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Callithumpian Cage Contemplates Catastrophe

December 21, 2012

I can't imagine a more wonderful place to experience the "musical theatre" of John Cage than in the new concert space at Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, which opened less than a year ago.

The cube-shaped room has no stage and seats some concert goers on all four sides at ground level and the rest on three levels above the performance area, again on all four sides. This means that if you're attending the performance of a work that demands a multi-layered, theatrical approach as is so often the case with Cage's music, you're in for a much more immersive experience than you might have if you were simply sitting in rows in a conventional concert hall.

The contemporary music-oriented Callithumpian Consort performed Cage's Song Books, a collection of short pieces involving staging concepts for different combinations of voice and electronics, at the museum last night. The happening was part of the institution's pithily named "Avant Gardner" music series, a showcase for cutting edge music which takes place on Thursday nights during the museum's late opening hours.

Song Books was composed more than 40 years ago in 1970. Yet if feels remarkably fresh. The setting for last night's performance probably played a key role in preventing the work from appearing like a throwback to the halcyon days of happenings in pot-infused New York lofts.

Sitting on the second of three levels above the staging area, I was delighted to be able to look down and get a birds-eye view of Cage's fantastical musical score. Some parts of the work are written in standard musical notation, others use a special type of notation with assorted circles and lines instead of notes, others still employ different schemas of lines and dots, and some sections are not notated at all -- the text is drafted in a variety of fonts for different words.

The performers clearly seemed to be having fun. Singers occasionally materialized on the different seating levels, intoning their notes to create a "surround sound" feel for a while before moving off to some other locale. At one point, an older male performer was wheeled into the center of the space in a plastic cart. He proceeded to take out two small oriental rugs and a tatty bed sheet, make himself an ad hoc bed, and momentarily fall asleep. Meanwhile, a couple of singers sat on a blanket next to him calmly picnicking on what appeared to be pineapple chunks, crackers, potato chips and a chocolate cupcake. At various times, performers rolled coins, made marks on pieces of paper, played chess and distributed apples and plastic cups of cranberries(?) to audience members.

The harmonics created in the space were amazing. The words intoned by the singers -- which became mantras by the end of the piece -- rung up to the rafters. Even now, against my will and beliefs, I find myself chanting the lyric, "The best form of government is no form of government at all."

Two other pieces were performed alongside the Cage -- The Great Learning, Paragraph 7, by Cornelius Cardew, and Christian Wolff's Changing the System. All three works have an anarchic streak  in common. (The anarchist's flag was even unfurled from a balcony at some point during the Cage.)

En masse, they proved a potent way to think about the chaos of recent weeks most palpably encapsulated in this country by the ravages of Hurricane Sandy and last Friday's school shooting in Connecticut. They also formed a fitting prelude for the notion of the world coming to an end on December 21, 2012.

(I'm currently sitting in a Boston Starbucks, preempting The Rapture with a cup of green tea. I wonder if I can fit in a final game of squash?)


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