Having played this concert twice in the past week, once at the Art Museum at Indiana University Bloomington, and once at Queens College, CUNY, I am excited that you too will be able to hear it. Titled “Then and Now, a concert of baroque music and contemporary music for baroque instruments”, it will take place tomorrow night, Friday October 18, at 8:00 PM at Kellogg Music Center at Bard College at Simon’s Rock. The musicians are Eva Legêne, recorder, Tatsuya Muraishi, violin, Masayuki Maki, harpsichord and myself on viola da gamba. Admission is free.
Who is John Cage? Does it matter? At a certain point music must “speak” for itself, allow the musician to interpret the music and the listener to have the pure experience. It can be useful and interesting to have “background” whether historical or technical, as Mark Stewert gave a little of in his introductory spiels before he played, particularly when that information helps people with the music. But often with Cage’s music so much of the idea is in the concept, in the construction that there’s a risk that the listener thinks they’ve “got it” before a note is played. This, and the strong tendency toward cult worship of Cage, is ironic considering his is so often performer’s music. Cage’s cleverness is often overemphasized, he seems either to be taken too seriously or too facetiously, which threatens to reduce his pieces to one-liners, something he seems to have reliably avoided. His music seems more composed to help people to think on their own about music, any music, without drifting between clichés and received wisdom in a deoxygenated modern world. From sometime in the 19th century, music started to come about which anyone could listen to and appreciate intuitively without any training or “background” except maybe literacy and some emotional intelligence, whereas before the French Revolution a Baroque composer could expect a great deal more technical musical knowledge from the audience. One hopes music can transcend or make a false dichotomy intuition versus intellect (nowadays maybe more a corporate misunderstanding of Carl Jung’s types, anyway the “debate” is sophomoric). John Cage’s music, and other experimentalists’, seems often explained and even appreciated from pure intellect, whether using mathematical or philosophical or religious principles, music you “get” just from the score and it’s always trippy. Music, the thing, whatever it is, you listen to while the musicians interpret and play, in the end “paints” it own background and has to be taken as the thing in itself. Cage’s music is music because it can stand on its own, make its own background even when it comes from nowhere. Mozart’s music came from nowhere and he was no innovator. As far as we know he walked about with music coming to him, the more he wrote the more came, and to ask: where did it come from? how did he think up such music? is like asking how space or time can be infinite, how a four dimensional universe can be expanding, how can we have free will, or what happens after death.
There was a moment when American opera companies faced greater challenges both producing and selling contemporary work, but could still be relied upon to produce the 19th century classics with success onstage and at the box office. Maybe the training and experience of musicians onstage and in the pit has finally caught up with the calendar. Maybe a newer idiom is less of a reach than the older one and the cultural displacement and carnage of the two World Wars has finally separated us from traditions of bel canto. Perhaps as listeners we hold different expectations of singers in contemporary work than we do of singers in Puccini, Verdi, and Bizet. For whatever reason, the production of Nixon in China currently gracing the stage of the San Francisco Opera is the most stylistically coherent achievement of their summer season and is bringing in audiences. Much praise to all concerned.
Such a broad range of small detail, an infinite diversity of subtle variations in tone, attack, dynamics etc., more than is practical even for a composer to write into a score, is possible, even common on the string instruments, especially the violin, and it seems to be much easier to find violinists capable of nuanced playing than any other instrument, flute, horn, oboe, for example, though maybe not piano, though these instruments are not directly comparable. The string quartet then presents so many musical possibilities not to mention possible combinations of musical personalities, for both the performer and composer, and such opportunities for experimentation with the genre’s huge density of detail, relative speed of composition, and fantastic possibilities at the frontiers of musical sound. It is easy too to compare a symphonist’s writing string quartets to a painter’s drawing of finished studies, and this tradition continues, even if new symphonies and operas are relatively rare, as we see here in this program which includes the newish work by Gordon Kerry whose pieces, like Ian Munro’s last year, will feature in most of this year’s chamber music concert tours organized by Musica Viva.
