David Lang’s curated series collected stories drew to a close on Tuesday night at Carnegie Hall, concluding the outstanding series with a focus on memoir in music. The first half consisted of three works by John Cage, including his autobiographical lecture Indeterminacy of 1958, performed simultaneously and directed by Dr Lang. The second half of the concert saw the world première of David Lang’s mystery sonatas, the only work of his own to be programmed for the series. The works were amazing yet different enough to create the quintessential concert: chance operations, silliness, spirituality, virtuosity.

David Lang © Peter Serling 2009
David Lang
© Peter Serling 2009

Steven Schick began playing 27’10.554” for a percussionist as people were still filing into the hall. Sitting at a drum station on the right side of the stage, he produced a wide variety of noises as people chattered and got settled in their seats. It wasn’t until he bellowed into a conch shell that everybody hushed, shushed, and fell silent. Composed around the same time as Indeterminacy, 27’10.554” seems to boast every sound one could think up: cowbells, rumbling bass drum, a whistle whirring, and so on. The work was chosen by Dr Lang to be played along with Indeterminacy, which Cage indicated could be played with one of his other works. So, after a few minutes on his own, Mr. Schick was joined by actor Paul Lazar, playing the role of John Cage.

Sudden darkness fell across the stage as Mr Lazar took his seat at the desk on the left side of the stage. The only illumination was the desk lamp providing enough light for us to see Mr Lazar and the stack of 45 index cards he held in front of him. These he proceeded to read, one at a time and for exactly one minute each. The cards are always shuffled prior to a performance of Indeterminacy, and different versions employ between 30 and 90 cards. Due to these chance operations, no two performances are alike. As Mr Lazar read through the index cards in his deadpan tone, speeding up and slowing down according to the length of the text, the audience continually burst into laughter. Some of the stories, such as Cage’s visit to the anechoic chamber – resulting in his composition of 4’33” – and the Zen Buddhist philosophy that “men are men; mountains are mountains”, were familiar cornerstones of Cage’s life and philosophy. Others, like a trip to get a root beer on a hot summer day, and another trip, to New Zealand, that never actually happened, were touching and humorous accounts of chance happenings that occurred during Cage’s childhood.

As Mr Lazar told the story of a pen advertisement and pronounced the word “legible”, neon lights suddenly illuminated the stage. Eric Southern’s lighting design was controlled according to the instructions of Fontana Mix, Cage’s graphic score, also of 1958. A strip of neon lights was arranged along the bottom of a structure also hosting four bare bulbs held up by thin poles. The neon shifted from blue to pink to orange to green throughout the performance, periodically going dark, while the four bulbs pulsed, blinked, and occasionally flashed brightly. Towards the end, the overhead lights swung out, sweeping across us. Meanwhile, Mr Schick continued to make his way through the titanic 27’10.554”, blowing across the top of a beer bottle and hammering upon various objects. Upon the recitation of the last story (available here), we were plunged back into darkness and silence.

Dr Lang’s beautiful mystery sonatas, performed after intermission, also incorporated Eric Southern’s lighting as an aspect of the work. The lights were dim throughout the first movement, “joy”, during which violin virtuoso Augustin Hadelich whispered faint phrases across the highest notes, occasionally pausing, and gradually allowing the phrases to elongate and become less wispy. The lights brightened before the next movement, “after joy”, which was louder and broader. Rapid low notes were followed by quick dives to high notes; Mr Hadelich’s agile musicianship was on full display. The next two movements, “before sorrow” and “sorrow”, returned us to darkness, and the phrases were now legato, raw, and melancholy. Mr Hadelich’s opening wisps had been replaced with a warm tone, occasionally piercing the air with languorous, eerie phrases. The lights came back on, dimly illuminating the back of the stage, as Mr Hadelich began “after sorrow”, more sprightly and resilient, arpeggiating forcefully and ending on the final note of a climbing phrase. The final movements, “before glory” and “glory”, were majestic in a quiet and peaceful way. Mr Hadelich leaped through middle-register, folksy melodies before settling back into quiet, unfinished phrases like those of the opening. He glowed softly under Mr Southern’s lighting as the music faded into whispers and finally disappeared.