"The first question I ask myself when something doesn't seem to be beautiful is, why do I think it's not beautiful? And very shortly you discover that there is no reason." -- John Cage
Last night, my good friend Rob, the opera's associate music director/chorusmaster/principal coach/assistant conductor (yes, all of those things), performed in a concert of John Cage music, in celebration of the composer's 100th birthday. I went because he is dear to me and I wanted to support him; otherwise, I was not that into the idea of a whole night of weirdly plonky, random music. Or so I thought.
The performance was equal parts concert and art installation; performances occurred simultaneously throughout the building for the duration of the three-hour event. The building itself was lovely, an old warehouse space: white walls, old wood floors, mostly darkened save for some wall lighting and the glow of stand lights. The space, unheated, was chilly; colder in the adjoining garage, where Rob sang. At the entrance, twelve record players were set up and playing, surrounded by piles of extra records; the piece, 33 1/3, is designed to be controlled by the audience, who can change the records or manipulate the machines at will -- or just let them play. They all blare simultaneously, and the music selection is irrelevant.
The first true performance of the evening -- but that's not the right way to say it, really, since 33 1/3 is a performance too... the first staged performance? the first live performance? I don't even know -- was Credo in Us, one of Cage's early works, which calls for four musicians playing prepared piano, tin cans, hand buzzers, tom toms, and a radio and phonograph. The piece is rhythmic and driving, and frankly, really cool; the radio and phonograph both play whatever the performers choose, though Cage suggested perhaps Dvorak, Sibelius, Shostakovich, or Beethoven. Last night the performance included snippets of Turandot. I watched the page turner for the piece and thought, "Now there is a job I would not want; by comparison, Mussorgsky is a breeze."
In the adjoining garage space, chairs were set up in a loose elongated oval ("It's whale-shaped!" Rob said), facing each other. Litany for the Whale is antiphonal, sung by two baritones, plainchant. The singers sing the sounds of W-H-A-L-E. The space was very live; when the singing began I was surprised for a moment, mistakenly thinking it was amplified. Call and response, over and over. So very different from the rhythmic Credo, so quiet. I sat and watched the other people listening, watched them settle into understanding what the piece was doing; heard the creaking of chairs; watched the tenor of the room change. In the row facing me, most of the people had their eyes closed. One man had pushed his glasses up onto his forehead. A hipster had a bemused smile on his face. A petite woman with long, unruly curls sat tensely, as if maybe she thought she should have gone upstairs to see another work instead. The whalesong went on for twenty five minutes. I can still hear it in my mind.
I thought Cage to be sort of a joke, which is maybe how you perceive him when you learn about him as a 19-year-old in a music history course you are obligated to take in order to receive your degree. I feel sorry for that now. Sometimes it seems my whole life is about learning to open my eyes. You know, it's funny: I am that crazy person in the theater who gets a nervous twitch whenever there is any ambient noise in performance. I hate when people rustle their programs too much, or wear crinkly coats, or have jangly bracelets, or if there is too much coughing or whispering. It's not necessarily that I think the music is sacrosanct; it's more that I hate being pulled out of the experience of listening, and I suppose my ability to hone in on the music is maybe kind of weak if it can be derailed by the sound of a raincoat, but whatever. Simultaneously, I love outdoor concerts -- particularly classical music concerts -- because there is no real sanctity to the sound at all, by virtue of the environment itself. They are not austere. People come and go, they talk, they eat sandwiches and lay on blankets, there are trucks going by. It's just music. I like that. I thought a lot last night about the sacredness or lack thereof in performance, whether there is some music that you should hold sacred and some you shouldn't; whether we take it all too seriously. Not that Cage didn't take it seriously -- indeed, he took it very seriously. But if he had been in that NY Phil performance of Mahler a few weeks ago, he probably would have delighted at that errant, riot-inducing cell phone ring. The thing about attending a performance of Cage's music is that you pretty much can't get it wrong. You can't clap at the wrong time or