Performance tribute to John Cage full of meaning

Composer John Cage in 1989. Some didn't share his desire to communicate.
Composer John Cage in 1989. Some didn't share his desire to communicate.
Posted: October 09, 2012

The deeper one gets into the John Cage 100th birthday year, the more frequently one must ask what makes a communicative tribute to this most elusive composer of the New York avant-garde.

So much of his work doesn't seem like music at all, but conceptual art, with pieces that might consist only of a set of written directions interpreted however the performer wants. (Example: "Perform a disciplined act.")

Thus, at Friday's John Cage: Song Books program at the fidget space (a loft in Northern Liberties), two performers could have been doing their own versions of the same song and you never would know it. For viewers, the idea is similar to walking down the street, sensing that the people around you are having a significant inner experience, but not knowing what it is (according to Cage biographer Rob Haskins, who was one of the performers).

So in less-good Cage performances, that can mean the piece exists mainly in the mind and heart of the performer interpreting the piece's directions - what's called augenmusik: for the eye and mind but unintelligible in sound. In a good Cage performance (such as Friday's), you still might not know what the inner experience is, but you feel the heat of indefinable meaning.

Song Books itself is a 90-item collection of Cage-ian ideas and techniques from 1970, few of them being typical songs. The eight performers, dancers, instrumentalists, writers, etc., each chose a handful of songs; separately worked out how they would interpret them; and decided by chance, on the day of the concert, what order they would take. No one person was in charge. Nobody knew exactly how many songs were performed (maybe 40). Que sera sera.

Several songs were performed at once, creating a three-ring circus effect. Tables and desks were set up in the performing area where the songs were enacted, but with all the surfaces wired for amplification so that even the most mundane act (typing, pouring a glass of wine) was heard in an intense electronic refraction. All performers became strangely magnetic thanks to a commitment to what they were doing without embarrassment - whether wearing a frog mask or a puppet, or making philosophical proclamations.

There was always plenty to see, and often some wonderful things to hear, such as the drone effects near the end with electronically refracted voices wafting about. Never did the concert seem like an oblique joke. The laudable performers were Haskins, Nicole Bindler, Megan Bridge, Chris Mandra, Joo Won Park, Peter Price, Bhob Rainey, and Mauri Walton. Don't ask me who did what.


Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.

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