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Kroumata Percussion, Radio Music Kroumata Percussion, Radio Music
photo Katarina Widell
JOHN CAGE, MUSHROOM LOVER AND CULTURE HERO EXTRAORDINAIRE. BY ALL ACCOUNTS A REALLY NICE GUY. AND, TO CELEBRATE THE CENTENARY OF HIS BIRTH, CLOCKED OUT ASSEMBLED THREE NIGHTS OF CONCERTS IN BRISBANE.

Before each concert is an hour or so of Cage’s Musicircus, with artists spread throughout the space to perform more or less disconnected art-like actions. No reflection on the performers, but for me these “Happenings” are a bit long in the tooth. The moment for some of Cage’s work has gone—particularly for the pieces that focus on the presentation of uncorrelated (random) events. Cage became heavily influenced by Zen Buddhism, and “with our thoughts we make the world” fitted well with someone born into the glory days of US hegemony and a culture of hyper-confident individualism. For Cage the world was “teeming,” buzzingly random, and an individual could impose upon that world whatever structure they wanted. Cage’s work was then directed to producing an environment of randomised events that could be given structure (meaning) through individual contemplative attention.

Biology, though, shows us that our sensory, emotional and cognitive systems are coupled to a highly structured world with meaning derived from the adaptive value of that coupling. It seems that, even after his famous ‘silent’ 4’33” encouraged people to hear the world without addition, Cage continued to compose works for the concert hall that he felt—mistakenly as it turned out—reflected the sounds and dynamics of the world. The challenge of listening deeply to the actual world as a compositional strategy would later be taken up en masse with the advent of cheap recording equipment and the expansion of the, now quite large, field recording movement.

Decibel’s thoughtful performance of the eight Variations, written between 1958 and 1968, demonstrates the limitations of the randomisation strategies Cage used. The Variations focus on chance in compositional process, performer choice and audible output, and illustrate Cage’s philosophical commitments to removing personal taste from his work—to let sounds ‘speak for themselves.’ Using a range of graphical constructs, the scores have instructions like “For any number of players and any sound producing means.” The results are generally not that interesting to listen to. The exception for me is Variation 4—where a chart laid over a map of the venue sends performers off to various parts of the stage and beyond. Very sparse in execution, this piece articulates space through its acoustical properties. We hear the auditorium in new ways; we become more in-the-world than in a model of the world (and hence apart). Harking back to biology, using sound to indicate spatial structure and the properties of the objects that compose it is highly adaptive—the emotional valence of the spatialised sound flows naturally from the coupling of our sensory apparatus and properties of the world that are useful to us as animals within that world.

More engaging is the superb second night performance by Swedish percussionists, Kroumata. They begin with Cage’s Radio Music from the mid 50s: played quiet, spread either side of the stage for some nice call and response. Using the current radio channels—rather than trying to recreate a 50s radio program as Cage would have heard—this piece nicely illustrates Cage’s interest in composing as the provision of specific containers for constrained events. Timing, duration and content domain (radio sounds) are determined, but the specific instant of the radio sound is undetermined. Degrees of chance.

The next piece, Music for Carillon, was also scored within a ‘container’ paradigm—with rectangles as containers of points (notes)—the horizontal axis for time, vertical for pitch. It does not really matter that Cage used an elaborate system of folding and cutting paper to find a process of randomisation to generate the score—the score is quite explicit and determined as far as performance goes. And the performance (on glockenspiels) is delicate and lovely—spread across the space like rain on a canopy of bells.

Again we have delicate and lovely for the next work, Amores 2, perhaps the highlight of the festival. Softest hands on the drum skins, subtle shakes of seed pods, great ensemble work with short riffs and rhythmic fragments passing between the players to give each phrase tremendous subtlety (parts remind me of Webern’s short, shared fragments). Cage was an absolute master at the orchestration of sound—in his development of new instruments such as the prepared piano, in his stacking of different sounds and in his understanding of movement between sounds.

Another illustration of the mix between determinism and chance, Williams Mix, has a huge score that provides a precise one-to-one mapping from score to lengths of audio tape. But the contents of the tape segments are suggested rather than locked in. On the first night we hear both the original recording and a new version by Werner Dafeldecker and Valerio Tricoli. The original is not that long, a looney-tunes cartoon frenzy. The new version is much longer—much closer to the intentions of score, Tricoli claims. Sounds are less recognisable—more abstract—although still with the feel of early tape music. Far too loud (thank you free earplugs). But if you use earplugs you don’t hear the piece as intended. And if you go without earplugs then your hearing is damaged and you don’t get to hear anyone else’s music with the same acuity. Ever again. Physically damaging volumes are a longstanding bugbear of mine.

Of the remaining pieces, Lawrence English and Scott Morrison’s reworking of Cage’s final film, One11, is better than the original. Streaming white noise, rough white surfaces, hinted figures, venetian blinds blurred into gritty lozenges of light, the improvised soundtrack starts like a David Lynch/Alan Splet combo for wheezing water heater and ostinato piano. Sounds to let you know there’s something you don’t want to know.

Though my view is that Cage’s later works often fail as music to be listened to, his ideas have been enormously influential. And the earlier works are truly beautiful. Clocked Out—in a tour de force of funding aggregation that deserves applause in itself—have presented an excellent and important festival that, quite amazingly, covered the full scope of one of music’s greatest innovators.


The Cage in Us, presented by Clocked Out, performers Valerio Tricoli (Italy) and Werner Dafeldecker (Germany), Kroumata Percussion, Decibel, Rebecca Cunningham, Lawrence English, Joel Stern, Erik Griswold, Vanessa Tomlinson, Ba Da Boom, the QCGU New Music Ensemble. The Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts, Brisbane, April 12-14

RealTime issue #109 June-July 2012 pg. 35

© Greg Hooper; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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