Previously Unreleased Footage of Boulez–Cage Tennis Match Discovered

JOHN CAGE, FROM THE COMPOSER PORTRAITS SERIES
MILLER THEATER, COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY

Given the Googlanche of words elicited by the John Cage centennial, I knew I’d need a ruse to get you to read even the first sentence of this review. But it’s true, in a sense, that the innovative International Contemporary Ensemble, under the direction of artist in residence and percussionist extraordinaire Steven Schick, did recently perform the instrumental and vocal equivalent of a back-and-forth between composers Cage and Pierre Boulez, his erstwhile acolyte, based on their brief correspondence. This dual performance at Columbia’s Miller Theater was part of Miller’s Composer Portraits series, which will also include performances by ICE of works by Julio Estrada (again with Schick), Sofia Gubaidulina, and Olga Neuwirth.

The International Contemporary Ensemble performing John Cage’s 4’33” under the direction of Steven Schick at Columbia University’s Miller Theater. Photo: Matthew Murphy.

Boulez was represented by a single work—his enigmatic 1954 serialist-derived Le marteau sans maître (The Hammer Without a Master) for voice and ensemble, with libretto by surrealist poet René Char. The nine movements of Marteau were presented in order, intersticed with nine examples from Cage’s 1943–1987 repertoire.

The program thus began with“Avant l’Artisanat furieux,” the attention-grabbing first movement of Marteau. “Avant” brings all the assembled musicians into play—soprano Jessica Aszodi and ICE instrumentalists Maiya Papach on viola, Eric Lamb on flute, Dan Lippel on guitar, and Nathan Davis, Matthew Gold, and Ross Karre on percussion (vibraphone, xylorimba, gong and tam-tams). “Avant” was conducted by Schick with Martian—or, if you like, robotically martial—gestures.

Lamb’s alto flute performances were highlights of the evening, evoking a shattered-glass kaleidoscope with Lippel (who somehow played guitar as drum) in the internationally influenced “Commentaire I”; with Karre in “Après l’Artisanat furieux”; and in a following solo in which Cage-scored cones of silence were punctuated by exotic exhalations.

Aszodi treated the audience to Char’s absurdist poetry in the now–iconically modern “L’Artisanat furieux,” a duet with Lamb. Next, in Cage’s multi-lingual, improvisational prankster Aria, she humorously channeled everything from opera to 19th-century folk music, delighting the audience with a ditsy palilalia of vocal gymnastics, facial expressions, and full-body gestures. In “Bel édifice et les pressentiments,” Aszodi demonstrated voice as instrument before an oceanic, waveform-heavy backdrop.

Our society’s electronic brain-transplant seems to have made a measurable impact on our reception of Cage’s 4’33”. It’s probable that audiences today have been so transformed by smartphone sensory saturation that they can’t “sit still” that long anymore; maybe U.S. government–certified ambient “green” (or, theoretically, “black”) noise now makes us reflexively restive. Tweet to musicians: “Approach #4’33” with caution.” Radio Music was also played.

In an evening spiked with novelties, Cage’s atmospheric Atlas Eclipticalis stood out, with anonymous bassoonists creating surround-sound effects behind/beside the audience. Here, Schick’s percussive conducting was semaphoric/metronomic, suggesting universal mysteries under a corny planetarium canopy.

It could be said that incessantly interrupting Marteau was disruptive, if apropos in these fractured times. On this subject, Schick told me in an e-mail,

The primary point of departure was to show correspondence—in both of its meanings, as an exchange of letter[s] and as a sign of fundamental harmony. It seems to me that they were engaged in very similar projects—the installation of strictly systematic thought that minimized the traditionally prominent role of the composer’s personal taste and intuition.

The evening’s commitment to structural alternation and completeness, totaling 18 segments, was its weakness. The performance was at least 20 minutes too long, and one’s attention flagged despite its inherent musicological interest. While not as much work as performing it, listening to advanced music can be mentally exhausting, and listening to too much advanced music in a single sitting deprives the listener of the voluptuous experience of savoring it. So Boulez’s heady Bourreaux de solitude (Hangmen of Solitude) soared after the respite of Cage’s 4’33”. In “Commentaire III,” Boulez again demonstrated his ability to carry the listener away on music’s magic carpet.


Actually, most every element of the evening was of interest. Because Marteau featured percussion, Davis, Gold, and Karre had multiple opportunities to appeal, and did, in the primitive Movement II of Cage’s Amores, and finally, in winding down the evening with Amores’s subtle woodblock trio Movement III. It took courage to conclude so anti-climactically, given the formulaic norm of emotion-manipulating, crescendoed climaxes. Another dimension to consider, shuffling into the night.

Contributor

David St.-Lascaux

DAVID ST.-LASCAUX is a poet and author of the upcoming memoir My Adventures with la Belle Jeune Fille ; L'Oubliette, or Plan A; and e*sequiturs. Website: davidstlascaux.com.