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Review: Enigmatic John Cage in the hands of avant-garde rockers

Review: Enigmatic John Cage in the hands of avant-garde rockers
Interpreting John Cage's “Electronic Music for Piano” are Gino Robair, from left, on piano and electronics; David Toop, resonance, secondary amplification, swallowed instruments, and feedback; Thurston Moore, electric guitar; Jon Leidecker, mobiles and mixer. (Pomona College Department of Music)

In fall 1928, John Cage entered Pomona Collage a serious young man intent on becoming a Methodist Episcopal minister like his grandfather. When he dropped out after his sophomore year, he was well along the road to being John Cage.

A story merrily told (and no doubt embellished over the years) was that one day he subversively picked from the library shelf the first volume by an author whose name began with Z and read that book instead of the one assigned for a class. He got an A. At that point he decided there was no point in staying in school and headed to Europe with an older, cosmopolitan lover.

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That anecdote was all that the Claremont Colleges Library needed last week to put on a conference about Cage at Claremont, and it ended Friday night with a performance of one of his most puzzling works, “Electronic Music for Piano,” in Mabel Shaw Bridges Hall. The piece, written 45 years after Cage ended his college career and he had become the most radical major composer of the 20th century, and the concert seemingly had nothing remotely to do with Pomona College.

The four improvising performers at the concert might have seemed to be even further distant to the world of Cage. All four are closely connected with progressive rock music, a genre with which he was little enamored when he wrote this piece in 1965.

The biggest draw Friday night was former Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore. Joining him were David Toop, once in Flying Lizards and the author of stimulating books on hip-hop and various forms of experimental noise; electronic musician Jon Leidecker, an electronic musician better known as Wobbly and for his work with the multimedia collective Negativland; and Gino Robair, a pianist, composer and noted record producer.

Be that as it may, all four musicians happen to be devoted and experienced Cageans who have thought long, hard and controversially about a piece that no one really knows what it should be. The score was sketched out by the composer on hotel stationary in Stockholm two days before his 52nd birthday. He was gloomy, he wrote in a letter to painter Jasper Johns. He was in the middle of a grueling six-month world tour with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company; morale was low; money was lower; the dancers were fighting with Cunningham, and Cage was fighting with Robert Rauschenberg, the troupe’s art director.

The Stockholm leg of the tour just happened to be at the invitation of Pontus Hultén, who was head of the city’s modern art museum and who 16 years later would come to Los Angeles as the short-lived founding director of MOCA, the Museum of Contemporary Art. If you are looking for coincidences, MOCA is not only a mile from the hospital where Cage was born but also across the street from the home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which is devoting part of its just-begun centennial season to Cage and the Fluxus movement, which works like “Electronic Music for Piano” helped inspire.

And you need to be looking for coincidences to properly perform, as well as receive, “Electronic Music for Piano,” which Cage jotted down as something he and pianist David Tudor could perform at a quickly arranged concert in Stockholm. Cage’s vague instructions were shorthand for ways he might spice up his “Music for Piano, 4-84,” a Tudor specialty, with electronics.

In those original piano pieces from the 1950s, Cage derived his pitches from imperfections in the paper he was using. But he left enough out to require pianists to create their own scores from complicated instructions. The electronic version adds extra parameters.

But without full documentation of what Cage and Tudor were up to, performers today have little to go on and a lot to avoid. Cage was troubled by improvisation as an art of self-expression, rather than letting chance procedures lead to unexpected discovery. He also had issues in indeterminate music with performers getting carried away interacting, again for similar reasons.

Robair, who replaced the original pianist, Tania Chen (he also produced her recent recording of the score with the other three musicians), in a pre-concert talk described carefully acknowledging Cage’s specifications. Toop relied mainly on lo-fi material, playing bass recorder and other exotic wind instruments while getting heavily into feedback.

Moore, who approached the score as a poem, picked at the electric guitar on his lap and had his own loving episodes of feedback by placing his instrument in front of a loudspeaker. Leidecker used iPads programed to listen and acoustically act.

As accomplished — and here, inspired — improvisers, the players made it clear that although they felt a strong compulsion to be true to Cage’s spirit, they were going to do it in their own way. That meant maybe not group improvisation, but improvisation nonetheless. As Toop said earlier, “Music changes according to common conditions.” By insisting on being of his time, he argued with Cage. And pretty much won.

From the audience, of course, you have no real way of knowing exactly what anyone onstage is doing. Every inch of piano and guitar were understood to be sound-producing surfaces. Electronics of one sort of another, as well as Toop’s blowing into tubes and crinkling paper (something Cage like to do himself), created waves, and maybe that makes an ocean metaphor permissible.

Within this audible liquidity, I never experienced two sounds sounding the same; under it all was a sense of unseen weird life below the sonic surface. Gorgeous momentary plinks and planks, sinuous oohing and aahing of oscillating sine waves or whatever had lives of their own. Unlike music that forces upon you a narrative, a listener felt entitled to admire or ignore instances as desired.

Even so, I sensed a collective acoustic breathing from the players that managed to convey the character of being produced by chance, not romance. But there was no lingering. Everything seemed to mean something only while sounding, losing meaning immediately once the sound dissolved.

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Later, I searched Amazon books by entering the letter Z. What popped right up was “Secrets & Chance” by Z.L. Arkadie.

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