75/100 Celebrating John Cage and Steve Reich

I kicked off my week long  vacation in the best way possible, attending a concert celebrating the music of Steve Reich and John Cage.  Reich is 75 this year, Cage would have been 100, so the Yale Percussion Group put on a great retrospective for them. (I think Reich was in the audience – honestly, I didn’t recognize him without his signature baseball cap!)

The Reich performance was great – the Yale Percussion Group performed Mallet Quartet, Electric Counterpoint (on marimbas and xylophones), and Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices, and Organ.

(Electric Counterpoint was performed with tape…for some reason I got it into my head that it was performed by Pat Metheny with a delay pedal?)

Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices, and Organ was really compelling – I wish all classical music had this rhythmic ambition; but as I was watching the performance I realized that I had never appreciated how much skill level it requires on the part of the performers (it sounds easy when  you’re listening to it in your living room…).  As part of my Composing My Way through History blog I want to tackle minimalism; this concert gave me a bit more to think about.

The Cage half of the concert was great, thoughtful, and ambitious.

Programming a Cage concert can be difficult because, in my humble opinion, Cage’s music is often more entertaining to think about than to actually listen to (and the only reason I say this with such audacity is that I read that Cage once said as much himself).

Dr. Robert van Sice, the director of the Yale Percussion Group, worked around the sometimes-cerebral nature of Cage’s music by creating a seamless 45-minute homage with videos of early performances, interviews, and dance works, mixed into performances by the Yale Percussion Group.

The performance also featured Cage’s sonatas for prepared piano, arranged for percussion.  This was a highlight of the program for me and was very thought-provoking: Cage’s sonatas are very, very quiet, relatively speaking (especially compared to a percussion ensemble), and these new arrangements for percussion ensemble added a bombast that wasn’t there before (percussionists playing Cage in a Yale concert hall are, after all, still drummers, and as such can’t help but rock out a bit.  And who could blame them?).

At the same time, performing a piece of music intended for 1 performer with 10 fingers and splitting it up among 4 performers with two instrument-whackers (aka hands) requires a stunning amount of communication.  Imagine a Beethoven sonata split between 4 pianos, and each piano only plays certain notes. Think of the intuitive communication required from all the performers to make a fluid performance in which the listener doesn’t notice the gaps.  The Yale Percussion Group pulled this off marvelously.  I would be very surprised if these new arrangements didn’t become part of the percussion ensemble repertoire; it’s very cool to have been there for the debut performance!

During the video montage segments, one of Cage’s quotes struck me: “Music doesn’t seek to express the composer’s emotion, it seeks to replicate nature in all her majesty.”

This is an interesting nuance in his approach to composition (and it looked like this was from an interview later in his life).  Cage’s use of the I Ching was intended to suppress the composer’s will (and perhaps implement the I Ching’s – I seem to remember Cage writing about what the I Ching “wanted” to do).

But this quote implies something else – suppressing the composer’s emotion (or desire to express emotion), and replacing it with the desire to replicate something bigger–much bigger–than the composer.

I need to chew on that for a while.

But, speaking of nature, let’s wrap up this post with another piece performed at the concert, Cage’s “Child of Tree.”  For amplified plants:

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