Joan La Barbara's Ne(x)tworks navigates Cage's 'Song Books' at Christ Church

Posted: December 04, 2012

The "Cage: Beyond Silence" festival - under way at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and other venues throughout the city since late October - has moved into its second phase of concerts, concentrating on John Cage's 1970, 90-piece Song Books collection. That collection has to do much less with the typical medium of song than with the many open-ended ways Cage released the music he felt was hidden everywhere.

You could count on a committed Cage experience from Ne(x)tworks, the New York sextet headed by new-music doyenne (and vocalist) Joan La Barbara, who reigned over Friday's concert in the atmospherically lighted Christ Church, navigating the music's intellectual and interpretive challenges like a benevolent priestess.

Some songs have meaningful texts by Thoreau; others are in the spirit of the composer's 1951 pronouncement, "I have nothing to say and I am saying it." Vocal melodies are occasional. Directives that sound like Zen koans often inspire singers and instrumentalists to do what they will. No two performances of Song Books should sound much alike.

A new recording by a British trio headed by Lore Lixenberg favors finely shaded electronic realizations, as opposed to the explosive contrasts of La Barbara's group. Don't ask which is better; both were seriously thoughtful.

In Friday's 90-minute continuous flow of songs (which weren't listed in the program), the density of the sounds repeatedly reached critical mass suggesting a symphonic climax - with all the visceral excitement that implies. Much of the rest felt random, but with poetic ambiguity. What sounded like a metal percussion instrument was a heavily amplified manual typewriter. Odd trombone sounds were achieved by using a compact disc as a mute.

Venerable Christ Church is perhaps the ideal Cage venue, its 18th-century architecture a surreal frame for Cage's constantly-at-the-edge music. Also, the unstained glass windows admit to the performances whatever is happening outside, such as lights from any police action on lively Fridays in Old City.

More effort should have gone into making the audience part of the process. With Cage's scores projected on a screen, we'd at least be anchored in the music's starting point, the better to appreciate the imagination brought to it by the performers at hand.

Information on future concerts:

Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at

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