JOHN CAGE is one of the wittiest composers since Beethoven, an opinion Cage might not enjoy only because he’s not too crazy about Beethoven’s reputation. But both of them share the dilemma of being unrecognized for their wit – that is, the wit that informs their music.
Finding the West Kortright Centre is challenge enough: you get off Interstate 88 near Oneonta and proceed through a number of little towns, taking some turns and ending up on an undeveloped stretch of road populated, it seems, only by farmers. In the midst of it pops up an old church, built in 1850, that has served the area for the past decade as a cultural center. It is in fact where the Catskill Conservatory began giving annual concerts that lately have spread as close as Rensselaerville and that always include the works and presence of a distinguished American composer.
This was Cage’s second appearance with the group. He’s very genial for an enfant terrible, and the man who has stressed the importance of silence when music is considered is a delightful (though rather soft-spoken) public speaker.
“This afternoon I had the pleasure of hunting mushrooms,” he told the audience, for Cage also is an avid mycologist (be once explained that this was because “mushroom” and “music” are so often found as next-door neighbors in the dictionary). “This evening we had supper at Meredith Monk’s house, where we ate the mushrooms we found.”
Meredith Monk, best known as a dancer, lately has been demonstrating her skill as a conceptual artist; she performed Cage’s 1958 piece “Aria,” a work that defies description, the best reason in the world for its being a piece of music. The score is more instructional than melodic, and Monk used a number of voices to convey the text – multilingual and often nonsensical – complemented by gestures of face and, body. It sounds abstruse but was very enjoyable, and extremely funny.
“Solo with Obbligato Accompaniment of Two Voices in Canon, and Six Short Inventions on the Subjects of the Solo” was written in 1933 as a much more melodic exercise. The instruments, in this case trumpet and two clarinets, ponder a long melody in which repetition is purposely avoided; the inventions that follow are startlingly short and playful.
Conservatory music director Carleton Clay was the trumpet soloist; the clarinetists were Robin Seletsky and Timothy Perry. The playing was first-rate. It’s hard enough to maintain a good voice throughout the difficult lines, which they did; the rhythmic problems also are extreme, but they came through excellently.
Concluding the Cage half of the program (and bringing the lengthy concert to an end) was “Litany for the Whale,” written in 1980 to help bring attention to the plight of those mammals.. It’s a chance-derived setting of the five letters in the word “whale” sung by sopranos Mary-Anne Ross and Janet England. They had only five notes to sing in various combinations, but rhythm and dynamics offered a substantial contrast – and challenge.
The tune itself, such as it was, was hauntingly pretty. Before television made us too impatient, there used to be a moment in movies when we’d get a long take of the troubled star, giving us time to contemplate the star’s dilemma. “Litany for the Whale” had much the same effect: you can’t help but contemplate the dilemma.
A mark, too, of the success Cage has had spreading his unique philosophy came during the “Aria.” There was more awareness of all of the sounds in the hall (creaking chairs, passing traffic) than was true during the first half of the program.
That first half began with Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet, K. 581. Seletsky was the soloist, with a quartet comprising violinists Janet Brady and Jennifer Reunig, violist George Myers, and cellist Steven Stalker, all of whom turned in splendid performances and together had the rapport that makes a success of such intimate music.
Henry Cowell’s “Cleistogamy” was next: nine short pieces drawn from the many he wrote for his wife (who chose the title) to celebrate her anniversaries. These were arranged for violin and cello and played by Brady and Stalker. Cowell’s voice, far too neglected on contemporary programs, had the successful assimilation of native-American elements so elusive to our composers.
The combined forces of strings, harpsichordist Margaret Cawley, trumpter Clay, and soprano Ross performed Bach’s Cantata No. 51 without all of the enthusiasm that makes a success of the piece, although the problem may have lain with Ross’s singing: she used too heavy a vibrato for the music, and wasn’t accurately pitched in the difficult arpeggios.
Catskill Conservatory has built up a very loyal following: the West Kortright Centre was packed Saturday night. A program such as this seems to include the works by Mozart and Bach only as an audience draw, for they certainly seem archaic when combined with Cage and Cowell.
Perhaps the group can consider devoting some programs completely to contemporary American music: there’s a terrific need for that right now.
– Schenectady Daily Gazette, 27 August 1985