On Thursday evening, the American Symphony Orchestra bid an effervescent farewell to 2012 and thereby rounded out a year-long celebration of the centenary of John Cage’s birth. In New York, as in cities all over the world, Cage has been remembered by both professionals and amateurs in a slew of unconventional performances: most memorable for me was the San Francisco Symphony performing Cage’s Song Books at Carnegie Hall (during which Michael Tilson Thomas made and then drank a smoothie with the help of an on-stage blender), as well as an overnight performance of Empty Words that ended at 7:00 AM on the Brooklyn Bridge as the sun rose behind the Varispeed Collective and a handful of bedraggled audience members reciting Cage’s texts.

American Symphony Orchestra © Jito Lee
American Symphony Orchestra
© Jito Lee

Thursday’s “Cage Concert” delivered an exceptional array of music in one of the gutsiest programs hosted by Carnegie Hall this year: three works by Cage, including two New York premières, and three more works by composers who shared Cage’s compositional and ideological approach to sound. Before the concert, conductor and music director Leon Botstein explained that all four composers “force you to listen” because their music focuses on the perception of time as opposed to a traditional formal development of harmony and melody. Even though Cheap Imitation, one of the Cage works performed, possesses modal qualities, it rejects a conventional narrative in favor of an anti-linear structure. The other composers, Erik Satie, Anton Webern, and Morton Feldman, likewise rebelled against precision, pretension, and music as “enjoyment”. Dr Botstein’s concert, he explained, was the “perfect antidote for the commercialisation of Christmas”: each of the featured composers hoped to accomplish specific artistic goals rather than creating mindless entertainment.

The first piece on the program was Webern’s Symphony. Webern is perhaps best known for striving to make dodecaphony, or the twelve-tone system, a “thing”, which never really caught on. Cage’s 4’33” is well-recognized for revolutionizing the ways we think about silence and sounds and what music really is. But decades before 4’33”, Webern’s music lent as much gravity to the gaps between the notes as to the notes themselves. This performance of his temporally radical symphony was fascinating. Equally fascinating was the juxtaposition of Webern’s conventionally-notated sprawl of notes with the indeterminate soundworld of Morton Feldman, whose ...Out of “Last Pieces” followed Webern’s symphony. Feldman, a contemporary of Cage, often used grids and graphs to notate his compositions, which are best described as organized improvisations. Although it varies from interpretation to interpretation, Feldman’s music is dense, sleepy, and mesmerizing: ...Out of “Last Pieces” felt like it could go on forever, which would have been fine with me.

Satie’s Parade effectively broke the reverie created by Feldman’s piece. Satie, whose output includes Three Pieces in the Form of a Pear (of which there are seven), Furniture Music (meant to heard but not listened to), the eighteen-hour-long Vexations, and 4,000 notecards he hoarded and adorned with descriptions of a “looking-glass world”, is arguably the most underrated composer of the early 20th century. He respected only originality in art and disdained anything popular or imitative, even resenting the “Group of Six”, an assortment of composers who idolized his aesthetics. His 1917 ballet Parade was a collaboration with impresario Sergei Diaghilev, choreographer Léonide Massine, Pablo Picasso (whose costumes were up to nine feet tall and extremely difficult to dance in), and Jean Cocteau, who hoped to create a scandal rivalling Stravinsky’s 1913 ballet The Rite of Spring. Sadly for Cocteau, there was no scandal: the most groundbreaking aspect of the ballet was Apollinaire’s coining of the term “surrealism” in the program notes, and Parade was forgotten for decades until Cage revived it. The ASO’s performance was hilarious and apt; the score calls for a bathroom plunger, a revolver, and a lottery wheel, all of which were employed with gleeful proficiency.

Parade was followed by Cage’s 1969 work Cheap Imitation, a “rearrangement” of Satie’s Socrate composed with Cage’s signature chance methods. This version featured two outstanding vocalists, Tami Petty and Helen Pridmore, singing solos from Song Books: a setting of a Thoreau text and a series of French nonsense syllables. This interpretation of Cheap Imitation was energetic and engaging, but the true magic materialized after intermission, when Dr Botstein and his orchestra dived into Cage’s Etcetera and Etcetera 2/4 Orchestras, both New York premières.

The first Etcetera began with the patter of musicians’ hands drumming on empty cardboard boxes; the boxes were gradually replaced with instruments as the piece took shape under the direction of Dr Botstein and two other conductors, James Bagwell and Geoffrey MacDonald. For Etcetera 2/4 Orchestras, the three conductors were joined by a fourth, Zachary Schwartzman. The 32-minute work was a gargantuan undertaking, especially considering the avalanche of music they had already churned out; here, they waded through microtones, uneven bursts of sound, and the swelling static of an ambient recording as individuals periodically dropped their orchestral parts and performed random solos at the front of the stage (including at one point a very humorous percussionist with a mangled bass drum). The performance teetered on the brink of hilarity; luckily, despite some giggles, the musicians managed to keep the piece from disintegrating into sheer havoc. As the performers accepted their hard-earned applause, I couldn't keep from smiling; the concert, despite the four composers’ various rebellions, had proven to be entirely enjoyable and entertaining.