A musical homage to Cage

John Cage in 1989, three years before his death. His "Four 6," performed at thefidget, gave musicians just the perimeters.
John Cage in 1989, three years before his death. His "Four 6," performed at thefidget, gave musicians just the perimeters. (JULIA MALAKIE / Associated Press, File)

Musicians came from all walks to interpret a score from the avant-garde composer.

Posted: January 23, 2012

The John Cage Centennial has come roaring into 2012, as if the avant-garde theorist/composer's advocates couldn't wait to bedevil traditional music circles with his expansive, unmediated embrace of all sound and all possibilities.

In Philadelphia, the year was inaugurated Friday by a smart, enterprising, inviting Cage concert at thefidget space (a homey warehouse in Kensington), the first in a series of three.

The one work on the program was the 30-minute Four 6, a late Cage work in which the composer provided perimeters and the musicians supply content. Each of the four performers devises 12 sound statements that they execute in an order dictated by the score. Nothing complicated, really.

The beauty of the concert was this: Three radically different renderings were played in succession. Because there are as many as 48 sound statements in the course of each of the three realizations, there was no redundancy. And since the last third of the piece asks for sounds not heard earlier, this isn't one of those Cage pieces where you get the concept in the opening minutes and then just wait for it to play out.

Musicians came from all walks. Violinist Gloria Justen, a classical modernist, was in the first realization - luckily so, because her ideas had a classical point of reference that I could hang onto. At one point, the four musicians (some from funk and psychedelic bands) just happened to converge in drone tones (with trombonist Dan Blacksberg, it was more of a growl) with a wonderful hypnotic effect.

Not all of the sounds were live - one was sampled speech that was electronically garbled - a sound source that Cage (who died in 1992) could only have imagined. One performer, Joo Won Park, could not get to the performance but sent his computer program, played on a laptop. Four 6 effortlessly wears the sonic garments of any age, past and future.

The second version was heavily electronic, atmospheric, and dreamily homogenous. The third (and best) had the most sharply defined musical gestures, including an interruptive trombone commentary from Blacksberg and percussionist Flandrew Fleisenberg scraping metal against glass. One element was demure: A series of sampled, atmospheric nature sounds.

The three renderings were not variations on a theme but thoroughly different experiences. What I came away with is hard to articulate. With Cage, it's BYO meaning. And that is the music's ultimate challenge: There is no message to decode. The message is completely yours.


Contact music critic

David Patrick Stearns

at dstearns@phillynews.com.

The other Cage dates in thefidget space are Feb. 17

and March 18. Information: www.thefidget.org

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