Toni Morrison isn’t a figure one would typically associate with John Cage, but her 1993 Paris Review interview echoed Cage’s sentiments about “wastefulness” in art: “You must practice thrift in order to achieve that luxurious quality of wastefulness... I’ve always felt that that peculiar sense of hunger at the end of a piece of art – a yearning for more – is really very, very powerful.” Cage himself, quoted in the 2015 Avant Music Festival’s program, hoped that the change from “pinch-penny mental attitudes to courageous wastefulness” would become as prevalent in the arts as it is in nature. Along those lines, his late choral music is spare, seemingly simple: quiet, almost fragile sounds scattered over silences (and vice versa). When rendered by Ekmeles Vocal Ensemble this past weekend, the choral works were all-enveloping yet frail and vulnerable, like a beloved blanket fraying at the seams.

Ekmeles Vocal Ensemble © Steven Pisano for Avant Media
Ekmeles Vocal Ensemble
© Steven Pisano for Avant Media

The concert consisted of choral music written during the last 13 years of Cage’s life, starting with the two short works Ear for EAR (antiphonies) of 1983 and Four² of 1990. In the first, countertenor Patrick Fennig stood alone on the stage and eked out the softest of syllables made from the letters in the word “ear” (“ra”, “re”) while the other vocalists, hidden backstage and behind the audience, echoed and answered him, in the traditional Roman Catholic antiphonal style. Afterwards, they all migrated to the stage for Four², during which they sang combinations of letters from the word “Oregon”, once again in delicate overlapping tones. And in the fourth piece – Five – the layers were even more spread out, as there were five vocalists performing rather than twelve, as before. Scored for five musicians on any instrument or voice, this piece is also brief (five minutes long, consisting of five lines for each part), with austere harmonies and expansive gaps in sound.

Hymns & Variations was composed in 1979 using subtractive techniques and chance operations on two hymns by William Billings, an early American choral composer. In Ekmeles’s performance, baritone Jeffrey Gavett conducted the other eleven vocalists through the 20 minute work at a brisk tempo, through the stark vertical stacks of pitches (and subsequent sharp bursts of silence) to the miraculous consonant finish. The ten “variations” – five on Billings’s “Old North”; five on his “Heath” – melted together into a beautiful strain of sounds and silences that came across as accidentally (yet stunningly) sacred. Throughout this and the other four works of the program, the vocalists struck tuning forks against their bodies and held them to their ears, reminding the audience of how randomized and difficult the music must be no matter how pretty or playful it sounded.

Patrick Fennig © Steven Pisano for Avant Media
Patrick Fennig
© Steven Pisano for Avant Media
By contrast with these restrained four works, Four Solos for Voice (93-96) of 1988 was a crowded clamor of sounds as Jane Sheldon, Elisa Sutherland, Tomas Cruz, and Jeffrey Gavett sang four separate solos (numbers 93 through 96) from texts that Cage apparently unearthed in random filing cabinets. As opposed to the smoothness of the overlapping vowels, the vocalists here catapulted an onslaught of words and textures from the stage as the lights periodically dimmed and got brighter. They warbled, clucked, croaked, rasped, mumbled, groaned and belted out incongruous snatches of lyrics (“That’s why you lied about your hubby!” from Mr Gavett, for instance). At one point Ms Sutherland squeaked out, “Dandelions make nice candles if they are dried up... make a wish and blow out the candles.”

The only drawback to this otherwise stellar performance was the aspect of tentativeness or haphazardness among the different arrangements of performers. There were several last-minute substitutions due to illness, and the result was an occasional slip into uncertainty and lack of precision. John Cage famously declared that “records ruin the landscape”, so perhaps I have myself to blame, after listening to the choral works on my iPod so frequently and entering the concert space with a sense of expectation. Throughout the evening the vocalists, particularly the tenors, would occasionally land on a pitch apparently slightly off from what was desired and then slide to the “correct” pitch, leaving a split-second sour taste in one’s mouth. Despite the imperfect intonation and despite the abundance of sounds and silences, the concert nevertheless managed to leave one hungry for more. Luckily, Cage’s music is so ear-opening that the traffic skidding past on slick winter roads was more than enough sustenance for the journey home.