Live: Third Coast Percussion Celebrates John Cage’s 100th Birthday At MoMA


Third Coast Percussion
MoMA Sculpture Garden
Thursday, August 9

Better than: Watching almost any contemporary DJ, since Cage was mixing vinyl and live radio with live performance before World War II.

Some 69 years ago in 1943 (more than a decade before the first issue of the Village Voice was published), a 30-year-old composer named John Cage made his debut at the Museum of Modern Art. What he presented, some wrote at the time, was described more as “noise” than as “music,” but that may not have bothered him too much.

“Percussion music really is the art of noise, and that’s what it should be called,” Cage wrote, and that statement was quoted in the program for “Revolution: The Cage Century,” a concert by Third Coast Percussion in the Museum of Modern Art’s sculpture garden that served as the final event of Thursday’s daylong John Cage Day celebration.

Thursday’s concert bore signature motifs of Cage’s contemporaries and influences before the first notes were played. Beyond the fact that Cage had his debut there, there were endless reasons why MoMA was the perfect venue for such a concert: the presence of an Alberto Giacometti sculpture on the stage, which called attention to the lack of visual substance in the same manner Cage’s music focuses audio voids on the ear of the listener; the façade of Philip Johnson’s 1951 Grace Rainey Rogers Annex which, alongside the reflection of Johnson’s 1984 Sony building in the glass behind the stage, provides an architectural bookend of the modern era that nearly parallel the years of Cage’s compositions; and, most of all, the scattershot printing of the program. If anyone wanted to understand the full program note, a member of the Third Coast noted, you’d have to “do what you had to do before the Internet: ask your neighbor.” (Or, err, just go to the internet, where the full program was posted online.)

The nearly 90-minute concert was punctuated by passages that were almost romantically lyrical, and even in their most tonal and banging moments, there was a warmth (and even a whimsy) in hearing Cage live and in watching musicians elaborately perform his work. “Second Construction” (1940) is a beautiful piece, with the piano player’s hand so far up inside the piano you think he’s conducting some kind of anatomical exam. The piano playing strings are played by hand—a signature Cage technique—muting the influence of the keys banging on them until they are so tight, they sound like the staccato riffs in the opening bars of the theme to The Twilight Zone.

Live phonograph or radio is mixed into “Credo in Us” (1942); Third Coast used a smartphone that was tuned to WQXR or some other classical outlet as it played something especially Wagnerian. This was mixed with instrumentation that was more typically Cageian; an alarm clock, a colander, a fire alarm. The radio switched from high classical to what sounded like AM talk, as the piano (far less staccato now) started playing pieces that were, if not exactly melodic at first, not quite so tonal; the “hooks” (if you could ever describe Cage’s phrases that way) sounded like ringtones before getting bigger, grander and more sweeping—until the smartphone, returned. (It’s fun to watch the percussionists of Third Coast follow along with the sheet music, which is placed in precarious and unexpected places. It’s also fun to watch how closely they adhere to it, drumming in precise time with each other and ending each piece with a dramatic flourish.)

This was followed by “Radio Music” (1956), which in some ways was just four dudes spinning through radio scanners—mostly static, with the odd word or musical phrase slipping out—but which had moments of aural beauty. In the same way “4’33″” focuses the audience not just on silence but on the sounds around them, the static of “Radio Music” blended with the sounds of the city outside: the blare of car horns on 54th street; a bus braking on 5th Avenue; a bicycle bell morphing with the screams of an angry pedestrian.

Cage wrote music for “Quartet” (1935) but did not dictate its instrumentation. (Third Coast played the first three movements and, in a move that I can’t decide if Cage could have appreciated or predicted, invited the audience to download the free John Cage app off of iTunes in oder to make the fourth movement themselves.) As orchestrated by Third Coast, Movement I began with what sounded like coconut “hooves”; the second movement showcased what appeared to be a violin bow across a cymbal; all four percussionists raked, sawed at, and beat the carcass of a dismantled piano during movement three.

The penultimate piece was the world premiere of Third Coast’s “RENGA: Cage: 100” (2012), for which the group commissioned 100 composers to compose five to seven seconds of music each. A partial list of the instruments used: human hands clapping, human hands waving, lips blowing, a child’s toy xylophone, drums, radios, cell phones, a triangle, a Chinese fortune cookie being unwrapped, the fortune’s lucky numbers being read aloud, feet stomping, piano, branches of leaves being waved around, a smoke break, a mouth accordion, a conch, ringtones, bells, a tuba being tipped over until dozens of wooden beads spilled out rained down before startled audience members, bottled water maracas, regular maracas, chalkboard erasers, colanders, bows, and a duck call.

The final piece was the most lyrical of all, “Third Construction,” featuring bows against drums and a melodic conch shell.

Overall, the performance was a warm introduction to hearing Cage being performed live. Right after Third Coast played their last note, at the end of a day of threatening rain (and a brief drizzle), blue skies opened up, ambient sunlight peeking down on the stage.

Critical bias: I’d only heard Cage’s music in recorded form.

Overheard: “Well, I composed one of the [five- to seven-second] segments. Did you compose one, too?”

Random notebook dump: Choreographer Merce Cunningham was Cage’s lifelong partner, and the two collaborated many times. Being able to play Cage’s music, though, rivals the demands of a dancer. The only musicians I’ve ever seen who’ve had to move nearly as much during a performance are the members of Stephen Scott’s Bowed Piano Ensemble.

Set list:
Second Construction
Credo in US
Radio Music
I. Moderate
II. II. Very Slow
III. Axial Asymmetry
RENGA: Cage: 10
Third Construction

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