Presenting yet another John Cage centennial concert so late in the year is a risky move, and one which could prove redundant, but Architek Percussion beat the odds by performing a quirky, virtuosic and thoroughly engaging concert tonight.

Architek
Architek

The concert began in darkness, with the recorded voice of the composer himself, who would have been 100 this year. The recording seemed to be an excerpt from an interview on a city street. Cage went on to illustrate his impartial and unabashed love for sounds, and explained that he finds frivolity in making sounds masquerade as real objects or emotions. Sounds, for him, should not be psychological, but simply enjoyed for their unique timbral qualities. The composer, in his eccentric tenor voice, went on to quote Immanuel Kant, recalling a line which suggests that only two things in life needn’t mean anything at all: music and laughter. This was a perfect opening to the performance.

Scores of instruments were sprawled across the performance space. Some of the more exotic instruments included two lion’s roars, a slide whistle, a turntable, five brake drums, a “grand” toy piano, a squirrel call, frying pans and liquor bottles.

The first work on the program, She is Asleep, was performed on conga-like drums, which the performers (Mark Morton, Ryan Packard, Ben Duinker and Alessandro Valiante) struck with palms, fingers, soft mallets and snare brushes. It was a fairly conventional work which would help to ease the audience into the more experimental sound landscapes which were to come. Architek pulled a wide array of sonorities from the drum heads. The most impressive moments were duets between Valiante and Duinker and later Valiante and Packard, in which long periods of rest stretched between percussive attacks which had to be timed perfectly through the silence.

Double Music by John Cage and Lou Harrison was next, and inspired images of Balinese gamelan orchestras. The work was co-written: each composer wrote an individual selection of music and then the two works were played simultaneously. It is interesting to note where the compositions line up nicely, most strikingly, at the very end. Gongs, bells, brake drums, frying pans and an ample assortment of liquor and wine bottles were stretched out before the cross-legged, shoeless performers. Alessandro Valiante was most prominent visually in this work – his movements as he played seemed to illustrate the flow of the phrases, whereas Ryan Packard embodied the rhythmic drive with surgical precision. Ben Duinker crouched low, almost birdlike, with an expression of intense focus, while Mark Morton was the most animated, allowing his arms to extend to their full range to pull sounds from the instruments.

Next came Variations VI, the highlight of the evening, and the work which allowed for the most creativity from the performers. The work was for amplified instruments which the performers choose. Packard chose a melodica, Morton a cymbal, Valiante a turntable with various LPs, and Duinker used only his body. Morton initially created the most interesting sounds scraping and rubbing the cymbal, and later bowing it, causing it to growl or hiss. Packard’s melodica added shrill dissonance and punctuation to the soundscape, while Duinker scratched the microphone over beard stubble and his chest. Most impressive, however, was Valiante’s turntable. He superimposed strains of vintage hip-hop, Orff’s Carmina Burana and Brahms’ Third Symphony over the din, and let the microphone rub violently against the device as it spun. If one is able to open up and find a pure enjoyment of sounds, this work was a veritable feast.

Quartet was first after the intermission. Although not the most engaging work on the program, it did have a curious resemblance to old symphonic forms, notably the pattern of fast-slow-fast. The “finale” was some of the most athletic playing of the night, and by the end the sweat was beginning to bead up on the foreheads of the performers.

The second movement of Dance Music for Elfrid Ide was pure comedy. Despite slapstick monkey-cymbal crashes, slide whistle glissandi, soup-pot ostinati and the schizophrenic shrieking of the squirrel call, all of the performers (Packard in particular) managed to keep a calm, professional demeanor, which made the performance all the more amusing.

The concert ended with Cage’s Third Construction, the last of the set. The music eventually erupted into a kind of beach-side tribal fire-dance, maracas being used as drumsticks, a conch shell bellowing wildly and two lion’s roars thundering (a string attached to a large drumhead which is pulled and vibrated). It was the most frenzied, unfettered playing of the evening, and made for a successful finale.

Cage’s music forces the listener to cast away all judgment and musical expectations built up by old forms and tradition, and allows for pure enjoyment of the originality and uniqueness of the soundscape. Architek facilitated this enjoyment by procuring an eccentric assemblage of instruments, and by performing with a kind of unified precision that can only come from hours of hard practice and a kind of telepathy which I think is reserved for percussionists alone.