From Iceland — Up To Ears In John Cage

Up To Ears In John Cage

Published March 14, 2012

Up To Ears In John Cage

Thursday March 1 was the opening day of the inaugural Tectonics music festival, which would focus on the music and words of John Cage, one of the leading lights of modernist music composition in the twentieth century. The fact that it was also his the centenary of his birth was a mere coincidence, promised the organiser and festival curator Ilan Volkov.
I went into this evening with no small amount of trepidation; I freely admit that I’m not a John Cage aficionado by any stretch of the imagination. And as Ilan noted in his opening introduction, “Many people have heard of Cage and his works, but many haven’t actually heard his music being played.” The music on offer tonight would be a very real challenge to both my ears and my brain. And that’s something you don’t often get at Faktorý or Gaukur á Stöng for sure.
“Fifty-Eight” kicked off the proceedings. A piece written for a brass band, it was played in the upper levels of Harpa’s cavernous foyer by 58 young musicians without the aid of a conductor, meaning each musician was responsible for their own piece and timing. The orchestra’s positioning was such that parts of the orchestra remained hidden to you depending on where you stood. As they played, the sound they generated was that of a slow sustaining rumble, punctuated with high end wind or brass notes. As I wandered around the expanse of Harpa’s foyer, I found that the sound followed me around with a clinging unease. This created a form of ‘70s cinematic paranoia that when allied with the science fiction edifice of Harpa’s interior—its multifaceted glass facade and angular airport terminal surroundings—was a slightly unnerving experience. All the while I notice Ilan casually walking around the foyer, hands in his pockets, listening intently. I think he approves of this too.
From Zero
Before the main concert started in the Eldborg auditorium, I ensconced to Kaldalón Hall to watch ‘From Zero,’ a 1995 film made by Andrew Curver & Frank Sheffer based on the writing and philosophies of John Cage. The film consisted of a monologue by Cage set to his music and a series of shots, from a blurred downtown city, to a monolithic rock in a creepy forest. The monologue itself was a very interesting listen as he espoused the systems theories of Buckminster Fuller and talked with an eerie prescience of the emerging dominance of Chinese manufacturing and society. However these words weren’t matched by the images, which at times came across as amateurish and had the feel of a sixth form film project.
Concerto For Prepared Piano And Chamber Orchestra
Then it was to Eldborg for the night’s first series of performances of Cage’s work. We started with ‘Concerto For Prepared Piano And Chamber Orchestra,’ performed by the symphony orchestra and British pianist John Tilbury playing on a specially prepared piano with individual notes altered or dampened with an array of items. This created weird but intriguing timbres from Tilbury’s playing. The rest of the piece used silence to create an interesting dynamic of tension that was often punctuated by sounds not associated with an orchestra (buzzers, guttural tape noises, tannoy announcements), that jolted you out of your comfort zone. An interesting start to proceedings.
Improvisation III (For Cassette Players)
Next up was ‘Improvisation III (For Cassette Players),’ where individual parts were played on cassette tape at various locations in the concert hall (or in some cases with people wandering around the hall itself) and were played by local experimental electronic artists, such as Reptilicus, Stilluppsteypa and Thoranna AKA Trouble. The piece itself had an incredible spectral vibe. With the hall draped in near darkness, the piece would start off with the rhythms of individual artists stopping and starting their cassette players. Then you pick up the faintest whispers of sounds, a slight drone in one corner, warped vocals in another corner. The performers felt more like ghost hunters recording the ghostly trails of aural ectoplasm that had pooled in the corners of the auditorium. It looked and felt more like a modernist séance, capturing the ghosts of twentieth century sound. An incredibly intriguing piece on the use of ambient silence, and the tricks our brains play on us with sound in the dark.
Experiences No. 2 for solo voices
All this modernist meandering was punctuated by a short piece titled ‘Experiences No. 2 for solo voices.’ Sung by Ragnar Kjartansson, it was a short piece that was made all the more impressive for the beauty of the melody. A tune sung in total darkness to a poem by E.E. Cummings, the softness of Ragnar’s singing and the simplicity of the melodic lines was beguiling. A refreshing piece that showed a simple minimal melody with a distinctive soft vocal timbre can produce a wonderful piece of music.
Music for 13
The last section of the concert was ‘Music for 13,’ where the orchestra, instead of being on stage, was positioned at various points around the audience. As they played their parts, you would hear the different instruments producing sounds that would come at you from all directions with different levels of attack. The end result was one of slight pain and disorientation for me. Normally when listening to a singer/band/orchestra, your brain can locate and make sense of the sounds and can even handle ear splitting volumes. Here though, with the music coming from numerous directions, I found it hard to get a handle on it all. Add to that the blasts from the trumpet player less than 5 metres from where I was sitting, which would make my right ear burn and throb. As an exercise in sound and direction, it was an interesting one, but I wouldn’t want to experience that feeling anytime soon.
New work for electric guitar and orchestra
After a break, we were treated to the signature performance of the evening, ‘New work for electric guitar and orchestra,’ performed by Australian musician Oren Ambarchi and the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra. This piece would see the entire orchestra become a single improv “instrument” to be used and abused by Ilan Volkov. The pieces start slowly as Oren used his guitar and hardware to create a series of soft tones and drones. Temperatures and dread were raised as he then introduced scything sounds and buzzes as Volkov brought the orchestra into play. As the performers built upon the sound of their instruments, a desolate heathen vibe was being created as the red balconies behind the orchestra began to glow and throb. Clattering and rasped strings added an interesting industrial sawing vibe as the rest of the orchestra created a muggy base sound for Oren’s harmonics to surf on.
Then the noise started to explode with a real feral force. The percussion thundered as both instruments pushed themselves to their limits. It was interesting to note the differences in body language between the two players. You had Oren sitting and playing with the aura of a Zen master creating huge sounds with minimal effort, while you had Ilan pushing himself, and the orchestra, animated and gesticulating manically at times calling for more, More, MORE!, as he wrung every last drop out of the orchestra. It wasn’t entirely subtle, but for an exercise in sound and power, it was brutally effective. The aural definition of “Tectonic.”
Music for Amplified Toy Pianos
After this wall of sound, the last round of performances in Norðurljós Recital Hall, felt a bit like a comedown of sorts. Due to technical problems, the piece ‘Music for Piano with Amplified Sonorous Vessels’ was cancelled and the remaining performances were reshuffled. ‘Music for Amplified Toy Pianos’ was a piece that did what it said on the tin. Several performers played notes on toy pianos according to a specific grid pattern notation that changes with each performance. It was indeed an exercise in dramatic tension as the silences between each note almost proved unbearable. You found your eyes darting around at each player wondering “who’s going to play next??”
The evening wrapped up with two versions of John Cage’s ‘FIVE.’ The first version had Frank Denyer on piano accompanied by an assorted of instruments from a langspil to a melodica and beer bottles. The second version was performed by local vocal ensemble Hestbak, which consisted of only their voices, some of which were altered electronically. I found the Hestbak version to be the more intriguing. Their vocals seemed to seep into the microphones and felt like a miniature Ligeti vocal piece.
The first night of Tectonics produced a mix of intriguing and eye-opening sonic experiments. However my final feeling was one of being tired and drained. Cage’s music is complex to say the least, and the amount of active, immersive listening involved to take in and understand said music over an evening is not something that many people, myself included, are all that used to on a regular basis. But the chance to hear new ways and ideas of producing sound has meant the first night was both an intriguing and revealing success for this reviewer.

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