A few months ago, Santa Fe New Music, in collaboration with the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum presented a concert titled “From Thoreau to Cage: American Voices” featuring Charles Ives’ extraordinary “Concord Sonata” performed by pianist Stephen Drury and John Cage’s “Variations I-IV,” performed by members of SFNM. It was, for me, a memorable performance.
Both of these composers have had a profound influence on my musical thinking, although in two very different ways. As a music student, coming to terms with Charles Ives proved challenging, especially when confronted with a structural/harmonic analysis of his music. And despite the long hours spent hunched over one of his orchestral scores, the end result was usually rewarding. One came away from those Ivesian experiences with a sense of accomplishment and a renewed sense of purpose. Even at that early stage of artistic development I felt that conventional harmonic schemes simply were not working for me. Of course, the more one listened to and studied Ives’ music the more sense it made, despite its seemingly chaotic nature. Later on I was to deal more directly with Ives’ music through my friendship with Romulus Franceschini.
Romulus was a composer-arranger and editor of music. For many years he worked at the Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music in Philadelphia. In 1964 when Leopold Stokowski announced he was going to give the world premiere performance of Ives’ Fourth Symphony, Romulus worked with a team of editors at Fleisher to, essentially, make sense of the second movement that was left in manuscript form by Ives. It was, by all accounts, a glorious mess. Rom was the only person at the Fleisher who was familiar with current trends and notational systems then popular among the more “experimental” composers of the early 1960’s, so the task of really getting at Ives’ intentions fell to him. Stokowski realized this and developed a close (and at times clandestine) working relationship with him.
When a working score and parts were finally prepared for the premiere, neither Rom nor Stokowski were convinced of their accuracy, but they were overruled by the powers-that-be at Fleisher and, I assume, the publisher. The premiere was given in New York City in April of 1964 by the American Symphony Orchestra. The published score remains pretty much the same as it appeared then. The Fourth Symphony, of course, has received many performances and been recorded by a number of orchestras. After multiple hearings it remains an astounding piece.
Over the years Romulus shared his thoughts on Ives’ music with me, the result of his spending a good deal of creative time deciphering it. Those conversations helped me understand this multi-layed music and were an aid in my quest to wrap my ears around the music of the then mid-20th century. The same can be said for his “Concord Sonata.” It was with great anticipation that I attended the SFNM concert.
The “Sonata No. 2 - Concord Mass., 1840-1860″ is arguably Ives’ most powerful work. The last time I heard this technically demanding work was 20 years ago when I produced the New Music America Festival - Philadelphia 1987. We programmed a performance of the “Concord Sonata” played by Marc-Andre Hamelin, then just emerging as a major concert pianist. It was a terrific insightful performance, one that has stayed with me over the years. Stephen Drury, a pianist who specializes in new music, performed the work last week and, like Hamelin’s continuing performances was fantastic. Played from memory, his interpretation was insightful with clear singing melodic lines emerging from the more dissonant clusters that were delivered with force and passion. There was a magnificent sense of the wholeness of the piece, nothing seemed out of place, with each of the four movements folding into themselves in a logical lyrical way. I can still hear the final chord ringing into the night. What followed, Cage’s “Variations I - IV” made perfect transcendent sense.
As do others from my generation, I owe a debt of gratitude to John Cage. His compositions, writings, performances and collaborative projects gave us all a sense of freedom. During the 20-plus years I directed the Relâche Ensemble in Philadelphia we gave many performances of his works, well over 25 including one that was commissioned by Relâche. Those performances were, in a sense, one long performance since many of his works had a somewhat similar sense of construction or “feel.” The uninitiated musician could (and often still does) easily dismiss Cage’s music as “unmusical,” or (as I heard time and again) “…anyone can do that…that’s not composition.” Fortunately I didn’t truck with those folks and when I did encounter them I usually moved aside to let them make fools of themselves. I had better battles to fight. Among the more memorable performances were ones given as part of the1992 “Rolyholyover” exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
This work, among all of the ones I was a part of or heard over the years, really signified for me. I was hired to, essentially, construct a performance piece using the score for “A Circus On.” This dense textual score (a schematic, really) required that I do some serious research to come up with the materials that would ensure a commanding performance. With assistance from the great musicians in the Relâche Ensemble, I put together a work that not only fit perfectly well into the overall exhibition that was mounted by the staff at the Philadelphia Museum of Art but stood apart as a tribute to John, who had passed away two years previous. It was a moving and memorable set of performances, given on the single hottest weekend then ever recorded in Philadelphia. A similar sense of wonder came over me last week when I heard/saw the SFNM musicians in realizations of Cage’s “Variations I - IV.”
The concert was held at the Scottish Rite Center, an odd but somehow enticing venue. Home to Masons (I won’t even bother to figure those guys out) and built to resemble the Alhambra in Spain, the space has character. When I enter the building I feel as if I’ve stepped into another world, one that’s kind of cool yet forbidding. There is a proscenium with drawings depicting biblical scenes of pissed off guys facing down other pissed off guys. The ceiling is dropped with stars set in some kind of formation that has some serious significance for Masons. The stars are lit from lights above the dropped ceiling. Behind the proscenium is a set that resembles a high school production of Mozart’s “Magic Flute,” weird green lights illuminate what appears to be a forest scene. Overall, it’s a rather goofy set-up, yet aside from the odd physical setting, the sound in the room is fantastic. Into the space John Kennedy deployed the members of his ensemble with their guest, Stephen Drury.
Their realization was extremely subdued with each performer tasked to deliver his or her part quietly with careful attention to nuance and to the physical properties of the room. Performers moved about the space in varying tempos, sometimes taking pictures with a digital camera or unrolling rolls of ribbon that fluttered harmlessly from the choir loft, its flittering sound dissolving into silence. Another performer (John Kennedy) played ageing vinyl recordings on a vintage phonograph with its upturned speaker that sat on a table like a diligent sentinal. Towards the end of the performance John Cage’s recorded voice emerged reciting segments of his “Lecture on the Weather,” that quotes passages from Thoreau’s journals. All of the sounds created and all of the movement throughout the space were perfectly coordinated according to a scheme that resulted from a careful reading of Cage’s scores. It was a moving performance, perfectly complementing the “Concord Sonata.” It was, for me, deja vu all over again.