The sound of surprise
Pianist Conor Hanick to play tribute to John Cage
I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I’m frightened of the old ones.”
It is not every composer’s gift to be able to offer us music which is not only truly fresh but genuinely unimaginable — incapable of being conceived beforehand. More often, we attend a concert with a fair certainty and sense of the kind of experience we’re letting ourselves in for. It’s rather like an insurance policy, guaranteeing, at least to some extent, that we won’t be wasting our time or our money — and that we’ll get the flavor that we ordered.
For instance, when we buy our ticket to a concert of music by Bach, we may not know piece for piece or note for note the music that were about to hear, but nevertheless, we’ve heard enough Bach to trust that he’ll be fulfilling his eminent legacy — give or take a contrapuntal line or two, or switching out a pair of oboes for a pair of violins— even in Bach that is new to us.
But some people just don’t like to be surprised; they want their musical fix in just such a way and no other. In this light, I recall a radio announcer on a New York classical station in the 1960s by the name of DeKoven — a soul absolutely passionate about the Baroque and Rococo periods.
DeKoven was nothing if not amusing, because, for all his erudition and scholarship, he spoke in an almost comically high voice and wore his very sentimental heart audibly on his sleeve; one could hear and hardly fail to be taken by his boyishly vulnerable passion for this music of immense complexity and yet profound order, constructed with comfortingly symmetrical phrases and consoling, predictable harmonic progressions.
It was, in short, a music which, to quote Shakespeare, “knit together the raveled sleeve of care,” and which lent a sense of deep meaning and order in an often chaotic and unpredictable world. DeKoven would use such ineluctable phrases as OTW (out-of-this world) or super-OTW (super-out-of-this-world) in describing the many works that he adored. In fact, I doubt he ever played a piece that he didn’t think was super-OTW, his hosannas to these latter raising his voice to a genuine, ardent soprano.
Baroque and Rococo — this was all he ever played on his hour-long late-night program, year after contrapuntal, heavily brocaded year. He also welcomed calls from his listeners, among them my admiring and amused older brother, Gene, a freelance commercial artist who became acquainted with much unheard music by listening nonstop to classical stations while he worked through the night at home.
It was a poignant moment when, upon going through Gene’s personal papers after his passing, I found a thick bundle of densely written missives from none other than DeKoven himself, full of written OTWs and super-OTWs in worship of his musical gods.
Most amazing of all — I assure the reader I am not exaggerating this — DeKoven considered the history of music to begin with the early Baroque and to end with early Beethoven, after which, he incanted unbudgably, that the art of music effectively ceased, and all was meaningless cacophony.
Agree or disagree as you may, it has to be said that this was a man of his own convictions, willing to bear the censure of his contemporaries and his critics for being hopelessly reactionary, narrow-minded and self-indulgent. He knew what he loved, and he loved what he knew.
Taking a quantum leap to the other side of the universe, aesthetically speaking, we find ourselves in the midst of the centennial year celebration of 20th century American composer-of-chance, John Cage.
The polar antithesis of DeKoven, Cage was a musician for whom almost anything might justifiably qualify as music — not just all of the patent music written from the medieval through to the electronic eras, but also inclusive of sound worlds far beyond traditional musical venues.
Pianist Conor Hanick is offering a John Cage tribute concert as part of the celebration of Cage’s centennial year, as part of the Sound and Space Festival at Smith College, Nov. 15 at 8.30 p.m., in the Helen Hills Hills Chapel. The concert is free of charge.
The music of the evening is Cage’s “Sonatas and Interludes,” for solo prepared piano. In Cage’s view, his purpose in preparing or “souping up” the piano — that is, outfitting the strings with various dampening, muting and sound-altering materials — was “... to create a percussion orchestra under the direction of a single performer.”
Of the music, Hanick shares, the “... hour-long collection of 20 miniatures is an extraordinary example of architectural form and musical organization: each movement meticulously notated, every pitch, rhythm and expressive marking chosen with purpose.”
By virtue of these novel transmutations of traditional keyboard sounds, cross-fertilized by Cage’s wide-open structural aesthetic, there emerges a music which confirms that Cage, is such a composer who is able, gift to be able, as per my opening sentence, “... to offer us music which is not only truly fresh but genuinely unimaginable— incapable of being conceived beforehand.”
The startlingly unexpected sounds scintillate and sparkle with a surreal immediacy that I, at least, have heard nowhere else before. There is an air of primal majesty — of almost raw Oriental pageantry — that emerges from the gritty, glittering sparks that fly off of the flint of Cage’s elemental key strikes.
Moment after deliciously shocking moment we feel as if we are being awakened through a series of ever more radical levels of perception, ratcheting our awareness toward some unsuspected, ultimate threshold.
Indeed, we feel ourselves on the verge of some sort of psychoacoustic — maybe even psychospiritual — transformation.
With the knowledge that Cage had a long involvement with Zen — a discipline of radical awakening — it is not hard to present a case for the composer, feeling the value of such an experience, contriving to catalyze a similar transformation in his listeners through purely musical means.
If such is actually the case, I think he succeeds — and succeeds brilliantly. During and after an effective Cage experience, we truly find ourselves in another — neither better nor worse, but parallel — reality.
And that is nothing if not refreshing.
Of Conor Hanick, festival coordinator, composer Greg Brown, wrote me:
“It should be a phenomenal concert. Conor is an exceptional player, truly world class.”
Go ahead — why not? — and take a risk and have a listen!
To catch a soundbite, see: http://gregorywbrown.com/smithsoundspace/2012-13/hanick_cage/
Helen Hills Hills Chapel
123 Elm St., Northampton, MA
An author and composer, columnist Joseph Marcello of Northfield focuses on music and theater. He can be reached at email@example.com.