Written by Matt Robert
From the September 12, 2013 issue of Worcester Magazine.
My Facebook news feed inundates me with an infinite stream of event listings, highinterest news bytes, memes and photos of, well, everything from a friend’s breakfast to a sustained injury to, well, everything. After a while, I stop noticing anything.
Two weeks ago, however, my eye stopped on a post by a local musician, Michael Thibodeau, who sought a few volunteers for an upcoming show.
Nothing unusual, right?
Except, in this case, he needed 12 people to perform on AM/ FM radios.
Ah, John Cage is back in town, I thought.
The late John Cage is on a short list of 20th century composers – or inventor, as he referred to himself – that embodies everything many love or hate about modern art. The piece in question, “Imaginary Landscape no. 4 (March no. 2 for Twelve Radios),” is just one of hundreds that challenges our old-fashioned notions of what music can or should be. It is also one of four Cage pieces being staged for a centennial celebration of the artist by the Cage and Cardew Society, a Clark University group headed by Thibodeau and Clark Music professor, Matthew Malsky, on Wednesday, September 18 at Nick’s Bar and Restaurant.
The Cage and Cardew Society came together about a decade ago, when Thibodeau and Malsky, his advisor, staged the first “Living Room Concert” (named for the Cage piece performed at that first concert) that featured performances of student compositions by other students as well as avant-garde works, in a “supportive” environment in which to present their “‘outside’ musical ideas,” says Malsky.
The teacher and mentor stayed in touch after graduation, often organizing programs. One recent night, over beers at Nick’s, says Thibodeau, the two began imagining Cage’s works in the intimate, ambient room. “Nick’s is a favorite watering hole and a great supporter of local music,” says Malsky. “It offers the kind of laid-back environment we’re looking for.”
The result is a four selection program, consisting of “Living Room Music” (a multi-movement piece for a percussion and speech quartet that involves making instruments of common household objects), the self-explanatory “Music for Amplifi ed Toy Piano,” the aforementioned “Imaginary Landscape no. 4” and the legendary “4’33”,” a work that has been the object of widespread scorn and ridicule and, for some, living proof of the scam that modern art represents. In fact, the audience howled and jeered at Cage after the inaugural performance of the piece in 1952.
I won’t spoil the fun or surprise for the uninitiated by describing the work (or by attempting to defend it). Another Cage piece currently being performed (yes, currently being performed) helps to suggest the creative world he inhabited. The 1985 “Organ 2/ASLSP” (“As Slow As Possible”) is underway in a chapel in Halberstadt, Germany. The performance, begun on September 5, 2001 (Cage’s 89th birthday), will continue for 639 years and is expected to continue until the year 2640. The first 17 months, for example, represented the opening rest prior to the first tone and a website allows the curious to hear the current tone.
It all probably sounds like hokum to the skeptical, but Cage’s work was rooted in his study of Buddhism and the I Ching, and he devoted himself to the revolutionary concept of incorporating chance into musical composition and performance. Further, in the years since his compositions sent classical audiences into fits, tectonic shifts in the scope of even the most mainstream and bland popular music has meant the adopting and embracing of much that was once avant-garde, like making instruments out of things like turntables, water drops, closed and prepared (manipulated) piano, and even elements of silence and sounds inherent in the performance space and among the crowd.
Malsky says that he and Thibodeau will be involved in every performance and “they may have to play a chair or a radio or something,” but, though “they may be challenging for the audience,” the works are “fairly standard for the performer.”
If this all sounds heady and uptight and overly serious, it isn’t. Thibodeau and Malsky are planning on a night of fun. When asked what we might expect from the show, Thibodeau shrugs off the question and says, “I think we’re all wondering that.” Malsky adds that the format, modeled after Cardew’s 1960’s London “Scratch Orchestra,” intends to bring together “‘musicians’ and those who wouldn’t usually call themselves musicians.”
“The personnel is always open,” Malsky adds. “We’ll fi nd a way for anyone who’s interested to participate. Michael and I are merely instigators.”
I clicked “Going.”
See the Cage and Cardew Society performance at Nick’s Bar and Restaurant, 124 Millbury St., Worcester on Wednesday, September 18 at 8 p.m.