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Concert Preview: Speaking of and After Cage

September 13, 2011
I'm not sure how I first heard about Allen Otte and Bonnie Whiting Smith's upcoming performance (9/24 8pm at the Stone), but I do know the more I heard about the program, the more intriguing it became. They'll be presenting a continuous hour of music written by John Cage, Otte, Fred Rzewski, Whiting Smith, William DeFotis, and Corey Dargel.

The program is called “Speaking of and After Cage: mainly music for speaking percussionists.” Both performers have a long history with Cage’s music, but the concert represents more than just their experience performing this repertoire. Whiting Smith and Otte also explore Cage’s ideas about music and language through their own compositions, and the concert also features music that followed Cage’s legacy.

New York City has a wonderfully diverse contemporary music scene, but not often enough does the diversity get squeezed into a single performance. I think that Whiting Smith and Otte do a great job of showcasing the many varieties of contemporary music. Presented as a continuous hour of music, this gives the audience an opportunity to immerse themselves in all sorts of new ways to organize sounds. I was able to ask both Allen and Bonnie a few questions about their upcoming performance, and there’s even a sneak preview of sound for you to taste.

How did you go about selecting these pieces from all of the Cage percussion music?

Allen: The concert is connected to Mode and their Cage percussion discs series, and the choices relate in part to that. Bonnie’s upcoming solo record includes 51’15.675” for Speaking Percussionist, her version of Music For 2 x 1, and A Flower, and it also includes on the DVD a ‘bonus track’ of my connecting egypt piece. The only new thing for us is the little piece from forever and sunsmell (#26 of ‘50 poems’) — we wanted to end doing something really together, as much of this is solo work, or simultaneous solo work rather than actually coming together.

Bonnie: I would also add that both of us are often drawn to works by Cage (and others) that involve a bit of creative realization on the part of the performers. Music for Four by Two and the excerpts from  51’15.657″ for a speaking percussionist fall into this category. While we strictly adhere to the parameters set by the composer, the relatively indeterminate instrumentation, non-traditional notation systems, (mostly) flexible time-structure, and Cage’s encouragement of simultaneous performance in these works have allowed us to make personally unique interpretations utilizing special collections of instruments and our own interest in vocalizing while playing.
What is the connection between the Cage pieces and the works you selected by Corey Dargel, William DeFotis and Fred Rzewski?

Allen: We’re mostly exploring the idea of different ways to deal with text — voice, breath, ‘utterance’….  Corey was a student in Cincinnati years ago and Percussion Group Cincinnati did this piece back when it was new. Also, it’s important to us to include music by a ‘local composer’ , so Corey’s piece was just right for a number of reasons.  Bill Defotis and Fred Rzewski wrote these pieces for me. Cage’s Music for ____, as Music For Three is written for and dedicated to Percussion Group Cincinnati.

Bonnie: Specifically, we span a wide range of vocalization styles: from fragments of words or phrases (Dargel), to narrative (Rzewski), to a lecture jumping from point to point according to chance procedures (51’15.657″), to non-texted speech and utterance (Music for 4 x 2, DeFotis), to sung poetry (26 of 50).
Is there any significance to the program being broken down into four parts?

Allen: Part II is the drum collection — since so much of what we’re doing utilizes extended techniques, we wanted to begin at the beginning so to speak — with just the drum, the singular most basic percussion instrument. The music involves some pretty refined and accomplished technique — there’s something about establishing ‘where we’re coming from’ before we go pretty far afield. The three drum pieces are all nearly as different as possible, and yet we have strung them together in one continuous set. Part III is the most challenging of the cage pieces. Music for 4 x 2, a construction of his Music For ___, for two players performing four parts, is nested within Bonnie’s  layered speaking percussionist piece.  The  4th set includes the oldest music, thus there is a different aesthetic feel from the preceding pieces, and it is the by far the most intimate – gentle – quiet region of the hour. My piece is of course the newest of anything, but it references older cage material.

Bonnie’s work on the program uses a text by Varèse. I asked her about its significance and how her music responds to the words.

Some years ago, when I had just moved to Seattle and started work as a freelancer, I made a series of short speaking percussionist pieces entitled . . . perishable structures that would be social events using text from interviews and writings of composers and (mostly) found instruments collected in my new neighborhood. Movement I was “Harrison”, II. “Partch” and III. was “Cage.”  I recently made a fourth movement “Varèse”, using snare drum, field drum, and a favorite instrument of the composer: a lion’s roar (also known as a string drum).

Varèse wrote and spoke a great deal about the metaphor of music as language, or as a communicative force.  In my recent work as a doctoral student, I made a piece of academic writing about the composer’s musical “utterances”; times when he actually references human vocalization in his instrumental writing. The music itself is full of fabulous material, and I found that his own writing about such things to be incredibly poetic:

“organized sound may be called on to intervene at the point where the spoken word has reached the limit of its efficacy, and where the precision of the image only tends to limit the flight of the imagination”

“the best definition of music is the corporealization of the intelligence that is in sound.”

The rhythmic material of all four pieces from . . .perishable structures is generated from the natural speech patterns inherent in the texts. Sometimes I speak the text aloud. Sometimes I “play” the text, and other times I do both simultaneously. This particular movement also uses quotations from some of Varèse’s snare drum writing.
Allen created a mesostic and combined with music from Cage’s For Marcel Duchamp and Variations II. He is calling the piece Connecting Egypt to Madison through Columbus OH, Cage, and the History of the American Labor Movement, and he was kind enough to offer an excerpt of it:
I asked Allen to describe the origin of the mesostic, as well as talk about his use of mesostics in general.

The spine of the mesostic is KNOW JUSTICE KNOW PEACE NO JUSTICE NO PEACE — a chant shouted on the steps of the capital in Columbus this spring where many of us had gone on a couple of different rally days — Ohio public employees were facing the exact same anti-labor legislation that had generated the much more publicized demonstrations in Madison. I wanted to talk to my students about this – wanted to bring these issues to the conservatory classroom and concert stage, so I set about using various materials to construct such a piece of ‘current relevance.’ There was a photo of the protests in Egypt where someone had a sign saying ‘in solidarity with Madison, Wisconsin!”  — I thought of all my Arabic frame drums, and then other texts: from cage, from the history of the American Labor Movement, from the 8th Century Chinese government employee and wandering poet Du Mu, and even from a speech from my just-recently-passed-away father, who was a labor leader who had become a state senator in Wisconsin decades ago. I followed cage’s example of using chance methods and his various template scores to construct something which could brush all the parts of that disparate but connected information up against themselves, making something related but unpredictable and new out of it; literally making connections where they otherwise had not tangibly existed.

It should be a fascinating performance, but if you need more convincing here are some videos of Bonnie and Allen performing some of these Cage works. To see it live, of course, you’ll have to be at the Stone on September 24.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. September 24, 2011 5:31 am

    Thanks for this, Doug!

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