New York pianist Adam Tendler has been specializing in the works of composer John Cage recently, and Thursday evening he performed an all-Cage recital at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.
Tendler just performed the first of a trio of Cage concerts called Cross-Hatched that he is curating for The Broad Museum in Los Angeles in conjunction with a Jasper Johns exhibit.
Cage, the choreographer Merce Cunningham, and the artists Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns were all collaborators, sometime romantic partners, and standard bearers of New York's artistic avant-garde from the 1940s through the end of the 20th century. (Johns is still alive while most of the rest of the group died after long lives and careers.)
Everyone seems to have heard of John Cage but not his actual music, so Thursday was a rare chance to experience a live survey by a passionate advocate. The concert started with the 1944 prepared piano of The Perilous Night which sounded a bit like the music of his friend Lou Harrison, when the pair were creating works for percussion orchestras for modern dance groups in the 1930s and 1940s. This was followed by The Seasons, his 1947 ballet score for Cunningham's dance troupe, and Tendler gave a dynamic performance of the 15-minute piece.
Then there were two selections from the 1950-52 Music for Piano which use a mixture of chance techniques and performer choices, followed by 0'0" from 1962 which has the following instructions from Cage: "Solo to be performed in any way by anyone. In a situation provided with maximum amplification (no feedback), perform a disciplined action." Tendler spent about five minutes figuring out a series of mathematical chances which he then transferred to dials on an amp, which I guess was the "disciplined action."
The final piece was Cheap Imitation, a 1969 reworking of Satie's Socrate for the Merce Cunningham Dance Group that Cage had to rewrite completely because the Satie estate would not let him use the original. A 30-minute, three-movement work, Cage was quoted as follows: "In the rest of my work, I'm in harmony with myself [...] But Cheap Imitation clearly takes me away from all that. So if my ideas sink into confusion, I owe that confusion to love. [...] Obviously, Cheap Imitation lies outside of what may seem necessary in my work in general, and that's disturbing. I’m the first to be disturbed by it." I did not stay for this finale, but am sure it was fabulous. My exit was partly motivated by a middle-aged woman in the back of the small Conservatory recital hall who spent half the concert rustling through a bag of chips that she munched on noisily, driving everyone in the audience crazy. If Tendler had programmed 4'33", the ambient sound would have been "crunch, crunch."