The fourth annual New York Chamber Music Festival opened today, honoring the centenary of John Cage.
I managed to break a way from the office to take in one of Cage’s unique text-based pieces, “Lecture on the Weather” — a setting of selected writings by Henry Thoreau, focusing primarily on issues of governance and democracy.
Written in 1975 for twelve speakers with musical instruments, Cage had suggested the work be performed “preferably [by] American men who have become Canadian citizens” (in a nod to the post-Vietnam era). The title is certainly a nod to a “climate change” in American political culture, including the oft-maligned Weather Underground; Thoreau’s writings were no less radical in their era than the views of many 1960s and ’70s radicals, particularly antiwar activists.
Cage would likely have been tickled by the dozen performers: prominent composers Ned Rorem, Joan Tower, David Amram, Jose Serebrier, Tania Leon, David del Tredici, Laura Kaminsky, Arturo O’Farrell, David Leisner, Sean Hickey, Jon Deak, and Noel Zahler.
The “lecture” begins shortly after prerecorded sounds of nature and a rainstorm filled Symphony Space, followed by the composers entering in small groups and reading their parts. Visuals occasionally appeared for a few brief seconds at a time on a screen behind the performers, renderings of sketched symbols in white on a black background that suddenly flashed, strobed, or turned black-on-white. The musical “intrusions” are notated into the texts, and the variety of instruments on the stage — from Jon Deak’s double bass on the bottom of the musical range to David AMram’s and Sean Hickey’s recorders on the top — would emerge with aural commentary both tonal and abstract. The twelve voices formed an aural panoply from which words would occasionally pop out of the texture — almost all of which referenced government (“Democracy”… “legislature”… “representative”…). At about the midpoint of the half-hour performance, the performers slowly united in a not-quite-tonal, inventively irreverent rendition of “Happy Birthday.” As the work approached its end, sounds of thunder from the prerecorded “background” acted as an ominous coda.
In a year of tributes to Cage, this was far and away one of the most memorable, harnessing Cage’s maverick spirit with humor and the feel of a “happening.”