The John Cage Song Books – A U.S. Premiere by “Alarm Will Sound”

Last night, the "hot" new music group "Alarm Will Sound" presented a staged version of selections from "Song Books" by John Cage, as part of the River-to-River Festival of arts events in lower Manhattan that has become a prominent early-summer feature of the New York City cultural scene in recent years.  The program described this as a U.S. premiere.  The production was co-commissioned by the Holland Festival and the River-to-River Festival, and took place at the Schimmel Center for the Arts at Pace University.

Rob Haskins, a leading Cage scholar who was credited as music director for this production, wrote an extensive explanatory note that was distributed with the program.  Unfortunately, the typeface was very small and the hall was very dim, so I couldn't read this note before the performance.  I wish I had been able to do so, since I think I would have appreciated what they were trying to do much more if I'd had the benefit of his note.  Cage saw the composer's role differently from most other composers.  Usually, the composer not only comes up with a concept for a piece, but also does much of the heavy lifting, such as specifying the notes to be played, the tempo, the orchestration, to the degree that two performances of the same piece will usually sound reasonably alike, even when there are interpretive differences between two sets of performers.  Cage sometimes transferred most of this heavy lifting to the performers, coming up with a concept for the piece and not necessarily specifying much of the rest.

In last night's performance, Nigel Maister (conception, design and direction), Jason Price (sound design), Brent Felker and Marissa Sher (video design), Allen D. Hahn (lighting design), Mr. Haskins, and Alarm Will Sound's members (including artistic director Alan Pierson, managing director Gavin Chuck, and assistant production manager Adam Himes), collaborated in translating Cage's concept and the directions he gave into a two-hour theater piece that challenged the audience to set aside any expectations it might have about theater or music and just to "go with the flow."  One expects that a different creative team would likely have come up with a "happening" that would bear slight resemblance to what was presented last night, although broadly within the concept that Cage devised.

This was at times interesting, at times provocative, at times deeply boring, at times frustrating.  There were stretches when nothing much seemed to be happening, including shortly after the intermission when the musicians stood in their various places, stiff as statues, staring out at the audience in silence for what seemed to stretch into several minutes until some action was initiated.  The audience played along, sitting in total silence, a few titters apart.  At other times, lots of things seemed to be happening, sometimes simultaneously.  One would need a very broad definition of "music" to describe what we were hearing as music, but surely the definition of music during the 20th century was stretched in various ways that could encompass this.

If one took any "message" away from this, it would be the repeated refrain that the best government is no government at all — Cage was certainly a contrarian there — and that it must take extraordinary self control for the musicians to go through this two hour event totally poker-faced, when what they were enacting might be seen as an incredible spoof of avant-garde music.  At one point, large letters suspended from a clothesline running across the back of the space were rearranged to spell out D-U-C-H-A-M-P C-A-G-E, a clue to the entire thing being a "put-on".  But, on the other hand, Cage forces us to reexamine our understanding of music and art, and to involve ourself by being part of the composition, which would not make any sense without an audience.

Will Cage's compositions continue to be performed?  They certainly have not been absorbed into the mainstream repertory of American "classical" concert presenters, but remain endlessly fascinating.  They don't lend themselves well to recording; a sound recording misses much of the essence of what is going on, and I suspect that a video recording would not be much better, even with surround sound.  This is the kind of thing where "you have to be there."  So if Cage's creations survive, it will be necessary for adventurous performers to stage them.  In this case, the corporate and government sponsorship behind the River-to-River Festival made it possible, and the almost-full-house suggests that there is an interest by potential audiences, or at least a curiosity, sufficient to make the experiment worth while.

So, thanks to everybody involved for presenting a different kind of experience.


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