John Cage’s music is a source of great frustration for me. It Is paradoxically rigid and fluid. Unpredictability reigns with decisions left to chance and the whims of musicians. Cage’s instruments are familiar — often used in unfamiliar ways. Just as often, Cage doesn’t use instruments at all but relies on ordinary objects to create the sounds that populate a work. Nevertheless, Cage’s music is capable of conjuring a powerful, elemental reaction. Every Cage piece I’ve heard generates extreme feelings of awe and deep spiritual awareness.
This was the case recently with the Seattle Percussion Collective. The ensemble presented a series of late Cage pieces last Friday at Gallery 1412 at the Capitol Hill and Central District collision. The Collective is not quite two years old. Since setting out in 2009 the group has garnered critical praise and accumulated a loyal following. Percussion music, like Gamelan music, tends to cater to a niche audience. But the Collective seems to reach beyond their niche audience.
Friday’s audience was smaller — made necessary by the size of their venue. In the minutes before the performance, Dale Speicher, a member of the ensemble, confessed he didn’t know who would show up. A healthy mix of people showed up in fact. Curious listeners mingled with seasoned ears. At least one local composer attended. Only a few seats went unfilled. The turn out wasn’t unexpected. If percussion music has its own devoted audience, there is an equally devoted audience for John Cage’s music. The Cage fans I’ve met aren’t necessarily percussion fans and aren’t always familiar with classical music generally.
51’15.657” for speaking percussionist was the featured piece on the program. The piece is a combination of two independent works capable of being played simultaneously: 45’ for speaker and 27’10.554 for a percussionist. Bonnie Whiting Smith realized the piece in about 51 minutes. Cage gives considerable latitude to the percussionist to choose instruments for the piece but does instruct the percussionist to choose instruments in categories like steel, wood, plastic, and the elusive other. Looking at the score with Bonnie before the performance and afterward I was struck at the firmness of direction Cage provides. Cage relied on the I Ching for guidance, flipped coins, and otherwise consulted chance in composing his later pieces. This randomness comes through in the playing. Whiting Smith’s array of instruments — many of them gathered from her house — clanged, pealed, chimed, smacked, and rapped in a seemingly arbitrary fashion. However Cage’s randomness creates an almost unplayable series of frames for a percussionist. The equally rigorous spoken part adds another layer of unfathomable difficulty. For the Washington premiere, Cage did more than survive the piece. She conveyed seriousness illumination by her performance, not easy with music that isn’t always given the same respect as say a Beethoven symphony. 51 minutes flew by with the help of Whiting Smith’s astute choices. Her instruments worked with the text, creating a symbiotic experience of sounds, sights, and words.
As impressive as Whiting Smith’s performance was, it was the Collective’s performance of Five which affected me the most. I happened to pick up of Fritz Reiner’s classic account of Also Sprach Zarathustra earlier in the day. Reiner had an uncommon affinity with Strauss’s music. I’ve never really like Zarathustra, which has more to do with its overuse in pop culture than the overall quality of the piece. Hearing the opening of Reiner’s Zarathustra suddenly the piece sounded new, celestial and inspired by some otherworldly source. Five isn’t as dramatic as the opening of Zarathustra but it’s no less powerful. Five’s long lasting tones, which seem to have always existed waiting to be made known, reminded me of the simple yet powerful opening of Strauss’ masterpiece sustained double low C on the bass instruments, followed by the three note dawn motif. Like Zarathustra’s opening, Five summoned the sensation of being present for a spiritual truth greater than the notes — or in Cage’s case — the instructions on the page.
Earlier in the day it was Strauss’s music which had captivated my imagination, by the time members of the Seattle Percussion Collective finished Five, John Cage’s music had become my focus. As frustrating as Cage’s music can be for me, any music that can conjure sensations of awe is good music in my book.