Liquid Room for John Cage: Ictus Ensemble in Luxembourg

The Brussels-based Ictus ensemble brought a three-hour marathon of music to Luxembourg on Thursday, November 29, 2012. Presented continuously across four stages, the “Liquid Room” project took place in the darkened hall of the sumptuous 1964 architectural behemoth of Le Grand Theatre on the city’s edge. The approach hinted at a vaguely voyeuristic experience with brilliantly-lit and amplified soloists on display across spatially-displaced podia, as if items for sale in expensive store front windows or exotic amphibians in aquaria.

Ictus Ensemble (photo credit: ©Frederic Iovino)

The audience were encouraged to freely shift position of portable cardboard stools in the middle of the space while sampling the colourful experiences on offer, and walk out to the bar area in order to fortify themselves with Crémant de Luxembourg before diving back into a mosaic of Cage, Feldman, Satie, Bach, Cowell and more. The carefully thought-out and meticulously coordinated programme consisted of a potpourri of solos, duos and small ensemble works with several “superimpositions” of different pieces by Cage and others. While not all of the simultaneous presentations and juxtapositions were convincing, the solos fully showcased the diverse personalities of the individual performers involved in the project.

Flutist Michael Schmid had a particularly striking presence, made larger-than-life with vocal and contact microphones in Eva Reiter’s Konter (1988/2009) for bass flute and fixed media. The performance was a veritable tour de force with seemingly relentless stamina, virtuosic key clicks, amplified breathing, groans and utterances. Schmid presented an intoxicating and compelling rendition full of subtly-controlled violence, using a megaphone for vocal and flute distortion in counterpoint with crunchy grit in the electronic part.

Alvin Lucier’s Silver Street Car for the Orchestra (1998) for amplified solo triangle was another highlight, performed with impressive focus by percussionist Tom De Cock. The instrument produced an astounding range of resonances as the performer slowly changed the damping during a series of regular strokes. Slightly different harmonic content was initiated with each hit due to variations of position, pressure and wave interference, creating a hypnotic effect of a filter slowly opening and closing and drawing the ear to the inner life of sound.

John Cage, Paris 1981 / Marion Kalter

John Cage, Paris 1981 – Photograph by Marion Kalter

This subtle experience was unexpectedly interrupted with the first movement of John Cage’s 1945 Three Dances for Two Prepared Pianos from the ensemble’s resident piano duo of Jean-Luc Fafchamps and Jean-Luc Plouvier on an opposing stage. The overlap was a bold but rather violent programming move, creating a sudden stylistic disjoint. The challenging and virtuosic third movement of the dances appeared towards the end of the concert as a continuation of the evening’s pliable temporal and spatial disconnect theme, with Plouvier’s flamboyance pitted against Fafchamps’ steady precision. The resonances of the “heavy metal” preparation of screws, bolts and pennies inserted in between the piano strings for this piece were enhanced by amplification.

Vocalist and composer Jennifer Walshe had the carte blanche for the evening, opening with a performance of Ukeoirn O’Connor’s haunting and intimate Three Songs for Voice and Ukulele (2007). Written for Walshe, the set explores her repertoire of extended vocal techniques alongside characteristic vowels of different languages, accompanied by her bright red ukulele.

Clinton McCallum’s Dance up close to me II featured Plouvier on Fender Rhodes with an “amplifier operator.” A charismatic performer and a driving force in the collective, Plouvier infused each work he presented with characteristic energy and charm. MacCallum’s typically theatrical and virtuosic piece requires a second performer to move the amplifier across the stage, periodically lifting and dropping it with a resulting whip-like thud. While unusual and amusing at first, the idea quickly became repetitive, and was not as effective as MacCallum’s exploits in other contexts, such as his provocative performances in full drag with the voice, tuba and live electronics outfit Aquapuke. Another unintentional downside of this particular performance was that one had to observe the frenzied contortions and leaps of a frightened goldfish displayed in a bowl on stage directly next to the set-up as the water churned in high volume.

Schmid appeared again with an excerpt of Kurt Schwitters’ remarkable classic Sonate in Urlauten (1932) for virtuoso text collage actor-performer. Confidently memorised, with superb diction, surprising range of inflection and complete with a crunchy alphabetic cadenza by Georges Aperghis on the name of Schwitters, this performance was a remarkable treat. The Schwitters partially eclipsed Walshe in Historical Documents of the Irish Avant-Garde Vol. 1: Dada with extended vocal techniques, miming and soundtrack, which was programmed shortly thereafter.

The mosaic that followed included the Gigue from Bach’s Cello Suite No. 6, BWV 1010, with François Deppe, immediately preceding a powerful if rather rushed rendition of Schoenberg’s Gigue from Suite, Op. 25, by Plouvier, and a spatial superimposition of Webern’s Drei Kleine Stucke, op. 11, with the pianist and the cellist on two different stages, amplified to aid ensemble and projection. While the spatial dislocation was an interesting experiment, this added a temporal distortion due to the delay between the direct and amplified sound, and took away from the inherent intimacy of these works.

Cage’s Child of Tree for amplified cactus, water and branches involved the ill-fated fishbowl minus the fish, which was taken out to safety to alleviate its suffering. At a certain memorable point in the performance, the bowl slipped from the performer’s fingers, resulting in a spectacular crash in the middle of delicate amplified cactus-plucking and shattering into innumerable fragments on the floor. Impressively, the show went on. The fish did not make a further appearance.

Other performances featured the Belgian vocalist Judith Vindevogel, wolf-like howling from Walshe in her work Look, Stranger on this Island and more appearances from Fafchamps, Plouvier and others. As the extravaganza came to an end and we swam out into the cold and sobering night air, we were left with a feeling of strange emptiness, as if awakened from a dream of an improbable feast.

Xenia Pestova is a pianist living and working in the wilderness of North Wales.