This fascinating and varied program, each piece using equally colorful but very different orchestras and very different forms and structures, shows us some of the breadth of the Sydney Symphony. Their style is nimble enough to express itself in multifarious ways and Ashkenazy’s style and approach to symphonic music is well suited to the three pieces. To mark the occasion of the orchestra’s 80th anniversary, they have done something special in commissioning themselves a new piece by way of an open competition. Elliott Gyger’s entry was chosen, and though only alloted a short amount of time to fit into this larger program of more familiar pieces, it does rather expand under the intensity of its short broken up motifs and its varied colors, sounds and textures, qualities Ashkenazy, at least as a conductor, seems to relish. The piece’s title refers to the SSO’s origin as a radio orchestra formed along with the Australian Broadcast Corporation in 1932. Gyger says he used an ensemble of 17 instruments, the same in the original 1932 radio orchestra, which for his “dialogue” are spread through the larger orchestra: three violins, viola, cello, bass, two each of trombones, trumpets and clarinets, a horn, sousaphone, piccolo, piano and percussion.
Before Diaghilev decided to bring Russian art to the west, starting with his exhibition of Russian art in Paris in 1906, in 1908 bringing Chaliapin to Paris to sing Boris Godinov, and then his formation of the Ballets Russes, first performing in Paris in 1909, unadulterated, purely Russian art was little known or appreciated outside asia. Vast Russia, except for its toe in Europe was perhaps considered something of a cultural backwater in Europe. Diaghilev didn’t hold back in bringing this unadulterated Russian art, also discovering and hiring young or little known artists — like Stravinsky — and this was part of his art’s huge appeal in west to this day. So when Stravinsky visited the far, far East — Australia — in 1961, it was perhaps not so far from his roots nor so incongruous. Traditional indigenous Russian or central asian art was often an influence in the set designs and style of Bakst, Benois, Golovin, Roerich and the others, costumes sometimes used original traditional textiles (like the ikat fabrics bought from nomadic traders at St Petersburg markets for the costumes for the Polostvian dances from Borodin’s Prince Igor), the choreography was sometimes classical in the best Petipan Franco-russian tradition preserved in the imperial Maryinksy school, but was often entirely new in style, especially Vaslav Nijinsky’s for the Rite of Spring, though often borrowing from traditional, indigenous Russian dance, as in Firebird and Petroushka. Western audiences seemed unconsciously to understand this bizarre new art and went crazy for it, famously starting riots and booing, also becoming most fashionable tickets to have.
The Sydney Omega Ensemble, as fairly young musicians, though with three members of the SSO’s wind section, in no way without experience, with help from the non-profit Ars Musica Australis, enjoys commissioning and playing new pieces from young Australian composers. They do so in many of their concerts, taking the tactic of mixing them in a program with traditional composers, rather than the all-together contemporary music festival approach. Even if the new pieces are only short, it obviously adds variety for the audience and players and fills in some of the difficult gap between conservatory student concerts and festivals and the commissions of more established composers by Musica Viva (for new chamber music) and the SSO, Australian Chamber Orchestra and Australian Ballet, etc. for new orchestral works, the orchestral works usually coming from the same handful of Australian composers. So it is a valuable little institution David Rowden, the Ensemble’s artistic director, founder and clarinetist, and company have run over the past few years.
Parody as a technique of satire ought to suit theatrical dance well. Irish poets, known as some of the greatest masters of this form, in imitating and reversing the meter of their victim’s poems in order to devastate them are said to have used the same technique as Russian witches: “they walk quietly behind their victim, exactly mimicking his gate; then when in perfect sympathy with him suddenly stumble and fall, taking care to fall soft while he falls hard.”  Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Damien Jalet’s piece Babel (words) takes on the modern world, in a deliberate mixture of satire, serious avant-garde dance, science fiction, declamatory monologues and something bordering on a three-ring circus.