Avant Media presents Cage’s “Song Books (1970)”

wildproject-logoOn September 5, 2014, John Cage, the preeminent composer of ‘chance music,’ who brought the tenets of Zen Buddhism to Western musique concrete would have turned 102 years old.  While 2012 erected monuments in performance to Cage’s centennial year, pop-up performances focused on the composers birthday have been and continue to be a fun occasion to explore and recontextualize Cage’s unique brand of avant-garde, all while celebrating his life and unsurpassed influence on experimental music.  This year, Avant Media stepped up to the plate with a sixty-minute presentation of Cage’s popular Song Books (1970) at New York City’s Wild Project, performed by a cast of fourteen composers, performers, curators and designers (and one dog) previously featured in past Avant Music Festivals.  According to Avant Media’s website, the mantle being carried had been unofficially passed on from new music champion Gwen Deely, who had organized a yearly Cage birthday concert at St. Mark’s Church through 2012.

Avant Media presents Cage's Song Books (1970)

Cage’s Song Books, which were compiled into one master volume by the composer in 1970, represent the breadth of his experimentation with regard to notation and non-specificity.  Some pieces are carefully notated using traditional methods, others are nothing but detailed instructions to the performer and others still represent abstract musical ideas with graphics and diagrams.

The results that came together within Wild Project’s intimate performance space were, at times, enigmatic, cacophonous, opaque and comedic; both lighthearted and steeped in somber melancholy.  According to the brief program notes, the execution of the performance was planned only within the cells occupied by each performer. How these various cells aligned and overlapped was left up to chance, the overarching framework being a timer set to sixty minutes. The end of the work was cued by an abrupt change in stage lighting, at which time the performance halted.  While this concept certainly seems to align with Cage’s general oeuvre, without any real context or basis for comparison, the results seemed to be more surprising and satisfying to the performers than, perhaps, to the audience, who was left only to endure the passage of time and await the arrival of something with which to connect or be distracted.  Elements of the musical material included activities such as typing at a typewriter, making and eating a peanut butter sandwich, a woman miming various emotional states to herself, what sounded like a reading of a list of those killed in the Armenian Genocide and a mantra-like recitation of the text “The best form of government is no government at all,” from Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience.  In one instance, one of the performers left the stage for some period of time and then returned with a cute, fluffy dog on a leash.  The audience shifted with a motion of universal adoration, resetting the clock and focus upon the dog, who was then taken out of the theatre by its handler for a walk.

Avant Media presents Cage's Song Books (1970)

As the unscripted performance developed, what might be considered inherently Cageian seemed eclipsed by a vibe that felt somewhat dated and almost burlesque.  Precisely the kind of thing that one often hears in broad stereotypes of avant-garde performance art and contemporary classical music.  Then again, the enigma of John Cage is so challenging to explore because his intentions are so often characterized by a lack of clear intention; what he considered to be the removal of the self from the work, a metaphor for his exploration of Zen Buddhism.

Did Cage’s intentions for this work seek to distill meaning from the choices made by the performers, or in their nonsensical and chance juxtapositions is it the lack of meaning, the empty space between those unscripted moments in which the various constellations of material may align that Cage is trying to illuminate, by removing himself as the composer from the equation?

By the conclusion of the performance, while my seat had begun to ache, I was surprised that an hour had passed so rapidly.  Even now, however, the question I continue to ask myself is whether I had fallen under the spell of Cage’s sweepingly intellectual concept or merely remained distracted by the flurry of non-stop activity innovated by each of the ensemble’s talented cast members — material that was often so personal, the effect was more polarizing than unifying in its exhibition of each performer’s individual tastes, habits and quirks.  Again, this criticism actually cuts to the core of Cage’s genius, in that as many times and in as many ways courageous performers may interpret his music, the single question that will eternally linger in the hall will be “is that what he meant?”