make too much noise, or too little; you don't have to worry about sirens going by or whether the space is too live. In one absolutely lovely moment, we were standing watching the performance of Fourteen, for various instruments and piano, with the piano strings being bowed using a piece of fishing line. The instrumentalists each have aleatoric passages to play, with the only directive being to play them quietly and to almost never drown out the sound of the piano. As the musicians played, from far behind us, on the other end of the space, Carlos Kalmar, the Oregon Symphony's music director, was performing Lecture on Nothing, which is just that -- a lecture. He had been reading out loud at the desk for over an hour, and finally, not long after Fourteen started, he fell to silence. There was applause from those people still seated nearby. Some of us standing on the opposite end of the room clapped as well. The music on our end continued. Four or five minutes later, Carlos began talking again; the silence had been scripted into the lecture. I grinned. Above the haunting sound of the bowed piano, Carlos's voice, his accent a hard-to-imitate combination of Argentinian and Austrian, floated; the lecture talked about making a corporation called 'Happiness, Inc.,' how everyone who joined would be president; how all you needed to do to join was to smash 100 records; how in Texas there was a woman who told him there was no music there, because in Texas they had recordings, and how recordings were the death of music. All of this overhead, in his accent, mixing with the music. Next to me my friend Bob said, "At any moment I feel like he may launch into Green Eggs and Ham." It was so wonderful.
There was Postcard from Heaven, a piece for 1-20 harps. In this case, I think I counted fourteen, though it might have been fifteen, but at any rate FOURTEEN HARPS. All in a circle, all in one room, all of them simultaneously playing a series of ragas, first quietly and then louder, punctuated by the sounds of hard objects against the sound pegs, by rapid swipes and plucks, and then eventually dwindling to the sound of all the harpists rubbing the sheet music itself onto the strings. The sound of fourteen harps, rather than being lovely, instead brought to mind the picture of a maniacal doll coming, perhaps, to eat you with bared teeth at any moment.
While downstairs there was a second performance of Credo (several of the works were performed multiple times, including Litany for the Whale), upstairs two musicians were performing Inlets, a piece for four conch shells and the sound of fire. There were two microphones, two speakers, a table with four shells, and a basin of water. The musicians filled the shells and tipped them slowly into the basin. Drip drip drip. Inlets was inspired by the weather of the Pacific Northwest, from Cage's time in Seattle. Drip drip drip. It was surprisingly lovely.
And lastly, 4'33". At the start of the night I sat in the space and wrote my letter for the day, and in it I said, "I can't decide whether to stay for 4'33". On the one hand, when do you ever get to experience a performance of it? On the other hand, do I really need to hang around for 2 1/2 hours to watch four and a half minutes of staged silence?" Of course, transformed by the rest of the evening, I was eager to stay. A string quartet and a pianist set up; the first violin had a timer on her phone. The room grew quiet, almost reverent. On cue, the musicians opened their scores. I wondered if anyone in the audience would deliberately make noise in an effort to insert themselves into the piece (a thing I considered, to be frank), but no one did; we all stood very transfixed, listening to the sounds in the next room of people's footsteps, the clinking of an occasional dish, the murmur of speech; the sounds which, of course, are the piece itself. At the appointed time, the musicians turned to the second movement. I was filled with a wild, giddy delight. Around me, everyone was watching the musicians. When they finally closed their music, it came as a surprise; it was impossible to believe four and a half minutes had passed. The violinist held up her timer to show us. We all sort of shook ourselves off, the way you do after you've just been crying during a movie, and disbanded. I came over to the executive director, who subs in our violin section sometimes, and I hugged her twice. "I don't think I have ever attended a better performance," I said, and that is the truth. I cannot even believe it.
The full set list, or what I can remember of it:
Credo in Us
Litany for the Whale
Lecture on Nothing
Apartment House 1776
Music for Marcel Duchamp
Postcard From Heaven
Afterwards the three of us had beers at the strip club half a block down the street. Because that's how we roll.