john cage centenary: an exultation of lineage

keith gallasch: permission granted, bang on a can all-stars

Bang on a Can All-Stars, The Composers 2: John Cage Centenary Celebrations, Sydney Opera House

Bang on a Can All-Stars, The Composers 2: John Cage Centenary Celebrations, Sydney Opera House

Bang on a Can All-Stars, The Composers 2: John Cage Centenary Celebrations, Sydney Opera House


The title was apt for a program that proved to be a shorthand if lateral exposition of certain aspects of the lineage of Cagean influence. Did John Cage beget Terry Riley and Riley beget Louis Andriessen, and Andriessen beget Australia’s Kate Moore?

As in any ecosystem, evolution is inevitably more complex; after all, none of the inheritors composes in the manner of Cage (is there even a style?) while Riley’s minimalism can be heard in Andriessen and Moore, if dramatically reconfigured and ruptured.

What Cage’s experimentation, his creations and his philosophising did was open up possibilities for the radical mutation of music, ‘classical’ and popular, in the second half of the 20th century, generating a richer musical biodiversity.

The world-wide John Cage (1912-1992) celebrations in 2012 of the artist’s 100th birthday acknowledged the man’s influence on generations of musicians, composers and audiences. His liberating departures from concert hall music, especially from serialism, included his engagement with new tools for composition (prepared piano, tape loops, amplification and contact microphones, electronics, the computer), performance with spoken text, an alertness to the power of silence, the invitation to the performer to become co-composer in the act of playing, the deployment of chance operations for composing and a philosophical disposition (influenced by Zen Buddhism and the music of the East) that saw music as integral to life rather than as stand alone art. Permission Granted presented exemplars of the Cage influence.

The concert opened with Cage’s 4’33” (1952), a respectful, quasi-religious moment (very quiet save for the ever loud hum of The Studio aircon) and closed with Terry Riley’s In C (1964) “the Sacre of musical minimalism,” in the words of Robert Carl in his exhaustive book on the work (Terry Riley’s In C, OUP, 2009). There was little if any overt silence after 4’33 in the ensuing, pulsing trio of works played with the Bang on a Can All-Stars’ amplified house-style vigour.

What Cage offered Riley, and which Riley merged with his dominant passion for Indian music and admiration for John Coltrane (among other jazz musicians), was a move away from harmonic structure to a focus on duration and cells of sound, allowing greater responsiveness to texture and timbre, revealing new sounds and rhythmic complexities. In C is a one-page score with a set of instructions that can be played by any number and kind of musicians (as in the Shanghai Film Orchestra version, a favourite of mine) with recognisable but very different outcomes since each musician has to make decisions about when to play and at what volume.

For In C, the six-strong Bang on a Can were joined by six members of Sydney’s Ensemble Offspring in a combination similar to the New York group’s 2001 CD of the work but without a pipa (sometimes called the Chinese lute). Realised by musicians ever alert to each other, the hour-long performance in The Studio was perpetually engaging, displaying a remarkable range of nuanced collective modulation, while individual voices and sudden pairings rose briefly above the communal pulse such that the weave of notes always remained whole, an embracing but ever changing mantra.

With minimalism, Terry Riley also granted many composers new freedoms, including not only Philip Glass and the phase-shifting Steve Reich, but also, to a degree, Louis Andriessen, the Dutch composer who had broken with serialism and experimented with tape in the 1960s. We can hear the insistent pulse of minimalism in Andriessen, but his work sounds much tougher, and louder, the repetitions chunkier, hovering on the edge of the dissonance that minimalism had tonally muted. Composer (and sometime Philip Glass assistant) Nico Muhly writes, “In 1975 Andriessen finished Workers’ Union, a pounding, relentless work for unspecified (but loud) ensemble. This is a piece at whose performances woodwind players have been known to bleed from the gums, a near-hysterical, blue-collar rant.” http://nicomuhly.com/projects/2007/notes-on-andriessen-wolfe-ziporyn/

Bang on a Can All-Stars, The Composers 2: John Cage Centenary Celebrations, Sydney Opera House

