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29 October 2007

A Compendium of Cage: Whales, Mushrooms and Hymns

Cage Uncaged // NSW // 15.09.07

Roland Peelman, Artistic Director of The Song Company Image: Roland Peelman, Artistic Director of The Song Company  
© Keith Saunders

A day-long exploration of John Cage's unique sound aesthetic makes for a revelatory concert-going experience. The shared vision of Ensemble Offspring and The Song Company has yielded an imaginative project, marking the 15th anniversary of the composer's death and celebrating the impact of his philosophies on subsequent generations of musicians and artists. Their recent triptych of concerts - respectively entitled To the Sea, To the Earth and To the Air - comprised ten Cage works interspersed with new offerings by five Australian composers, each reflecting a different facet of his far-reaching influence.

Experimental notation continues to chart unusual sound possibilities... Ensemble directors Damien Ricketson and Roland Peelman were as thoughtful in their programming as they were meticulous in establishing distinct moods within the three sections of Cage Uncaged. The vast, versatile CarriageWorks interior was well suited to this endeavour: each concert found seating and staging arrangements radically altered and even the musicians' attire underwent collective changes between shows. Neil Simpson's lighting design was an essential component of these coups de theatre, observing a sense of occasion, even of ritual.

Spatial awareness was integral to each performance, heightening the surround sound effects between vocal and instrumental groups. As well as creating a striking visual balance, these configurations allowed the audiences to better appreciate structures within soundscapes and to hear intimate moments with crystalline precision.

With the entire spectrum of Cagean aesthetics acting as a creative sounding board for new compositional directions, the master innovator's character quirks, chance encounters and Beckettian stagecraft have all been incorporated into the Australian works selected and commissioned for the festival. Experimental notation continues to chart unusual sound possibilities, while open-ended written instruction imbues some of the pieces with a theatrical element of performance art.

To the Sea

Cage's Litany for the Whale (1980) opened the concert series with something close to a live sound installation. Seats arranged on either side of the space surrounded Roland Peelman, whose softly spoken philosophical meanderings provided a textual counterpoint to the ethereal chant sung by baritone Mark Donnelly and tenor Richard Black. These pure antiphonal calls echoed each other from behind the audience seating and from opposite sides of the hall, as if floating across different realms. Listeners could wander freely as they absorbed the meditative textures.

Slow Flipping Harmony (2006) for five players, by London-based Australian Matthew Shlomowitz, extended this atmosphere of introspection. Scoring for open instrumentation remains true to the principles of indeterminacy so often espoused by Cage: Ensemble Offspring's realisation blended unconventional percussive effects, clarinet multiphonics and subtle accordion with the dictaphone operations outlined in Shlomowitz's instructions. The instrumental motifs begin as unified material but diverge and fall out of sync through irregular looping patterns. Unpredictable moments of gestural commonality between players enliven their intimate interplay.

In contrast to the contemplative reverie of Litany for the Whale, Colin Bright's cantata The Last Whale (2007) makes a bold, highly politicised environmental statement, rallying against the brutality of commercial whaling. Ritualistic drums beat out their throbbing bloodlust, an amplified violin rages and sampled waves crash against rocks. In the midst of this cacophony, female voices, pristine and sirenlike, sing the Dies Irae and other requiem texts. Apart from sacred laments for the dead, The Last Whale's text derives from a range of sources and perspectives assembled like a collage: a chilling scientific report condoning whaling for research purposes, an Icelandic blogger's tongue-in-cheek Web commentary, and an activist's description of a Minke whale in its agonised death throes.

Bright's opera The Sinking of the Rainbow Warrior (1993), commissioned by the Australian Music Centre and later performed by The Song Company and austraLYSIS, confronts the bombing of a Greenpeace ship through similar forms of politically charged textual pluralism. Whereas Cage's spoken-word selections often seem arbitrary and aim to 'sober and quieten the mind', Bright harnesses fragmented viewpoints to express an unshakable conviction. I imagine he must have been pleased that the environmental bent of the festival's themes coincided with a colourful Greenpeace exhibition celebrating 30 years of action on display in the CarriageWorks foyer.

To the Earth

The musicians' wardrobe change from black attire to casual wear - t-shirts, jeans and flannel - emphasised the raw, organic connection with sound that had shaped several works presented in the second concert. The world premiere of To Keep Things Reasonable (2007) by David Young was a fitting expression of this theme, conveyed in the work's concept and execution. Inspired by Cage's fascination with mycology, Young's evocative graphic score takes its pictorial content from botanical sketches and microscopic images of fungi, set on a musical staff as never before.

Presided over by a sense of ritualistic primacy, the impressive assemblage of coloured pots was the centrepiece and lifeblood of the concert... Sinuous, twisting lines enable the three singers and violist to move between pitches with microtonal ambiguity, while rounded forms represent percussive input, sometimes entailing primordial actions such as the tapping together of two stones. Visually, the use of colour and freeform line is reminiscent of the score for Cage's Aria (1958), composed for the fluid vocal capabilities of Cathy Berberian.

Embedded in David Young's chosen Latin text (assembled by Cynthia Troup and translator Neville Chiavaroli) are references to Cage's discovery of wild mushrooms: 'When I first came in touch with mushrooms I was looking for strawberries.' The use of an ancient language, and the surreal squeezing effect of uninhibited phrasing on the words, could be seen as an attempt to capture the enigmatic haziness of a psychedelic trip. But Young's innovation lies not so much in vocal technique as in his unique visual form of musical communication, in which the idea behind the work informs the aesthetic substance of its score.

