So Percussion at Atlas Performing Arts Center
A 100th Birthday Tribute to John Cage
Nov. 30, 2012
review by Jason McCool for PinkLine Project
I had a strange desire while sitting in the Atlas Performing Arts Center Friday night. I wished I could magically conjure up every artist, arts marketer, institutional head, or audience member concerned that “classical music is dying,” and get them in the room for So Percussion, a Brooklyn-based Quartet of Serious Fellows who are figuring out how to not only embrace the zeitgeist of what it means to make Serious Art in 2012, but slather it in kisses and steal it away to Paris in the middle of the night.
Presented as a 100th birthday tribute to John Cage, that puckish prankster of 20th century American music, So’s concert (“We Are All Going In Different Directions”) redefined whimsy and blasted away the pretentions of high art to a packed house (word gets around) as part of Atlas Performing Arts Center’s absolutely terrific new music series. Honestly, this is one of those artistic experiences you spend nights puzzling over and tossing around in your head, even after having retreated to a bar after and puzzle over with your companions for hours. We should recognize in great art “the shock of the new,” and it’s rare to experience that so honestly and fully.
John Cage’s philosophies pose endless challenges to the assumptions and orthodoxies of high art, and especially to the performance of classical music, so entrenched in ritual and tradition it often approaches calcification. “It’s Frank’s world, we just live in it,” said someone about the great Sinatra, but perhaps more accurately, the same could be said about John Cage, whose 1940s-era experiments with sound-for-its-own-sake pre-date modern DJ/remix culture by a good 60 years. So Percussion’s used Cage as a launching point for their own confident and keenly-felt aesthetic, operating seemingly as theatre artists as much as musical.
Cage’s 1942 work Credo in US (So’s bootleg CD recording of which begins, hilariously, with Bon Jovi’s You Give Love A Bad Name), featured a Gamelan-like groove created by prepared piano and raucous banging on paint cans. Indeed, there’s a sort of street aesthetic to So’s vibe; modern audiences recognize these manipulated sounds as a part of our sonic world, as we drown every day in digital bits and samples. Snippets from John Philip Sousa, 50s gospel records and spoken word, all played with the notion of pliable sound. Much in the same way a composer might use pitches and harmonies as raw material, Cage (not a composer but an inventor of genius, said his teacher Arnold Schoenberg) plays off audience expectations – a piano, a cactus, soda bottles: literally anything can produce sound, and as So Percussion channels Cage, all of a sudden you realize you’ve become just one more instrument for them to play. (Especially when you get home and load up the allegedly “bootleg” vinyl record they excitedly gave you, only to realize it’s a recording of a high school jazz band concert. Who got played?)
A full 38 minutes into the concert, the first inkling of “melody” appeared in composer Cenk Urgun’s Use, which featured both the composer on stage (behind the ubiquitous Apple laptop) and the tender, focused viola of Beth Meyers, new music star in her own right. A lyrical melody, of course, is no less a valid sound than anything found in the rest of the work, much of which resembled “talking insects”; the glimpses of standard tonality here felt all the more urgent and plaintive given their context. Ms. Meyers is expecting – it’s fun to imagine the sound world that child will inherit.
Other fascinating moments included Dan Deacon’s “Bottles,” where the percussionists uncorked the sounds hiding within mic-ed up soda bottles, and Cage’s 0’0” (a sequel piece to his infamous 4’33”), consisting of a single instruction, realized by the Quartet all whipping out cell phones and sending a text message (or tweet?):
In a situation provided with maximum amplification (no feedback), perform a disciplined action.
Projected on the back screen, a clock ticking down the seconds from 90:00 kept the audience appraised of precisely how much time remained in the concert. (It also allowed the group to execute specific timing for events.) Thus, following the “action” in the program became an initial way to involve the audience, and this was more fully, and exhilaratingly, realized with the performance of Dan Deacon’s “Take A Deep Breath,” which provided specific instructions for the audience: “Slowly, breathe in as deeply as you can, until your lungs are completely filled. Hold the breath for as long as you can then release it as [you] slowly empty of air.” (I actually wasn’t following with the program so didn’t realize what was going on, which made the effect even more jolting! Was everyone in the audience given instructions besides me?) The effect of two hundred people “calling a friend to tell them you love their voice and you need to hear them sing and singing is fun and there’s nothing to be embarrassed about” on speakerphone was probably the most successful integration of live art and audience in any concert hall (short of Bobby McFerrin) I’ve ever witnessed. As small children – who truly seemed to get it – danced in the aisle next to me, I pondered the future of art and creativity and noticed my eyebrows unconsciously pushing towards the skies. So… awesome.