Last night, the internet and airwaves slowly drowned in a sea of content related to the Grammys, a celebration of celebrity, of commercial viability, of music forged mostly on easily palatable, recognizable pop structure. But in the heart of South Beach, a neighborhood hardly known for its creative daring, an event celebrating nearly the polar opposite proceeded in a packed auditorium.
At the New World Symphony, the organization capped off its weekend-long celebration of the 100-year anniversary of the birth of composer John Cage. The nearly three-hour program seemed to represent everything the Grammys did not: the celebration of individuality over conformity, of chance over easy predictions, of musical chaos over verse-chorus-hook.
The performances of Cage’s work at the symphony over the weekend proceeded in largely chronological order, with last night’s bill focusing on his works of the ’70s and ’80s. The composer, who died in 1992 at age 80, is most often noted in art history-type textbooks for his work in the ’60s, when he fully bought to fruition his plays on choice, randomness, and lucky musical confluences. The three pieces presented last night showed the same love of seemingly illogical logic, only even more fully developed, even baroque.
The evening’s opening piece, Dance 4/Orchestras from 1982, found the main symphony auditorium set up in an in-the-round configuration, with one small orchestra in the center of the floor led by New World’s artistic director, Michael Tilson Thomas. (Aside: Just an hour before, Tilson actually did, in fact, scoop up a Grammy, his 11th, for Best Orchestral Recording for an album with the San Francisco Symphony, where he is music director.) But there were also three other mini orchestras tucked throughout the space, two in rehearsal rooms on the building’s north side, and one in an upstairs waiting area. Each played its own individual score under its own conductor, and your seat would depend which one you’d hear most loudly, of course.
Sudden, loud stabs of horns and strings from one orchestra might be echoed by another some moments later, or they might overlap with random squeaks. Sometimes it sounded like a call and response exercise, others, just like a series of random coincidences. It was never boring, though. Where most traditionally structured and played music plays on emotions, these 30 minutes tested the logical side of the brain. You might try to make sense of the patterns before giving up and reaching a sort of meditative state.
The second piece, Etudes Australes, from 1974-1975, applied these same principles to just one pianist. Here, performer Marc-Andre Hamelin managed a score written in two distinct parts, each for an individual hand. Each spanned the entire range of the piano, a difficult feat magnified by the fact that Cage wrote specific instructions that the second hand could not help play a part. This meant Hamelin’s arms often crossed each other and back in a series of plinks and plonks. This performance, in fact, could never again be duplicated. The instructions also indicated that Hamelin should randomly choose parts of the score to perform, and for the second half of this segment, he flipped through, choosing pages at a whim.
The most chaotic, joyous, and entertaining segment of the evening, though, was the last, a simultaneous performance of Cage’s 1976 piece Renga and a so-called “musicircus.” Cage originally wrote Renga for the bicentennial, as a celebration of American ruggedness and individuality. To write the score, he superimposed doodles from the margins of Henry David Thoreau’s journal over a staff, then scrambled up the parts for the various sections of an orchestra. The lines indicate the general pitch and tone of the notes, but most of the specifics are left up to the individual musicians.
On top of this, Cage meant for Renga to be performed in all its cacophonous glory at the same time as either his Apartment House 1776 “musicircus,” a collection of American musical history scraps, or another musicircus of a director’s choosing. So, for this Cage centennial, Tilson Thomas and company created their own, new musicircus. This meant they mounted Renga alongside eight other Cage musical pieces, along with a dance piece choreographed by Cage’s longtime artistic and musical partner, Merce Cunningham.
The result was 40 minutes of, well, a complete circus. The musicians playing Renga itself alternated between plaintive woodwind solos, thunder-claps of strings and horns, and sudden outbursts of cheap percussion, like jingle bells and mini cymbals. From different corners of the auditorium, performers in other pieces yelled, laughed, or sang Gregorian chant-like passages of notes.
On the ceilings and walls, vintage commercials blared occasionally, while at other times, Cage himself appeared in film form, reciting his 1950 “Lecture on Nothing.” Dancers performing Cunningham’s work skipped, stumbled, and lurched throughout the place as though they were re-enacting Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks. In a particularly absurd but amazing segment, one musician, performing a 1975 Cage piece dubbed Child of Tree, played an amplified cactus, running something like a pick over its needles to percussive effect.
If you were to laugh, snort, or even shriek at this litany of surprises, well, that was part of the point. It was even clear, here, that the New World Symphony fellows’ youth is one of their main strengths. It likely takes a very un-jaded view to embrace Cage full-on, and these twenty- and thirtysomethings were clearly game to do something un-stuffy. In fact, as this evening further proved, “un-stuffy” seems to be the guiding ethos of New World this season, and it’s well worth a visit to see for yourself.