Music review: Cage, Stockhausen and Bettison under Green Umbrella


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Once, during a public conversation at UC San Diego between the video artist Nam June Paik and John Cage, Paik recalled having asked Cage why he wrote music. “Because I promised Schönberg I would,” had been the answer from the composer who had studied with Schönberg at USC and UCLA. And why, Paik had also asked, did Cage continue to write music? “Because,” Paik recalled Cage saying, “it is important to continue meaningless activity.”

“I said that?” a surprised Cage wondered aloud onstage, but laughed engagingly. Who’s in control, and why, is perhaps the most controversial question that’s been posed by the international avant-garde in music since World War II. And that was the principal question of a fascinating, if uneven, Green Umbrella Concert on Tuesday night by the Los Angeles Philharmonic.


The centerpiece was Cage’s Concerto for Prepared Piano, written in 1951 and the first major work in the Western canon in which a composer began to give up musical control. It was surrounded by works from this century. Stockhausen’s “Fünf Stenzeichen” (Five Star Signs), which began the program, was composed by the biggest ego of European avant-garde, a Prospero who pulled all the strings. Oscar Bettison’s “Livre des Sauvages” (Book of Savages) was commissioned for the program by a young composer who delights in crazy percussion instruments with minds of their own.

Programming the prepared piano concerto has local significance. Cage was born 100 years ago this September at Good Samaritan Hospital, an easy walk from today’s Disney Hall. The Cage centennial year is being celebrated big time internationally but only by two major U.S. orchestras, the San Francisco Symphony and, with the Tuesday’s concerto performance, the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The concerto, moreover, includes the enchanting sound of a gong lowered into water, which Cage invented to accompany an underwater ballet score at UCLA in 1938.

The idea of the concerto is to give up control gradually. The orchestral part, which is often pointillist, was composed from charts of sounds devised by Cage. The prepared piano — a Cage invention with nut, bolts, screws, pieces of rubber and other objects inserted between some of the strings to create gorgeous but startling percussion effects — begins freely. But by the end of the piece, it too has become governed by the charts.

Gloria Cheng played piano, not as boldly prepared as it sometimes can be, with exceptional grace and lyricism. And that is where the pleasure in the performance could be found.

The conductor was Jeffrey Milarsky, a late substitute for John Adams (busy finishing “The Gospel According to the Other Mary” for its L.A. Phil premiere next month). Milarsky kept a chamber ensemble carefully on track. With more rehearsal, he might have been able to produce the Cagean miracle in which control frees sounds to be themselves.

Stockhausen’s score is an orchestration of five of the dozen astrological pieces he wrote for music boxes in 1975. He then made many striking instrumental versions over the years; this one from 2004, three years before his death, is the most elaborate and maybe the worst and least characteristic music Stockhausen ever wrote. The charm of the original is lost and the unusual combination of instruments lacks, or at least lacked in a nervously expressive performance, the magical mystery of Stockhausen’s sound world.


Bettison, who appears to be a happy-go-lucky gatherer-collector composer, has elements of Cage and Stockhausen in his musical psyche and filters them through a thumping pop music sensibility. “Livre des Savages” takes its inspiration from a book of childish drawings, on some level a hoax, purporting to reveal native South American culture in the 18th or 19th century.

The score for chamber orchestra would probably seem more original without the curious fauna, new religion and treasure ship descriptions of its three movements, simply letting Bettison’s found percussion be. Ultimately, he creates a musical situation in which anything easily fits with anything else, and there are few sonic surprises.

At one point, for instance, two violinists stood and operated with their feet air pumps connected to what looked like mouth organs. Yet with all the instrumental whooshing around them, they were a barely audible part of the mix.

Bettison has written more varied pieces, particularly “O Death,” which has been recorded. He’s a spirited composer with a sense of fun. But he power trips with his “Sauvages,” roping in exotic instruments and sounds to his own pounding sensibility, rather than allowing them to show him something new.


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-- Mark Swed