October 13, 2012
Chance Control or Controlled Chance? ICE Fuses Cage with Boulez at MCA Chicago
Impressions from Row G
by Arlene and Larry Dunn (@ICEfansArleneLD)
Detail from the score of Aria (1942) by John Cage
ICE presented a provocative program at MCA Chicago on Saturday, October 6, 2012, inspired by the centennial celebration of John Cage’s birth. ICE Artist-in-Residence Steve Schick and Artistic Director/CEO Claire Chase conjured up a magic brew. Well-documented correspondence between Cage and his younger colleague Pierre Boulez in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s provided the genesis of an idea to interleave and juxtapose some of their compositions.
Cage was making waves in the contemporary music world using chance operations in composing. Boulez was fascinated with the effects Cage’s new processes produced, but was troubled at the prospect of leaving matters entirely to chance. This tension prompted Claire and Steve to create a program that highlights both differences and similarities in the resulting works. The infrastructure for the program was Boulez’s 1953-4 chamber masterpiece Le Marteau sans maitre, scored for mezzo-soprano, flutes, viola, guitar, and percussion. Interspersed with the nine movements of Marteau were nine iconic Cage compositions which fit that instrumentation.
This heady admixture of sounds and silences held the sold-out audience in its thrall. From the opening notes of the first movement of Marteau, Avant “l’artisanant furieux” for viola, alto flute, guitar, and percussion, Steve and the ensemble drew us into an airy sound world of luminous shimmering surfaces, punctuated by frequent abrupt pauses. The companion piece, Music for two, for flute and viola, from Music For ______ (1984-87), revealed Cage working in a strikingly similar milieu, though it felt very free and open where the Boulez exuded a sense of precise control.
The pairing of Marteau “l’artisanant furieux”, for voice and alto flute with Cage’s Aria (1942) for voice and extraneous sounds provided the first stunning climax of the evening. This segment provided the entry for guest artist mezzo-soprano Jessica Azodi, and what a dazzling entry it was. In the Marteau, Eric Lamb’s flute was a swooping bird leading Jessica through a gorgeous melodic flight with sudden leaps and swoons on the scale. Then, Jessica launched into Aria with reckless abandon. The score requires the singer to choose ten distinctly different vocal timbres, represented as graphic forms colored in ten hues, and sing a jumble of nonsense syllables and words in five different languages. It was a cinematic pastiche. Jessica joyously careened through the scenes, now an opera diva, here a blues singer, there a crazed cartoon character, then a delirious alley cat. Throughout, her band mates accompanied her with a barrage of extraneous noises: foot stomping, coughing, paper crumpling, clapping. We were baffled, amazed, and amused.
Another pinnacle of the concert came at its center pivot point with Cage’s 4’33”. We had the magical experience of hearing it once before in the presence of John Cage at a concert celebrating Merce Cunningham’s 70th birthday. This experience was nearly as thrilling as our more naive selves found it 23 years ago. With the ensemble sitting in stoic inaction, we heard the music of humming ventilation, buzzing lights, shuffling feet, creaking bones, clearing throats, and the scratching of our own pens on paper.
With an ensemble of only seven players, we had wondered at first why we needed a conductor. We quickly understood that the precision required in Marteau, especially those sudden stops, would border on impossible without one. Then we learned a conductor was just as essential in Cage’s Atlas Eclipticalis. With the players augmented by members of Ensemble Dal Niente arrayed across the front of the hall and up the stairways, Steve did a bravura turn that was part conductor and part Merce Cunningham imitation, as he meticulously led the musicians in every direction around him.
The concert finale paired the last movement of Marteau with Cage’s Amores, Movement III. At the end of Marteau, with Jessica’s voice transformed to a coequal instrument in the ensemble, the Boulez piece sounded its most Cage-like. In Amores III, an airily quiet piece of precise strikes on wood blocks, we found Cage sounded his most like Boulez.
Considering this exhilarating concert in retrospect, we have concluded that Boulez harnessed chance operations in his unwavering quest to achieve his own definitive aesthetic of musical beauty. For Cage, on the other hand, chance was a core element of his aesthetic, enabling him to create musical beauty unforeseen by him until he found it. Vive la différence!