So, I read the other day in the Boston Globe that the Somerville, Mass. concert series Opensound would be continuing an annual tradition with tomorrow evening's performance of John Cage's "Variations III." You've no doubt heard of John Cage, the mavericky American composer whose centennial was last year, and whose pieces sometimes contain...unusual features. How unusual? Check out how reporter Matthew Guerrieri describes what will take place:
“Variations III” is at once one of Cage’s most nonspecific and intricate compositions. Each performer (“one or any number of persons”) is to cut out 42 identical circles from a sheet of transparent plastic and drop them on top of each other; the largest group of linked circles becomes that performer’s score.
“Starting with any circle, observe the number of circles which overlap it,” Cage instructs. “Make an action or actions having the corresponding number of interpenetrating variables.” The process is repeated for each circle.
All right, Cage fans, settle down. I'm not quite the philistine I appear to be, even when it comes to Cage. For before he jumped the proverbial shark with his dice-rolling, I Ching-consulting, New-York-skyline-tracing, circle-cutting-out methods of "composition," Cage composed music that I love. Real, creative, innovative, prophetic, compelling, mesmerizing music , with ideas, personality and the indefinable but recognizable stamp of genius.
Want to hear what I mean? Tune in at about 11:20 or so (we try to keep our timings somewhat indeterminate) for three Cage mini-masterworks. Even here, the composer's instructions to his performers went way beyond the expected for the time. In "A Room," the performer, Russian pianist Alexei Lubimov (above left) "prepares" the piano by placing common objects on its strings, turning the piano into a one-person percussion orchestra. In "The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs," accompanist Ania Bostock drums with her hands on a closed piano while mezzo Eileen E. Ruby (above center) intones the lyric from James Joyce's "Finnegans Wake." Nothing quite so outlandish takes place in the last piece, "In a Landscape," except perhaps the hypnotic effect harpist Yolanda Kondnassis's (above right) performance will have on you, if you submit yourself to it.
And perhaps, now that I've gotten over myself a little, that last remark also goes for "Variations III" and other later, further-out Cageiana. The music, such as it is, is not in making, it's in the taking. So if you decide to partake tomorrow night, be sure to stop by and say "hello." I'll be the one who's not there. And do please let me know for my grant report.
P.S. The idea of hand-drumming the outside of the piano reminded me of the plaintive question asked at the beginning and end of this enduring '60s classic, providing crucial structural unity. "Who's that banging on the piano?"