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In John Cage’s Room, Sounds of Gertrude Stein

Published: 2012-01-31
John Cage Focus! 2012 Juilliard School performers in John Cage's “Living Room Music," with props as percussion instruments, at Lincoln Center.

Some music now considered transporting was simply too revolutionary for its time: Beethoven's late works often baffled his peers but inspire us. The music of some 20th-century composers, on the other hand, will probably never move the listener, which was not the goal of an artist like John Cage.

Cage, a brilliant man with a mischievous sense of humor, rejected the Romantic ideal that music should affect listeners emotionally, and instead he wrote pieces that perplexed his first audiences. He created a huge body of often groundbreaking works that remain intriguing, atmospheric, provocative and occasionally silly.

The Juilliard School is celebrating the centennial of Cage's birth with six concerts in the Focus! 2012 Festival, which opened on Friday evening at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater. The programs, organized by Joel Sachs, represent the wide spectrum of Cage's career and his innovative approach to sound and noise.

In an article for The Juilliard Journal, Mr. Sachs writes that when he started teaching at the school in 1970 a Cage festival would have been unthinkable, given the hostility often directed toward Cage's music, particularly after the 1952 premiere of his noteless “4'33.""

The cellist Patrick McGuire found the humor in “59 1/2" “ for a string player (1953), which opened the program on Friday. Inspired by Zen Buddhism and his studies with the composer Henry Cowell, Cage wrote it while abandoning traditional notation and experimenting with chance procedures.

“Nocturne" for violin and piano (1947) and “In a Landscape" for piano (1948) represent the melodious, ephemeral side of Cage. His passion for Satie is evident in the misty, wistful qualities of “In a Landscape," performed evocatively here by Oskar Jezior.

There is a strong theatrical element to works like “Living Room Music" (1940), performed with sofa, table, chairs and props all used as percussion instruments to create percussive-speech woven around a brief spoken text by Gertrude Stein.

The performance-art element is even stronger in “Theatre Piece" (1960), one of Cage's many indeterminate scores, which requires interpreters to become quasi composers using a sort of script. On the prop-strewn stage, eight musicians whistled, read newspapers out loud, bounced a ball, made animal sounds and uttered dramatic statements like “I'm melting." The surrealist and often amusing tableau seemed random but didn't incorporate improvisation, rarely part of Cage's scores.

Mr. Sachs conducted “Imaginary Landscape No. 4 (March No. 2)" (1951) for 12 radios and 24 players, a work now dated simply by the difficulty of finding those required historical instruments. Seven harpists, each using a chart with ragas, performed “Postcard From Heaven" (1982). The program ended with excerpts from “Song Books, Vol. 1" (1970), whose quirky multilingual texts were delivered with flair by the soprano Lara Secord-Haid and the bass-baritone Davone Tines.

The festival runs through Friday at the Juilliard School and Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center; (212)769-7406, juilliard.edu.


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