Monday, November 05, 2007

John Cage's 18 Microtonal Ragas

For sheer, ultra-intellectual multiculturalism, it would be hard to top last Friday's concert at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Berkeley. The music was by John Cage, the recently deceased, gay philosopher/composer whose legacy is still being figured out. The piece was taken from an overarching work well-described by New York writer Richard Kostelanetz (click here for the whole essay):
"The masterpiece, which is really one of the most extraordinary books of its kind produced by any composer ever, is Song Books. Published in 1970 in three volumes (the first subtitled “Solos for Voice 3-58,” the second “Solos for Voice 59-92,” and a third of “Instructions”), 8 1/2” high and 11” wide, spiral-bound, it is available from Cage’s principal music publisher C. F. Peters for the curious sum of $207.05."

The evening's music was the American premiere of Cage's "Solo for Voice 58: 18 Microtonal Ragas" which was assembled by Amelia Cuni (click here for her website) from a series of musical notations and "directions." The Italian singer is an expert in Indian classical music "dhrupad vocals," and also makes music with contemporary European composers. On this project, she was joined by percussionists Raymond Kaczynski (American) and Federico Sanesi (Italian), along with Werner Durand (German) on "drones/electronics."

The 80-minute performance, which included theatrical "directions" from elsewhere in the Song Books, was alternately totally fascinating and excruciatingly boring, which certainly gave it an authentic 1960s avant-garde happening event feel. At one point, Amelia stopped singing or dancing or whatever she was doing, put on a black sleep mask, and laid down onstage to nap for a couple of minutes. The musicians, however, were exquisite, particularly Ms. Cuni who could make microtonal sounds seem beautiful rather than "off-pitch." Her percussive colleagues were also extraordinary.

The piece was being performed in conjunction with the release by Other Minds (click here) of a studio recording of the music, complete with an extensive program book that explains Indian classical music and its resistance to multicultural incursions, how John Cage felt about improvisation, how the piece was assembled by Cuni and her collaborators over the last four years, and quite a bit more. Above all, the music itself is fascinating, and sounds better in my living room than in a stuffy, though beautiful, church in Berkeley. Check it out.


momo said...

The performance sounds fascinating. I am also very fond of that particular church--I used to live a few blocks away, and heard music there more than once.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

I seem to be missing lots of great concerts lately. But thanks for the link to the website -- I didn't know they were selling CDs.