Wednesday was the 100th anniversary of John Cage’s birth, and the world celebrated in ways large and small. The New Yorker magazine declared the 20th century “the John Cage century.” Washington, D.C., got into full Cagean swing with an eight-day festival. New York took notice. So did Berlin, Vienna, Paris and London.
Los Angeles was somewhat less stirred about its homeboy who revolutionized the way we hear music and approach art. Wednesday, the music department of Pomona College, Cage’s alma mater, cut a cake. Thursday, four hapless percussionists hung out on some messy old furniture set up in a Santa Monica church, and clowned around in the name of Cage.
That was a misbegotten performance of “Living Room Music” from 1940, Cage’s first work commissioned for a significant concert series in L.A. (or anywhere else, for that matter), the Evenings on the Roof, predecessor to the current Monday Evening Concerts. But it’s not nearly as bad as all that.
We have already had an admirable two-part Cage festival this year and last from Southwest Chamber Music. The Los Angeles Philharmonic included Cage’s Concerto for Prepared Piano in its Green Umbrella series in the spring (one more orchestral Cage work, incidentally, than the New York Philharmonic has programmed for the centennial). And for the rest of the year, hardly a week will go by without something by Cage to be found somewhere in Southern California.
“Living Room Music” opened the new music group Jacaranda’s ambitious Cage 100 Festival in Santa Monica, which continues in venues all a short walk from the water and all also a short walk from some of the places where Cage lived in the early ‘30s.
The Jacaranda Percussion Ensemble did Cage no favors in any of the pieces it was involved in, but it wasn’t involved in everything. The evening itself was quirkily interesting, and there were other moments of Cagean insight, wonder and even, fleetingly, bliss.
As a way of introducing the composer, though, this “Living Room Music” violated what may be the only cardinal Cage rule — no silliness! That does not mean no whimsy. Cage’s idea for “Living Room Music” was to show the surprising liveliness of percussive sounds around us, in this case your furniture, utensils and morning newspaper (for a period-instrument performance, an evening newspaper, as would have been common in 1940, would not be inappropriate).
The piece is rhythmically intricate and includes a sprightly rhythmic vocal recital of a short text by Gertrude Stein. What to shake, rattle, and strike should be chosen for their illuminating sound-producing qualities. A deadpan manner on the part of the performers is needed to create a sense of wonder. The humor takes care of itself. Yakking on cellphones by the percussionists should be an obvious no-no.
Such clueless Cage can set the cause of the composer back by decades, but I’m happy to say it didn’t Thursday. The concert at First Presbyterian Church was called Cage & Friends. The focus was, to a certain degree, on Cage and the West Coast, but in fact, program and performances were happily all over the place.
The pianist Mark Robson, who followed “Living Room Music” with a performance of “4'33",” provided the essence of Cage. The radically misunderstood so-called silent piece was created in 1952 for the greatest new music pianist of the time, David Tudor. The tension of the stilled virtuoso is deeply touching, reminding us that the sounds around us are ultimately all we’ve got.
Robson first showed his own tremendous keyboard skills in a performance of the kinetic 1941 Sonatina by Cage’s friend, Conlon Nancarrow, who went on to compose for player piano because no human fingers could do what he wanted.
Robson told the audience that he had only once — and flippantly — long ago performed “4'33".” He read a moving letter in which Cage described his ideas and then sat at a player piano. The doors of the church were open. Traffic sounds evoked the nearby ocean. A cellist warmed up in the distance. A Cage epiphany was available for those who wanted one. The playing of two piano rolls, one by Nancarrow and one in tribute to Nancarrow by James Tenney, that followed were magical.
The rest of the program was this, that and the next thing. Further percussion pieces were Cage’s “Second Construction” and “Double Music” by Cage and Lou Harrison. Robson banged the keyboard with his elbows spectacularly in a short piano piece by Cage’s mentor, Henry Cowell. Mark Alan Hilt carefully played two welcome selections from Cage’s severely beautiful organ work, some of “The Harmony of Maine,” preceded by a vocal quartet enthusiastically singing early American hymn tunes Cage deconstructed.
The Lyris Quartet ended the evening with Cage’s String Quartet in Four Parts. The ensemble had a substitute second violin, which may be why it didn’t quite reach the transcendental tranquillity it has in the past with this wondrous score, but it came close enough. Once Robson had released Cage’s spirit, all seemed well with the world — or at least the concert.