Sometimes the only sound in Four6 was a spare, quiet electronic buzz; one might call it industrial murmuring. While some Cage interpreters establish a sense of beginning, middle, and end with these pieces, Sunday's performance was ended only when the performers stopped for longer than usual. In fleeting moments, the piece promised to coalesce into massed sounds, breaking the long spans of music that stayed small. Because Cage's music is so open-ended in instrumentation, manner, and interpretation, you could have heard Four6 before (as I have) and still lack any point of reference.
The concert's first half included Cage's Three2, Pisaro's Zwei Finger im Abgrund, and Woolf's 80 for Pauline Oliveros, played both in succession and simultaneously (Woolf said he used his piece as the "cantus firmus," a technique from 15th-century polyphony) in a performance with greater quietude, punctuated by silences.
The ensemble rehearsed for three days to come up with this desired effect. So there's nothing casual about this music - or the vacuum it intentionally created. Some listeners left talking about their heightened sense of sound awareness. Others joked about lip-synching to it.
Quiet was a particularly tall order on Friday, when Relâche bravely played Hymkus, written for the group by Cage in 1986, as part of the Philadelphia Museum of Art's casual, food-drink-and-family friendly Art after 5 series at the foot of the grand stairway. On paper, the concert made sense. Philadelphia's rough-and-ready Relâche had worked with Cage, and the Cage: Beyond Silence festival is part of the museum's "Dancing Around the Bride" exhibition exploring Marcel Duchamp and his circle, which included the composer. However, the setting, both social and acoustical, was the last place for quiet Cage.
Wisely, Relâche offered the option of closed-circuit radio that listeners could access, their electronic devices willing, directly from the venue's amplification sound board. Many of us didn't get the memo. Listeners wandered in and out during Relâche's soft performance and did what unengaged Philadelphians do - talk, and not softly. As a result, one was hard pressed to get any sense of what Hymkus is supposed to be.
No such problems hampered the Merce Cunningham dancers in One7, realized by Woolf on Saturday afternoon in the Dorrance Galleries, the main space of "Dancing Around the Bride." A company of eight dancers in color-coordinated leotards performed on a designated dance floor in a fascinating visual counterpart to Cage (who was choreographer Cunningham's longtime partner).
The core movements were nothing you haven't seen in either ballet or yoga, but they were always given an unexpected twist. Bodies were bent in unusual directions; a balletic movement was executed as if in a moving subway car. As in more accessible Cage pieces, this one had critical mass - ideas building on each other - in ways that gave the piece a long-term shape. Unlike Cage, Cunningham created theater.
At the Crane Arts center in Northern Liberties, JACK Quartet, the best new music group of its kind, played Cage's Four, Music for Four and Five3. The first piece was a quiet one played in a traditional string quartet configuration; even in a setting where you could seriously listen to it, the piece yielded little to the naked ear. Music for Four was executed with the musicians dispersed among the seating area, and realized with all of the contrasting ideas lacking in the previous work. It was one of the most exhilarating moments in the festival so far.
Five3 also had the quartet dispersed, with the addition of trombonist James Hirschfeld, in a piece examining a range of possible music within extremely narrow bounds, this time utilizing the pitch-bending possibilities of the trombone slide and the violin fingerboard. Unlike much other quiet Cage, this performance was enveloping, prompting the following theory: Perhaps the only way to truly understand any given Cage piece is to perform it yourself - or at the very least, be in the thick of those who do.
Contact David Patrick Stearns at email@example.com.