American composer Frederic Rzewski gave the members of Ensemble Offspring a good excuse to rummage through their kitchen cupboards and garden sheds in the name of found-object instrumentation. His earnest ode to Mother Earth, based on the text of an Homeric hymn, taps into Cage's tradition of anything-goes percussion ensembles, in which striking a book, a table or an automobile brake drum creates a valid musical sound source. In To the Earth (1985), terracotta flowerpots and ceramic bowls reverberated with their own music of the spheres. Three female singers joined Claire Edwardes and Bree Van Reyck in percussive roles, while all performers recited the ode in rhythmic unison. Presided over by a sense of ritualistic primacy, the impressive assemblage of coloured pots was the centrepiece and lifeblood of the concert.

Ensemble Offspring again demonstrated this found-sound aesthetic with a much broader range of noises in Cage's Four6 (1992). His typically open scoring leads performers to decide on their own instruments: here the four players chose a plethora of found materials including scrunched cellophane, clinking glasses, whistles, an unconventionally bowed violin, and textual interjections, stretching the possibilities of sonic combinations for the best part of half an hour.

To the Air

Kilpatrick gave the impression of a rigid, broken doll lurching abruptly to life The final Cage Uncaged concert was structured around a mood of churchlike solemnity, complete with musicians in elegant formal garb and rearranged 'pews' separated by an aisle. No Cage festival could be complete without the seminal 4'33'' (1952), appropriately performed here as a spiritual rite encouraging cathartic revaluation of the sound universe within 'silence'. The staging was striking, with Edwardes in sparkling dress against a backdrop of heavy black curtain, soundlessly extending and retracting a radio antenna to delineate the work's three-movement structure. Inexplicably, I felt like I was observing the coded imagery of a David Lynch film.

Sydney-based Stephen Adams contributed to the concert's church theme with A Short Service (2006). The piece opens with spoken quotation of a Cage anecdote, repeated as a mantra of increasingly jumbled text until it is broken down and absorbed into Adams's own religious and cultural heritage. Radio static and snippets of commercial advertising sliced sporadically through the wordplay, in reference to Cage's creative work with radio noise in Imaginary Landscape no. 4 and to the blaring wireless described in the recited story. To these layers of homage Adams added introspective hymnlike vocal harmonies, drawing from his own familial religious roots and Cage's Episcopalian upbringing. A Short Service links together strands of the two composers' formative sonic experiences.

In Arsenal, Bahrain, Chihuahua, Darjeeling and Eisenhower (2007), Matthew Shlomowitz also explores commonality of experience, here between music and motion. The work could be described as a culmination of the ideas that enriched Cage's collaboration with his partner, dancer Merce Cunningham. Written for one instrumentalist and one 'dancer' (performed at Cage Uncaged by violinist Thomas Talmacs and The Song Company's Ruth Kilpatrick), it involves direct interaction between the gestures of each performer.

Shlomowitz asks the musician to construct 'a catalogue of 5 entities' - labelled A, B, C, D and E as his florid title suggests - to be played in a variety of combinations. The dancer devises five corresponding movements enacted in tandem with the appropriate musical phrase. Kilpatrick's stylised physical gestures incorporated vocal utterance and facial expression to great comic effect: she gave the impression of a rigid, broken doll lurching abruptly to life, and one of her five prescribed motions even mirrored the visual of Talmacs playing violin. The tense, rhythmic immediacy of action and reaction resulted in a dynamic piece of performance art.

Michael Smetanin's Due Pezzi Per Niente ('Two Pieces For Nothing', 2006) was the final Australian offering of the festival. When it was premiered last year by The Song Company alongside experimental vocal pieces by Ligeti, Berio and Cage, it was the most energetic work on the program. In 1982 as a student in Italy, Smetanin found himself face to face with John Cage at a Venetian bar. It is this fortuitous encounter that prompted his a cappella sextet setting of Cage's most important guiding philosophy, from his Lecture on Nothing of 1950: 'I have nothing to say and I am saying it and that is poetry.' The close canonic entries of the voices, clustered harmonies and looping fragments of text call to mind the vocal works of Steve Reich, Phillip Glass and John Adams.

In his September 17 review of Cage Uncaged for The Australian, Vincent Plush suggested that future Cage festivals, if Ensemble Offspring and The Song Company make a yearly event of them, could benefit from being 'a little less reverential and sombre.' I am reminded of the palpable mirth Ruth Kilpatrick elicited from her audience during Cage's Solo for Voice 12 and Shlomowitz's Arsenal, Bahrain, etc. I can't help but think that Plush missed the humour behind all the elaborate, cultish theatricality of the event, and that John Cage, with his innate sense of laughter and play, would have approved.

Performance Details

Further Links

Melissa Lesnie currently studies musicology at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, where her main interests lie in early music and 20th century composition. She works at the classical CD specialist store Fish Fine Music. In her spare time, Melissa sings in the Sydneian Bach Chamber Choir and records as one half of an electroacoustic duo, Lady Lazarus.


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Caged Uncaged on Youtube

For those who missed this gig, you can catch some of it on Youtube. Matthew Shlomowitz has posted the performance of his Slow Flipping Harmony www.youtube.com/watch?v=KasOa9H4rAs