Cage teaches us how to inhabit our world

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November 21, 2012

Cage 100 Festival
Victoria Symphony Orchestra
Tania Miller, conductor
Tzenka Dianova, piano
Rick Sacks, percussion
Alix Goolden Hall
Saturday, November 17, 2012

Reviewed by Jennifer Messelink
Sit. Breathe. Listen.

When was the last time you sat in intentional silence with a hundred people, including an orchestra? The Victoria Symphony, directed by Tania Miller, gave us the opportunity on Saturday night at Alex Goolden Hall, performing works by Charles Ives, John Cage and the world premier performance of Rick Sacks’ Water Music. Victoria is host to The Cage 100 Festival. Curated by UVIC professor of composition Christopher Butterfield, the festival celebrates the centennial birth of American composer John Cage, his influences, and his lasting legacy.

The program began with three works by Charles Ives: Tone Roads No. 1 and No. 3 and The Unanswered Question. Charles Ives was a significant influence on John Cage; both composers used music in new forms, often employing elements of chance and non-traditional techniques. The Unanswered Question is an early example of aleatoric music, or music composed by the principles of chance operations. The work is a collage of three elements, the strings and solo trumpet in the distance off stage, and the woodwinds on stage. The dialogue is notated, but still allows for improvisation through the exchange between the groups. Director Tania Miller commented that, “for music over one hundred years old, Ives’ ideas of polytonality are still fresh, and taking us in new directions. We don’t need to follow tonality, we can go in many directions and at the end come together.”

The Victoria Symphony skillfully presented the tension of Ives’s dissonant chords and extreme dynamics, under layers of familiar tunes of another time. It was a pleasure to hear this music in a live performance.

No John Cage festival would be complete without his most famous, and most notorious work: 4’33”. We live in a world of constant background noise, people talking endlessly on cell phones, the blare of radio and commercials in most public spaces. To sit in silence in a concert hall feels, perhaps more radical now than ever. The ritual of preparation for the performance was usual, but there was noticeable anticipation in the air. The entire orchestra arrived onstage, tuned their instruments and . . . silence. Sitting quietly, one becomes acutely aware of the ambient noises: a car passing outside, whispering in the distance, chairs creaking, shifting, a cough. Applause.

The music of both Ives and Cage is extremely visual, and elements of both could be heard in Rick Sacks’s world premiere of Water Music. Familiar melodies layered on each other, a march and fanfare, and a large percussion section made this work thick with textures and bright sonorities. This work was also visual like Cage and Ives, but in a more direct way. As the work began, a large clown fish and a huge shark floated above the stage and through the audience. It was a fun and effective visual tool, but I found the handlers with their remote controls chasing the watery creatures throughout the hall more than a little distracting.

After Cage’s The Seasons came his Concerto for Prepared Piano, performed by Tzenka Dianova. John Cage experimented with prepared piano to the extent that it became otherworldly, a totally different instrument. The effect is extraordinary when experienced live. When Dianova played a chord, what was expected was not what was heard. The orchestra played with style, very little vibrato and open, bright sonorities. The Concerto for Prepared Piano was written in traditional form, but the effect is distorted yet absolutely beautiful.

Charles Ives and John Cage were revolutionary, both in their compositions and philosophy. The Victoria Symphony handled a challenging, and unusual program, and made it remarkably accessible. John Cage believed life itself can be art, but instead of creating it, we would be altered by it. Let us raise a toast to the centennial birth of John Cage, and to our continued awareness of our place on the canvas.

Jennifer Messelink is a music lover who’s not afraid of silence




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