Bay Area Performances Celebrate Cage Legacy

Amy X Neuburg tossed dice to select samples for the introduction to her piece Your Handsome Hand

Amy X Neuburg tossed dice to select samples for the introduction to her piece Your Handsome Hand.

Composer and performer Pamela Z‘s entry into this month’s worldwide celebration of John Cage’s centenary was Voice Cage, a program featuring eight San Francisco Bay Area artists presenting works using the voice. Part of Z’s ROOM series, the concert took place in the Royce Gallery, an intimate performance space in a former welding shop located in the Mission district of San Francisco. The crowd that showed up on August 31 easily filled the space to capacity, and the show had to be delayed for 15 minutes so that additional seating could be brought in to accommodate the roughly 70 concertgoers.

Pamela Z at the Royce Gallery

Pamela Z at the Royce Gallery.

Cage made both direct and less explicit appearances throughout the program, which included three vocal works by Cage (The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs, Experiences No. 2, and Aria), new works by Pamela Z (which utilized recordings of Cage’s voice and texts about Cage), and other new compositions that introduced indeterminacy in a nod to Cage’s influence.

Neuburg singing The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs

Neuburg singing The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs.

Julie Queen‘s unaccompanied performance of Cage’s Experiences No. 2 was a straightforward interpretation of the work, whereas Amy X Neuburg took a more individual approach to The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs, originally for voice (“without vibrato, as in folk singing”) and a closed piano to be struck in four particular spots with specific parts of the hand. Neuburg, whose work for voice and electronics have long made her a prominent member of San Francisco’s new music community, created an electronic arrangement of the piano part with samples of water, over which she sang expressively. Pamela Z’s performance of Cage’s Aria was an unintentional mixture of the two approaches: her performance began with the triggering of sampled noises and processing on her voice used to delineate some of the vocal “styles” that Cage calls for. About halfway through the performance, though, her computer crashed and we had the unexpected treat of hearing an un-effected Z, singing the rest of the piece operatically, suavely, gravelly, quietly.

Chessa performing Hear What I Feel

Chessa performing Hear What I Feel.

Luciano Chessa, a composer and performer who also occasionally delivers lively pre-performance lectures on Italian works at the San Francisco Opera, partnered with Z for two thoroughly entertaining and engaging pieces. In Duetto, which opened the second half of the concert and which was credited in the program to “Verdi/Z/Chessa,” the two sang sections of “Un dì felice” from La Traviata, but with the roles reversed, their voices processed with the appropriate octave displacements, accompanied by Chessa playing a toy piano in a voluminous black skirt. Prior to the concert, he had spent an hour with an eye mask on upstairs in Z’s studio, which was doubling as a sensory deprivation chamber, in preparation for a performance of Joan La Barbara’s Hear What I Feel. Z led him onstage, still blindfolded, and guided him into a seat in front of a table with six glass bowls, which contained a variety of objects such as a small balloon and a dried prickly plant. Chessa palpated each in turn and vocalized his responses with phonemes, growls, and laughter, revealing a surprising level of emotional reaction in the process.

Lee's performance piece The Cage

Lee’s performance piece The Cage.

The wide-ranging program also included a captivating solo performance by Oakland-based performance artist Dohee Lee, who will be one of the artists at the next Other Minds Festival in March 2013. Carrying a small box with a theremin-like antenna and a speaker strapped to her head, she danced throughout the space and among the audience while wordlessly moving through a range of characters, sometimes chirping along with the electronic sounds, at other points singing high whistle tones in an otherworldly duet with the box.

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Christopher Jones performs Music of Changes at Old First Church, where Kelsey Walsh noticed that one of the hymns on the board was 433

Christopher Jones performs Music of Changes at Old First Church, where Kelsey Walsh noticed that one of the hymns on the board was 433.

Meanwhile sfSound continued their year-long, 11-concert festival of Cage’s music with two concerts in August: one focused on Cage’s more experimental electronic and noise music at The Lab, a multi-use white box in the Mission, and one dedicated to acoustic works a couple miles north at Old First Church, in a more “uptown” setting.

Matt Ingalls and his colleagues in sfSound have to be commended for their tremendous efforts in preparing and presenting this wide-ranging, devoted, and exhaustive exploration of Cage’s work, in all media and from all points in his career. (I covered a previous concert in this festival here.) Each work programmed has revealed a different aspect of Cage’s music and personality; taken together, a multifaceted portrait of Cage has taken shape in a way that no single concert could achieve.

Matt Ingalls performing 0'00" (4'33" No. 2), in which his “disciplined action" was writing out paychecks for the evening's other performers.

Matt Ingalls performing 0’00” (4’33” No. 2), in which his “disciplined action” was writing out paychecks for the evening’s other performers.

The August 5 concert at The Lab featured works spanning nearly a half-century of Cage’s output, from Living Room Music (1940) to One3 (1988), which was performed by Jon Leidecker as entrance and intermission music. In Ingalls’ introductory remarks, he drew laughs when he said, “I don’t think it matters if you turn off your cell phones or not.” Indeed, a cell phone wouldn’t have even been audible during the performance of Cartridge Music, in which the audience was surrounded by seven musicians with an array of sound-makers that were dramatically amplified using turntable pickups and contact microphones. (sfSound will reprise Cartridge Music on September 6 at SFMOMA as part of the San Francisco Electronic Music Festival.)

Tom Chiu performing selections from Freeman Etudes

Tom Chiu performing selections from Freeman Etudes.

By contrast, a cell phone would have certainly be noticed at the August 17 performance at Old First Church, where the program included violinist Tom Chiu playing five of Cage’s Freeman Etudes and Cheap Imitation, and pianist Christopher Jones performing Books I and IV of Music of Changes. (The full sfSound ensemble also performed Concert for Piano and Orchestra, with Solo for Voice 1 sung by Ken Ueno, and Atlas Eclipticalis, with Solo for Voice 48 sung by Hadley McCarroll.) As thrillingly cacophonous as Cartridge Music was, Chiu’s performance of Part II of Cheap Imitation was by contrast quietly introspective and personal, a beautiful expression of a simple melodic line. Old First Church is on one of the busiest streets in town and traffic noise is normally a drawback to the concerts there, but somehow during Cheap Imitation it was less an intrusion than a partner in dialogue. In Music of Changes, the outside noise became equal with the music: when Jones paused between the two sections for an extended period of time, waiting for the sirens and motorcycles to pass, he inadvertently allowed for an unplanned, improvisatory musical interlude by the sounds of the world outside.

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