DC at Night

DC at Night

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Third Coast Percussion: John Cage at 100

Now you might not consider a Chinese fortune cookie, leafy green fronds, a well-used cookie sheet, odd-shaped rocks, an unopened can of beer, an unlit cigarette, or the iPhone you might be reading this blog entry on as musical instruments. But, if you were 1 of the 100 modern composers who were asked to compose a 7-second snippet of music to celebrate the upcoming 100th anniversary of avant-garde musical composer John Cage you might. And, if you were 1 of the 4 members of the Third Coast Percussion, who performed the original composition Renga:Cage:100 last night at the Kennedy Center, you definitely would.

The above list names just a fraction of the more than 100 percussive "instruments" the talented quartet employed in their hour-long tribute to Cage. In addition to the riveting contemporary composition, Third Coast also played 4 original Cage pieces which employed drums, woodblocks, upside down pots, vibraphones, radio transmissions, cymbals, bells, whistles, childrens' toys, and a plucked piano.

Obviously, the centerpiece of the performance was Renga:Cage:100. The group scurried across the Millennium Stage to grab the specific percussive instruments called for in the 7-second snippets. At some points, the group shouted, chattered, or screamed  in unison. At other times, they stomped their feet. The rapidly unfolding piece, which at one point included the actual unfolding of musical scores, was as much visual as aural. Some snippets transported the audience into an other-world of surreal science-fictiony sounds. Others could have come from a long-ago African village or Caribbean island. Still other provoked sustained laughter. One of the lightest moments came when all 4 players grabbed about 10 mallets each and arrived at an instrument, only to produce the tiniest sound of a lightly-struck single note. The work, which has been hailed as “the first true musical expression of social media culture,"ended with the entire audience raising a large 7-second "hmmmmmmm."

For those of you not familiar with Cage and his work, he is to music what David Lynch is to art and film. If you appreciate his pieces, he is a genius. If not, his work is simply an incomprehensible cacophony of noise.
Almost all critics agree, however that Cage (1912-1992) was one of America’s most significant and influential creative minds. Composer, musician, inventor and philosopher, he created the nation’s first touring percussion ensemble, invented the prepared piano, and brought everyday sounds and actions into the concert hall.  Of his music Cage himself said, Percussion music really is the art of noise and that’s what it should be called.”

Among the Cage compositions performed last night was Credo in US (1942). Written just 7 months after the strike on Pearl Harbor, Cage said his satirical collage offered an honest portrayal of America, devoid of the idealized patriotism that dominated much American music composed at that time. It was his first work to incorporate a radio. The presence of the radio automatically brings into the work an element of the time and place the piece is being performed. (Note: if you are getting this post in your email, you must click here to call up the video of a previous performance of Credo in US. Believe me, it is worth the time and effort to check this out. Words can't begin to do justice to the brilliance of Cage's work).

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
John Cage was one of the great innovators in music. Ever cognizant of time not yet come, he left openings for future performers to decide what instruments they would play. Last night, Third Coast Percussion used both computers and smart phones in their performance. Obviously, there were no such devices of social media in Cage's time, but you can be certain he would have incorporated it into his work had it been available. To learn more about Cage and Third Coast's ties to it, you can access the group's blog by clicking here. If you want an even more in-depth look at Cage's ideas at work, you can click here to access the complete free Millennium Stage show from the Kennedy Center last night.

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