John Cage's Renga Brought Thoreau to Life

There’s a popular complaint among people who feel like they don’t understand contemporary art, and that is the idea that because a piece might not look technically demanding, it doesn't hold the same merit of its meticulously planned counterparts. You could call it My Child Could Paint That Syndrome. So when San Francisco Symphony’s music director Michael Tilson Thomas opened the last weekend's John Cage program by comparing the composer to fine artists such as Mondrian and Kandinsky — who, while both classically trained, preferred to create aberrant arrangements of shapes and colors that still sometimes leave viewers scratching their heads — he seemed to be setting the audience up for something special.

[jump] The program began with Cage’s more melodic, “more technical” The Seasons. And although Seasons is avant-garde — its 1947 premiere at New York's Ziegfeld Theater as a Merce Cunningham ballet score led a reviewer from Dance Magazine to call it “a horror,” probably due mostly to its intentionally fragmented themes — it follows all the normal outlines of a typical composition. There’s a clear opening, body, and end, and the “plot” is easy to follow: Winter is icy, spring is bubbly, summer feels hot and long, and fall creates almost palpable oranges and browns. It’s not as easy to follow as Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, but especially in 2015, it’s not too far out, and it’s certainly not a horror. And aside from that, it proves Cage is a more than capable technician.

Then there was the second half of the program.

This is where it starts to get a little strange. In Cage’s Renga (1975-1976), the typical manuscript is thrown out the window. Instead, Cage took 361 sketches from nature by Henry David Thoreau and arranged them randomly on the staff. Where a musician would usually see notes, they might see a little doodle of a tree, a snake, or a feather. The musicians are then asked to read the images as if they were traditional notes, executing elements such as tempo and pitch as if this were a normal score. (The word “kooky” comes to mind. And it’s not a stretch to think of Renga more of a collection of sounds than anything else.) It might be offbeat, sure, but the sheer aliveness that comes from an ever-changing piece determined by musicians in the moment shouldn't be understated.

Performed simultaneously with a compilation of TV commercials from the '50s and '60s, Renga has yet another element: actor Tim Robbins performing Cage’s Lecture on Nothing (1950). The piece amusingly states, “I am here, and there is nothing to say,” before saying “nothing” for a solid 45 minutes. Verses like, “I have the feeling that we are getting nowhere,” are repeated over and over. And when paired with the roaming instrumentals and clips of housewives grinning enthusiastically in ads for new cleaning detergents, Renga ranges from silly to creepy. Robbins does a stand-up job in terms of delivery — and the little giggles and gasps from the audience are frequent.

Between the spoken text, the video projections, and the unconventional construction, there is a lot to take in. Throw in the added bonus of quirky instruments like an amplified cactus (which makes exactly the satisfyingly cartoonish plinky-plunky noises that you’d think it would) and too brief, perhaps not fully realized references to Native American culture, and it’s decidedly overwhelming. Which is exactly why Tilson Thomas’ references to artists like Kandinsky seem so nicely thought out. Both classically trained, both pushing their art forms into refreshing new dimensions. Decades later, and John Cage is still one of the most innovative voices in music. And so, no, your kid probably couldn't do that.  

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