece for avant-garde piano virtuoso David Tudor, which gave the unheard music far greater potential than if just anyone had sat down at the Steinway for four minutes and change. This was the perfect introduction to the performance by another virtuoso, violinist Todd Reynolds, which was part of a two night series focusing on music related to the Robert Rauschenberg retrospective at the museum. 

Reynolds did a remarkable job, striking a different pose for each of the work's three movements, dignified at all times but not without a puckish wit. I was put in mind of how someone like David Bowie could create unheard music in a still picture, like the unusual Hollywood-style portrait he had made for the Sound + Vision retrospective in the early 90's. It was not only a new look for Bowie, but it also seemed to refer to songs yet unwritten. 
Todd Reynolds, surrounded by the "silence" of 4'33"
Of course Cage, with his acknowledgement of the role of chance in his compositions, meant for us to pay attention to the sounds we do hear during 4'33", as no space is perfectly silent. In Titus Theater 1, two stories below West 53rd Street, there was plenty of listening to do. The periodic rumble of the subway was a lead "instrument," underpinned by the buzz of some electronics or lighting behind and to my left. There was a brief chorus of voices outside one of the fire exits, and the rhythm of my heart, which sped up for some reason during the first movement. It's not always easy to be in the moment, I guess. 

One brilliant way Cage dealt with that anxiety was to make it perfectly clear how long the piece will be. It went by surprisingly quickly, an appropriate appetizer for what was to follow. First up was After David Tudor (Homage To Fluorescent Sound), a tribute by Lang and Jody Elff to Tudor's composition for fluorescent lights, which can never be performed again. As Lang explained, not only is there no audio, video, or score, fluorescent lights have seen some improvements since 1964 and no longer make the humming and clicking sounds Tudor was amplifying. 

What they came up with was an assortment of fluorescent light fixtures, artfully arranged on the stage, and activated by Lang and Elff from a central console. Buzzing sounds of slightly different timbres began and ended, lights went on and off, my retinas got a workout. Sonically it had a slightly retro feel, which was appropriate, although I may have been the only one going all the way back to Franz Waxman's 1935 score for The Bride of Frankenstein, which featured some interesting "electricity" effects. It was a little unclear whether Lang and Elff were improvising or following some kind of plan, but there was a sense of build-up and finale as the piece came to a close. All told, it was a fun and affectionate acknowledgment of Tudor's pioneering work. 

Cage's Atlas Eclipticalis (1961), which "translates star charts into musical instructions," was up next and began without pause. Members of The New School's Ensemble 4'33", making their performing debut under Reynolds' direction, were arrayed around the perimeter of the room, giving us an immersive experience. The music, as fragmented as a pulverized mosaic, was made all the more satisfying for being the most melodic thing we had heard all night, even if the lights continued to buzz throughout.

The human ear seeks to organize sound, first by assigning a direction and source (bassoon at 3:00!), and then structure. There was none of the latter that I could discern until I realized that the atomization is the structure and relaxed into the randomness. Taken that way, Cage's conception is flawless and the performance could not have been better. The subtlety of some of the sounds, whether from electric guitar, percussion, cello or trumpet, was astonishing and quietly moving as the players coaxed it from their instruments. There is a great deal of flexibility in how this work is performed, and some recordings (James Levine, I'm looking at you) seem to conventionalize the music. I think I prefer Ensemble 4'33"'s approach, which seems somehow truer to Cage. I'm also sure I would hear more in a repeat performance, but I don't think it's in the stars.

You can watch the first night of the series, featuring music of Morton Feldman, Bryce Dessner, and others, here. The Rauschenberg show continues through September 17, 2017. 

You may also enjoy: 
BOAC At MMOCA: The Eno Has Landed
Pianos In Context
Bang-Up World Premieres

No comments:

Post a Comment