Drums Along the Pacific: Strange, Beautiful Music

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In the late 1930’s two young composers – Lou Harrison and John Cage –  found themselves teaching at Seattle’s Cornish College of the Arts.  It is doubtful many people knew who these twenty-something composers were.  Neither stayed in Seattle long, but during their stay, each pioneered new instruments, systems of notation, and sounds.  Last Thursday through Sunday, Cornish brought Harrison and Cage’s music to the forefront through the college’s Drums Along the Pacific festival.  The festival commemorated the 70th anniversary of a series of percussion concerts lead by Cage and Harrison that their mentor Henry Cowell dubbed “drums along the Pacific.”   In the process, musicians from around Washington and the country gave a convincing argument for the seldom heard music of two pioneering American composers.

Festival events were spread out over four days.  The first night devoted to Cage and Harrison’s mentor Henry Cowell.  The Seattle Chamber Players and the Pacific Rims Percussion Quartet handled a selection of Lou Harrison’s music, including his ebullient Concerto in Slendro.  The focus of the entire festival, however, was Saturday.  Beginning early in the afternoon combinations of musicians came together and played four hours of John Cage’s music – encompassing his entire output.  This four hour marathon, interrupted only by a brief dinner break, is probably the first (and maybe the last) time so much Cage was played live in Seattle.  The fourth day, presented Gamelan music by Cage and Harrison.

Of the two composers, Lou Harrison is the easiest on the ears.  Like Cage, Harrison dabbled in sound, just not as much.  The pieces on Friday night showed this experimentation.  Double Music is a product of both Cage and Harrison and is played on “found” instruments that included brake drums, thunder sheers, and tam tams to name a few.  In May Rain the prepared piano and percussion played a supporting role to baritone John Duykers.  Of course, Harrison’s “tack piano” is used in the Concerto for Slendro.  Violinist Mikhail Shmidt led two tack pianos, celesta, and an assortment of percussion in a vigorous performance that sounded larger on stage than the assembled musicians.

The new sounds produced by these instruments were never overwhelming.  Their sounds were punctuated and precise and fit well with the constant rhythmic pluck, push, and pull of Harrison’s music. It is in rhythmic invention where Harrison really excels.  Unfortunately, his music doesn’t do much more.  Perhaps that is why Lou Harrison is easier to hear than John Cage and why by the end of the night Harrison’s cascading rhythms seemed pat.

The same was not true for the next night – the Cage marathon.  We know John Cage because of his experimentation with noise as music and chance in music.  Flipping coins, found objects, and of course, the prepared piano are all associated with Cage. Less so, are Cage’s works for more traditional sounds and instruments.  The pieces chosen for the Cage marathon encompassed the composer’s entire output and balanced what is common knowledge about the composer with what is not.

I was surprised by a number of pieces over the course of the evening.  The Seasons, a piece for piano played by Cage expert Stephen Drury, teemed with tangible life even though the piano is so ordinary compared to some of the other instruments being used.  Imaginary Landscape 2 was a clattering good time.  Who knew the conch shell is played by blowing into it?  Third Construction was just as fun.  Except, twenty seconds into the piece one of the percussionists stopped and announced his cans (literally empty coffee cans turned upside down were out of order).  He switched a few around and started playing again.  The audience had a nice chuckle.  A few days later, when I explained what happened to a friend, he responded, that maybe the mistake and the interruption were intentional?  If it was intentional, the Pacific Rims Percussion Quartet played it well.  Two pieces for closed piano and voice –  A Flower and The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs –  made me reassess how I think of the piano as an instrument.  Finally, Root of an Unfocus for prepared piano, stirred so many new sounds out of the instrument I was rapt.

If I were generalizing John Cage’s output, I would say his best music is music where instruments and notation are out of the ordinary.  Crumpled paper and tin cans.  Chance run amok with the help of clearly defined parameters for the musicians.

John Cage and Lou Harrison are not everyone’s cup of tea.  In fact, I would guess very few people prefer the sweet bitterness that is Cage’s music.  But, last weekend’s Cowell, Harrison, Cage festival – Drums Along the Pacific – exhibited the best and worst of these composers.  The performances were exceptional, from some of the leading advocates of this music in the country, and the experience unforgettable.  I have been told the festival organizers are maneuvering to take some or all of the festival on the road, replicating the original Drums Along the Pacific concert tour.  If that happens, Seattle would be lucky to get a repeat performance of this beautifully strange music.

You can read a replay of the The Gathering Note’s live blog of the John Cage marathon portion of the festival here.

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