Bang on a Can All-Stars, The Composers 2: John Cage Centenary Celebrations, Sydney Opera House

Bang on a Can All-Stars, The Composers 2: John Cage Centenary Celebrations, Sydney Opera House

About Workers’ Union, Andriessen wrote in 1990, “This piece is a combination of individual freedom and severe discipline: its rhythm is exactly fixed; the pitch, on the other hand, is indicated only approximately, on a single-lined stave. It is difficult to play in an ensemble and to remain in step, sort of thing like organising and carrying on political action.” Like Riley’s In C it can be realised in any number of ways. You can find substantially different versions by Bang on a Can and Ensemble Offspring on YouTube as well as by other ensembles large and small.

The Bang on a Can concert performance feels maximally percussive, from all the instruments, with a heavy, chugging pulse that suddenly accelerates, scaling up, almost like a collective stutter but with a riff-like cogency. Bass notes thud and the clarinet swoops and we’re back in the threatening groove of a kind of swirling unison. By the end the tightly bound ascents and flights veer thrillingly close to disintegration. It feels a long way from the neatness of American minimalism. It’s a stirring, raucous performance of an infectious work.

As for Andriessen’s influence, his students are composers as diverse as Kate Moore, Ensemble Offspring co-artistic director Damien Rickertson, Michel van der Aa, Yannis Kyriakides and Steve Martland among many others. Muhly writes, “While the influence of the American minimalists seems to be measurable by gestures—a Reichean rhythmic canon, a blissed-out Riley-esque drone, an eager Glassian arpeggio—one speaks about the ‘spirit’ of Andriessen being found in the music of the younger generations.” Perhaps then Andriessen’s influence is open-ended, like Cage’s. Muhly continues, “While it is difficult to pinpoint what exactly comprises this spirit, some key Andriessen emotional tricks include the strategic (as opposed to textural) use of repeated notes, a strong sense of community from within the orchestra (expressed by certain pairings of instruments always playing in unison), and an uncompromising rhythmic agenda.”

Bang on a Can All-Stars, The Composers 2: John Cage Centenary Celebrations, Sydney Opera House

Bang on a Can All-Stars, The Composers 2: John Cage Centenary Celebrations, Sydney Opera House

Bang on a Can All-Stars, The Composers 2: John Cage Centenary Celebrations, Sydney Opera House

Kate Moore’s Ridgeway (2009; it can be heard on the band’s 2011 CD Big Beautiful Dark and Scary) reveals immediate kinship with Andriessen’s modernist-minimalist ‘model.’ Perhaps that’s because it comprises in this concert the same instrumentation and enjoys Bang on a Can’s distinctive approach. A brief program note by Moore describes the work as a reflection “on the landscape of my childhood and my memory,” as part of a search for a sense of place and identity. But this bracing work feels only occasionally reflective, the beating motifs, big and small, slipping exquisitely near in and out of sync, suggesting perhaps obsessive recall. Much more nuanced than Workers’ Union, Ridgeway nonetheless has a similar propulsive drive which can abruptly accelerate, erupting over gentle piano-vibe contemplations. Most haunting is the recurrent siren-like clarinet and string keening high above throbbing bass and pounding piano. Ridgeway is a memorable 12-minute epic that reveals but does not bow down to its inheritance.

While Permission Granted could only gesture at the complexity and duration of the Cage influence—limiting itself to two ‘sacred’ works (1952, 1964) and two exciting confirmations and departures (1975 and a leap to 2009)—it nonetheless was a concert at once contemplative and visceral, honouring an enduring heritage. The two other concerts—John Cage and his American Descendants and the Ambient Evolution (Cage and Brian Eno)—added further dimensions to our appreciation in this enthusiastically received exultation of lineage.

The Composers 2: John Cage, Centenary Celebration, Bang on a Can All-Stars with Ensemble Offspring, The Studio, Sydney Opera House, Nov 2, 3, 2012

See Gail Priest’s review of the other concerts that were part of the John Cage Centenary Celebration

This article first appeared as part of RealTime’s online e-dition Jan 30, 2013

RealTime issue #113 Feb-March 2013 pg. 39

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

30 January 2013