Review: Revisiting a Luxuriously Gonzo Side of John Cage

Review: Revisiting a Luxuriously Gonzo Side of John Cage

The composer’s protestations notwithstanding, these “Song Books” have certainly entered the art-music repertory. The conductor Michael Tilson Thomas convened an elite ensemble — including Jessye Norman, Meredith Monk and Joan La Barbara — for an interpretation at Carnegie Hall in 2012. But at that performance, I spent more time listening for those vocal icons’ familiar performance traits and quirks than I did for the sonorities made possible by Cage’s instructions.

Perhaps it was Mr. Kotik’s long association with Cage that helped this tour through the “Song Books” feel more personable. Mr. Kotik did the piece not long after it was written, on a 1972 tour with the S.E.M. Ensemble. This week’s S.E.M. shows also reprise two other works created for those concerts: Julius Eastman’s “Macle,” for four singers, and Mr. Kotik’s “There Is Singularly Nothing,” for voice and instruments.

The return of “Macle” is part of a broad rediscovery of Eastman’s music since his death, in obscurity, in 1990. His scores and recordings, once scattered, are coming into wide circulation. His anarchic “Macle” uses a graphic score, making it interpretable by amateurs and expert singers alike.


Mr. Kotik performing his “There Is Singularly Nothing” in Brooklyn.

Hiroyuki Ito for The New York Times

Mr. Kotik’s pairing of the “Song Books” with “Macle” demonstrated fascinating connections between the two pieces; Mr. Eastman makes use of a similarly chattering energy. “Macle,” like the “Song Books,” invites the simultaneous performance of different compositions. (At one point, the “Macle” performers are asked to sing “your favorite pop tune.”) And it, too, has a central, optimistic refrain: “Take heart.”

“There Is Singularly Nothing” dates from this same era, and also makes use of open-form concepts: A performance of it is built from a variety of independent solo parts, and the duration is not fixed. But unlike in “Macle” or the “Song Books,” there is often a steady pulse, on Saturday provided by Mr. Kotik’s fluid and hard-charging work on the flute.

Revisiting the past does not seem to come easy to Mr. Kotik: Most S.E.M. Ensemble concerts I’ve attended have been focused on newer compositions.

In remarks on Saturday, this modernist ringleader admitted as much, saying that he had initially been reluctant to return to some of this material. But he said he was glad to have changed his mind.

“Everything comes back,” he added. “Nothing is lost.”

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