Monday, October 31, 2011

Myers Park meets John Cage

John Cage would have to rank high on any list of composers whose whose works are talked-about much more than they're actually performed. He became known far outside the classical-music world decades ago, thanks to his "4'33," " in which a pianist takes his place at the keyboard and proceeds to spend 4 minutes and 33 seconds playing: nothing.

Cage wrote reams of works that do produce sound. But until the Third Coast Percussion quartet played at Queens University of Charlotte on Oct. 29, none of those -- nor "4' 33," " for that matter -- ever landed in front of me at a concert. That must've been true of most everyone else in the audience, too.

So we all had our inauguration at at Queens, in Myers Park -- the heart of Charlotte gentility. Guess what: The earth did not open up and swallow Selwyn Avenue. Actually, minds may have opened instead: Some ordinary Charlotte concertgoers came up to me afterward and said they enjoyed Cage's music.

Admittedly, the music in question was nothing outlandish. Third Coast, a quartet based in Chicago, included two works that Cage wrote for his own percussion ensemble around 1940, when he was just beginning to evolve into the cheery provocateur of 20th-century music. Cage's "Construction No. 2" and "Construction No.3" employed a wide but un-shocking array of drums, bells, rattles other instruments from around the world. The main innovation was what Cage dubbed a prepared piano: an instrument with paper and other objects stuck between strings to alter the sound.

So there was an extra rumble to a pithy theme that welled up from the piano's bass range. Cage did work with some building blocks as traditional as identifiable themes, you see, in addition to indulging the sheer sonic impact of the instruments. The music that emerged from the stageful of instruments -- and kept the four players very busy -- was dynamic, colorful and exuberant. No wonder it spoke to people.

Besides keeping Cage's music crisp and vivid, the group turned the sound of the marimba into the stuff of sculpture. When the four players joined forces at two marimbas, strumming them gently, the glowing tones let Tobias Brostrom's "Twilight" very much live up to its name. Along the way, a melody floated from player to player, and the four of them showed that percussionists can operate as smoothly as any violinist or singer.

The marimba music particularly struck someone I spoke to afterward. He said the mellowness of it took him back to when he attended concerts by the Grateful Dead. This time there were no controlled substances.



Anonymous said...

John Cage resided in and taught at Black Mountain College, North Carolina in the 1950's.