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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Concert Review: A Game of FLUX

The Flux Quartet fétes John Cage at Bargemusic.
by Paul Pelkonen
Three faces of John Cage.
It was a hot summer night on the Brooklyn waterfront.The swelter and scent of the East River served as backdrop for a Bargemusic appearance by the Flux Quartet, the New York-based nw music ensemble who specialize in bold explorations of the last century's avant-garde.

This concert was the first part of the FLUX's three-concert series celebrating the 100th birthday of composer, chef and iconoclast John Cage. The program paired Cage's music with adventurous explorations by three of Cage's contemporaries: Earle Brown, Morton Feldman and Christian Wolff.

The program opened with a few introductory words from FLUX violinist Tom Chiu before opening with Morton Feldman's 1956 composition Three Pieces for String Quartet. This was dreamy, atmospheric music that seemed to hang shimmering in the heated air. Each piece sounded as if they could have been the soundtrack for the barge itself, echoing the creaks and wails of a vessel at rest in harbor.

Christian Wolff's Lines was by contrast, much more angular music, a series of short, sharp shocks for the four instruments. Melody, if it existed was confined to the space between the squeaks and slides on the strings. The musicians did their best to make musical sense of this sere sound-world, where the music is not conventionally notated but illustrated by spindly lines carefully drawn across the staves.
An example of sheet music by Christian Wolff.
The stringed instruments were set aside for the third piece on the program, John Cage's Speech. Here, sound is generated by hand-held transistor radios. Volume, position and bandwidth are determined before the performance, using a randomized number generation system which Cage derived from the I Ching. A speaker (Thomas Buckner) read excerpts from New York papers, adding political commentary and hard news to the aural free-for-all.

An example of sheet music by Christian Wolff. FM radio may be struggling against the popularity of satellite media and portable music players. But this performance of Speech made a good case for doing this work against the busy airwaves of New York. Salsa, merengue, techno and even AC/DC's "Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap" mingled in the clash of radio signals, fading in and out of the ether like a very fast trip across the continent.

Against this stew of sound, Mr. Buckner read political commentary from Mike Lupica in the New York Daily News against the background of the Talking Heads "And She Was," creating an unintended, if hilarious politicaly juxtaposition in the tiny floating concert hall.

The second half of the concert opened with the FLUX Quartet's first performance of the String Quartet by Earle Brown. A contemporary of Cage, Brown's work has some parallels to the Wolff piece played earlier. But it was underpinned with a jazzy groove on the cello that provided a steady backdrop for interjections and outbursts from the higher instruments of the ensemble.

The concert ended with another Cage work, the spare, serene Four for string quartet. Like the Feldman work that opened the concert, this was a series of slow, meditative lines, played with pauses between that seemed to carry their own music in the silence. The flow was broken when the players exchanged parts, and then repeated the simple melodic ideas.

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