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A small surprise

Piano recital, Fismer Hall, Stellenbosch Conservatorium, 4 September 2012-

The audience attending Michael Blake’s tribute concert to John Cage for his 100th birthday, was treated to a special surprise. The programme noted that Blake would be performing two of his works composed for Shirley Hoffman in the early 1980s, Gang o’ Notes and hand full of keys, but instead there was a last minute change of plans.

This change took the form of a première of a work that Blake had been working on, with the intention to perform it in a Cage concert. Thus there could be no more fitting an occasion than a birth centenary concert. The audience was treated not only to the particularly rare (in South Africa) occurrence of a concert of prepared piano works, but also to a celebration of the birth of a work by one of our country’s foremost composers.

The work was 100 (which turned out to be 101) voicings of the so-called “CAGE” chord. This chord was presented to the audience in all its inversions and a great variety of placements within the registral scope of the piano. Repeating one chord 101 times in such a compelling way is no mean feat. This said, it should be noted that minimalist and experimental aesthetics are often aligned with Blake’s compositional style and thus one sonority such as C-A-G-E would seem appropriate and ample material for this composer to work with.

The various voicings were presented as a succession of chords at a slow tempo, deviating from the set rhythm only to include (very sparsely) passing notes and appoggiaturas. There seemed to be an overarching structure, even though this is hard to rationalise, and microstructures dictated by subtly shifting tension in the harmonic playground.

What does a member of the audience make of this? Firstly, the programme that preceded the piece should, I think, be taken into account. Before the première we were treated to a performance of Henry Cowell’s Aeolian Harp and The Banshee. These pieces were then followed by Cage’s A Valentine out of Season and Music for Marcel Duchamp.

With both these works for prepared piano one might not imagine setting a scene of an entranced wash of dreamlike colours. The shift, however, was routed with the screening of the Duchamp sequence in Hans Richter’s Dreams that Money Can Buy for which Music for Marcel Duchamp was originally written. This would-be hypnotic film placed against the percussive sounds of the prepared piano, I felt, prepared me in some sense for the waves of harmonic tension and release of the 100 voicings.

The phrase “less is more” might seem a cliché here but I think it holds great importance to understanding the work. Is this really more or less “less is more”? When listening to the piece and reflecting on it afterward, it dawned on me that the work and its implications suggested rich meanings. Firstly, the idea that a four-letter surname (and not the first in the history of music) can hold such power in altering how we think about art so that 100 years after the birth of the person it refers to in North America we celebrate it (and him) at the tip of Africa, seems oddly significant.

This influence is then brought forth in Blake’s music in the most transparent manner, which lends the surname voice long after its owner had passed on.

I was also deeply conscious of the fact that the C-A-G-E chord manifested in Blake’s work as chordal successions. This reminded me of the endless chord progressions we as students write to refine our skills in voice leading and other theoretical and compositional exercises.

This idea led me to realise the fact that we can see Cage as a teacher and that we (in some respects) will always be able to learn from him. This is a part of his influence that I find extremely important as it represents one relatively logical conclusion as to why one would be remembered and celebrated 100 years after one’s birth.

And if Cage is the teacher here, then Blake was not just regurgitating his artistic voice but instead emulating a fine homage.  I say “emulating” as the influence of Cage’s aesthetic is prevalent in the work but as we can learn from history these influences can aid in the creation of the next generation’s masters. “Emulation” in this case also denotes the surpassing of Cage’s work in its confidence and ease.

This is, however, the “more”. The “less” can then be seen in the extreme economy of carrying out such an idea. Cage is voiced one hundred (and one) times. We cannot escape the thoughts that are carried with each utterance. The work allows for ample time to process and reorientate one’s thoughts. You are led along a subjective journey into your own mind and left to dwell while being at ease with what is going on around you. This is due to the minimal means that needs no great instrumental forces to produce affect. Blake’s 100 voicings delivers a message in its most dapper form by striping all excess couture from the music.

All in all I believe the work does capture the spirit of Cage and is, in fact, a wonderful tribute to one of the great heroes of the twentieth century. Furthermore, I firmly believe that the work is more or less “less is more” with a great deal of philosophical content delivered to the audience in a beautifully economic manner. Finally, I would proclaim that the concert, which was then concluded with a wonderful performance of Cage’s The Perilous Night followed by 4’33”,was a great success despite the slightly unruly audience and a stage assistant who was not familiar enough with the piano preparations. The concert also served to whet my own appetite for Blake’s recent CD release featuring a selection of his chamber music.

– William Fourie