Music

'MaerzMusik' Pays Tribute To John Cage

American composer, John Cage, works at his piano in 1947. Marking the centennial of his birth, the Berliner Festispiele is exploring Cage's legacy under the theme "Cage and Consequences." i i

American composer, John Cage, works at his piano in 1947. Marking the centennial of his birth, the Berliner Festispiele is exploring Cage's legacy under the theme "Cage and Consequences." John Cage Trust/Berliner Festspiele hide caption

itoggle caption John Cage Trust/Berliner Festspiele
American composer, John Cage, works at his piano in 1947. Marking the centennial of his birth, the Berliner Festispiele is exploring Cage's legacy under the theme "Cage and Consequences."

American composer, John Cage, works at his piano in 1947. Marking the centennial of his birth, the Berliner Festispiele is exploring Cage's legacy under the theme "Cage and Consequences."

John Cage Trust/Berliner Festspiele

Whether one considers John Cage an inventor, a philosopher, or a composer of genius, his riotous theatrical concepts and graphic notations remain radical even today.

"I don't have any ideas. I don't have any tastes," the American composer famously said on German television after his last visit in 1990, just two years before his death.

"I'm just doing my work, so to speak, stupidly. And it turns out to be beautiful."

To mark the centennial of Cage's birth, Berlin's annual festival MärzMusik, is exploring his legacy under the rubric "Cage and Consequences."

The program, which opened March 17th and continues through March 25th, features figures such the vocalist-composer Joan La Barbara and members of the Sonic Arts Union, who were directly influenced by the composer, as well as representatives of a younger Cage-inspired generation.

In another twist, the festival is also thematicizing the polarity between Cage and Wolfgang Rihm, whose neo-Romantic idiom could not stand in starker contrast to the former's lawless experimentalism.

The festival opened at the Haus der Berliner Festspiele with La Barbara in a new production of Cage's "Songbooks," as combined with his "Concert for Piano and Orchestra," followed by the world premiere of La Barbara's "Persistence of Memory" for chamber ensemble and electronic. Her composition was performed to film designed by Aleksandar Kostic. Much in the spirit of Cage's collaborations with his partner, the choreographer Merce Cunningham, La Barbara wouldn't let Kostic hear the full score and only saw a pilot of the film in December.

As seen on March 17th, La Barbara conducted her Ne(x)tworks ensemble as she phonated subtly to sparse, undulating textures for piano and trombone before the entire ensemble was enmeshed in cacophony. The contrast of lyricism and noise gave way to a meditative drone, as if the instruments were simulating Indian classical music, while La Barbara broke out into throat singing. The music grew more nervous before a final passage evoked wind, storms, and hail. Kostic's slowly-moving psychedelic imagery enhanced the listening experience rather than distracting from it, as is the tendency of so much modern video.

The performance of "Songbooks," written in 1970 for voice, theater, and electronic, vividly captured the defiant humor, anarchistic leanings, and meandering philosophical inquiries that drove Cage's work. To be sure, this is not the easiest piece to follow, but it is hard to imagine a more authentic rendition.

French, English, German, and gibberish were uttered as ensemble members of Ne(xt)works and the Berlin-based Maulwerker engaged in happenings scattered simultaneously onstage and occasionally into the audience. La Barbara ascended above stage in a kimono-like robe as heavy, ecstatic breathing played through the sound system, only to descend reincarnated with a boar's head; drank water with a throat microphone; and walked in an insomniac daze into the audience.

The instrumentalists were trapped in their own world of experimental sound as much as they provided context for the events.

One leitmotif was a protagonist's chanting of the Thoreau maxim "The best form of government is no government at all" as he waved a flag emblazoned with an image of planet Earth. He ultimately met with skeptical laughter from an actress onstage who soon thereafter began talking to herself in a non-sensical stream of consciousness. Cagean maxims as communicated by La Barbara's electronically manipulated voice concluded the performance on slightly a more coherent note.

At the Konzerthaus, one of Cage's later and tamer works, "103 for Orchestra" (1991), was performed alongside his video "One" (1992). Both works were created through chance operations and do not entirely coincide. The score unfolds over exactly 90 minutes in a slowly-moving process that includes aleatoric solo passages, with the film consisting only of light and shadow imagery.

The Konzerthaus Orchestra, seen March 18th, spilled out onto the aisles and balconies of the dimly-lit concert hall. Smooth, quietly sustained textures are punctuated with the bursts and attacks of individual instruments before the orchestra returns to its gradually building, at times inert state. The occasional rumbling timpani add a primordial quality, as if the orchestra were reverting to a pre-historic age, with instruments fading in and out just like the light movement onscreen. While the effect is meditative and creates tremendous tension, it loses appeal into the final stretch.

Prior to the festival's official opening, the Radialsystem hosted the German premiere of "gefaltet," a choreographed concert by local icon Sasha Waltz and the Lachenmann protégé Marc Andre that was first unveiled in Salzburg last January. The title refers to a method in electronic music called "Faltung" by which sound impulses are responded to acoustically.

Waltz and Andre set out to create dialogue between music and dance, including works from the composer's "iv" (short for 'introvertiert') and "Klangruine" series. Adding another level of call and response, Andre's works are juxtaposed with piano and chamber works by W.A. Mozart (who would expect anything less from a work originally commissioned by the Stiftung Mozarteum).

Waltz brought an appropriately childish, naively Romantic touch to piano works such as Sonata in a-minor KV 310, featuring a playful male trio, and the Rondo KV 511 which was propelled in a duo of sweeping, interlocking movements across the stage (seen March 16). The musicians were also physically involved in the action. Violinist Carolin Widmann, appearing in an oversized caricature of a Rococo gown (costumes by Beate Borrmann), was at one point lifted mid-action by a troupe member of Sasha Waltz & Guests (Edivaldo Ernesto). The effect was optically comical yet her sound quality suffered slightly.

The sudden transitions into the existentially precarious sound worlds of Andre were quite dramatic, particularly when it was revealed in "Klangruine II" that the uppermost part of the keyboard was prepared. Alexander Lonquich hammered away against scraping strings and high-pitched squeals. At the climax, Widmann placed her violin on the ground as if it were a cello when Ernesto seized the bow between his toes, an amusing but profligate gesture.

Andre's music found a more powerful setting with the musicians offstage, such as in the barely audible, metallic textures of the string trio "iv 8" which featured Widmann miked in response to the remainder of the ensemble. Waltz's duet of subtly shifting movements created a compelling visual framework for the music, that is, until a male dancer appeared to have a simulated seizure onstage.

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