Callithumpian Consort’s Cage tribute swells into a retro three-ring “happening”

December 22, 2012 at 3:29 am

By David Wright

John Cage

For seventy minutes or so on Thursday night, the rather chilly, postmodern confines of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s New Wing were liberated by the visionary, anarchic spirit of the 1960s, as the Callithumpian Consort celebrated the centenary of John Cage by performing compositions (or should one say conceptions?) by the master and two of his disciples in the museum’s Calderwood Hall.

In a continuous performance without breaks for applause, shaped largely by improvisation and chance, the ensemble presented “Paragraph 7” of The Great Learning by Cornelius Cardew, Changing the System by Christian Wolff, and Cage’s Song Books.  The effect was of musical sounds, speech, and stage action gradually gathering themselves over an hour-plus span to climax in a marvelously chaotic sixties-style “happening.”

Stephen Drury, artistic director of the Consort, spoke a few words of welcome, mainly to remind the audience how “monumental” these works were in a certain thread of mid-century music, then retired to the sidelines to watch the event unfold.  He also performed the essential function of indicating when the performance was over, by loudly starting the applause.

Composed between 1969 and 1973, the three works recalled an era when the avant-garde artist was expected to engage with politics, either to call for radical change or to reject government entirely.  The English-born Cardew eventually embraced Marxism-Leninism so completely that he felt obligated to criticize himself for having studied at the feet of such (to his mind) art-for-art’s-sake composers as Karlheinz Stockhausen and Cage.

In 1968-70, however, a less doctrinaire, more questioning Cardew put together the seven “paragraphs” of The Great Learning, a work for voices based on texts by Confucius, translated by Ezra Pound.  Although the text of Paragraph 7 begins, “If the root be in confusion, nothing will be well-governed,” Thursday night’s performance seemed well-governed enough, as the ensemble stood in a circle and sang long notes that formed a shifting curtain of consonant, mostly triadic chords, from which words and phrases emerged and receded.  Not only did words move around the circle, but individual singers would step out from time to time and move to another position on it.

Cardew’s score called for “untrained voices,” and the Consort’s instrument players filled that role nicely, while the singers did their best, mostly successfully, to forget their years in the conservatory.

With these composers, the musical notation is often as interesting as the sound itself.  Throughout the evening, the hall’s in-the-round seating enabled audience members to peek over the musicians’ shoulders and see what sort of intriguing graphic they were taking their cues from.  The rich vocal tapestry of the Cardew piece, for example, was notated on a single sheet of paper containing nothing but two columns of words.

The evening expanded sonically with Wolff’s Changing the System, a setting of a text by sixties political activist Tom Hayden on the futility of “working within the system” and the necessity to change it instead.  Sonorous long chords were heard again, this time on very low instruments: cello, double bass, trombone, tuba, bass clarinet, baritone saxophone, bassoon, even a rather massive, U-shaped bass flute.

Soon, however, the musicians began speaking the text as well as playing, using the ancient and tricky technique of hocketing (multiple speakers fitting syllables together to form words), with the timing and inflection governed by a form of peaks-and-valleys notation that looked a little like (forgive us, Tom) a stock market chart.

The wind players set down their instruments (all but the mouthpieces, which they continued to blow from time to time) and accompanied the speakers, syllable for syllable, with strokes on “found” percussion instruments: brick, wire brush, two-by-four, kitchen spoon, screwdriver, an assortment of bottles (including a beer bottle, blown espressivo by the bass flutist).

The intrusion of these everyday objects into the concert hall was a prelude to the most overtly populist work of the evening, Cage’s Song Books, which transformed the stage into a hive of activity, much of it amplified or altered by two electronics operators seated at laptops and consoles.

Based mainly on writings of Henry David Thoreau, with a few texts by other era icons such as Buckminster Fuller, Erik Satie, Marshall McLuhan, and Cage’s longtime partner Merce Cunningham, Song Books began with several musicians tossing coins on sheets of graph paper spread on the floor.  (The coins provided comic relief by refusing to stay on the small sheets and occasionally rolling away under the music stands.)

Presumably as a result of these chance operations, the performance ramified by its own mysterious logic, beginning with singing at three microphones, the sound veering from natural to distorted in timbre and pitch.  The singers again mostly adopted an “untrained” sound, although there was one pretty convincing quotation of one of the Queen of the Night’s arias from The Magic Flute.

Other sounds were provided by a game of chess played on an amplified board and an amplified game of solitaire (molto pianissimo even so, except when the player shuffled the cards).  Unamplified activities included two players having a picnic at center stage with a bag of chips and a bowl of fruit; a player spreading rugs, taking a nap, walking with his hands in boots, wearing various hats, and swinging large objects; and a player handing a foam cup of fruit to a spectator (somewhat disappointingly, the evening’s only direct interaction with the audience).

All this was looped and altered electronically into a symphony of heterogenous sounds, more or less according to the three “books” of Cage’s work, the first two containing 89 vocal solos and the last the stage directions.  Some songs are notated conventionally, some with diagrams, and one simply consists of an instruction to sing something about Thoreau’s beard.  Similarly, “directions” are often merely suggestive (“Perform a disciplined action.”).

Not surprisingly, Cage cheerfully washed his hands of any future performance of the piece, saying that “to consider the Song Books as a work of art is nearly impossible. Who would dare? It resembles a brothel, doesn’t it?”

And so it did on Thursday night—the PG-rated ground floor of a brothel, anyway.  But as two female singers brought the piece to a close—one crooning a song from the balcony, the other onstage intoning the phrase “The best form…of government…is…no form…of government…”—one was aware that the evening’s three-piece set, for all its feeling of amiable anarchy, had been a disciplined action indeed.

The next event in the Avant Gardner series at the Gardner Museum presents the International Contemporary Ensemble performing works by Sofia Gubaidulina on March 21 at 7 p.m.; 617-278-5156.

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