Pictured L to R: William Lang, Vicky Chow, Drew Blumberg, and Randy Gibson performing John Cage’s “Four3” at the John Cage at 100 show in NY; 2/11/12; Below, Vicky Chow performing the Sonatas and Interludes also at the Cage at 100 show (Photos courtesy of Hugh Burckhardt for Avant Media)
Composer and founding member of the music collective Avant Media Randy Gibson had some time to speak with us about a campaign he started on Kickstarter (the fundraiser of choice these days) for a new CD of the music from a concert I actually went to–The John Cage at 100 concert that was held during the Avant Music Festival back in February in NY (I even reviewed this concert on my one-time haunt Sequenza 21). That concert was a great display of the diversity of the Cage catalog and the fascinating difference in tonality between the earlier and later works, and we also saw that some of the works are obviously not yet suitable for Cage beginners.
The CD features selections from the concert performed by Vicky Chow, loadbang, Megan Schubert and Gelsey Bell among others.
If you want to contribute, click up here or on the big link at the bottom.
CM: Can you talk about this recording and what was significant about the pieces selected for this concert?
Randy: This recording came about for a number of reasons. As long as I’ve been producing concerts, either with Avant Media, or before, recording them has been a top priority. The first concert I ever organized was a series of John Cage and Morton Feldman performances in Boulder, CO in the year 2000, while I was still in high school, and that concert was recorded professionally. We’re actually including a recording from that concert as a bonus track to people that pledge to Kickstarter. The sound engineer we worked with this year (Ben Manley) is truly a master at live recording, and I asked him to go over the top on recording the Cage concerts, and the results are spectacular. The peformances were beautiful and the recordings are as well. We couldn’t include the full concert (there was almost 3 hours of music over the course of the day) but we put together a really nice selection, I think, taking from Vicky Chow’s remarkable performance of the Sonatas and Interludes and interspersing the full recordings of Concert for Piano and Orchestra and “Ryoanji”
One of the first ideas that my co-curator Megan Schubert and I began discussing when getting ready to program the 2012 Cage concert was this idea of asking the composers involved in this year’s festival (Eve Beglarian, Jenny Olivia Johnson, and myself) to help select works that were meaningful to them. Whether directly or indirectly, John Cage’s influence can be felt in all of our music. Megan and I selected Concert together as it’s sort of universal in its possibilities. Jenny selected Living Room Music, which was a piece she performed at university when she was still a percussionist primarily. Eve selected “Nocturne”, and I selected “Ryoanji”, which was the first Cage piece I ever heard. Megan selected the Sonatas and Interludes and we decided to program that as a separate afternoon concert. “Four3” came about sort of organically as we wanted to include a “number” piece, and when the opportunity to present it alongside Merce Cunningham’s “Beach Birds for Camera”, it seemed destined, especially given Avant Media’s history with dance film.
CM: Were these pieces picked to give a very diverse selection of Cage’s work?
Randy: We definitely wanted to show a broad range of Cage’s work, both in the concert and on the album. Including the Sonatas and Interludes was a no-brainer–Vicky performed it beautifully, and the recordings are really remarkable. I actually ended up using chance operations to help determine which movements we’d include on the album.
We knew when we performed (Megan, William Lang and I) that “Ryoanji” had been something really special. It’s a piece that is usually performed as a solo, and the unexpected harmonies in the duet version were remarkable, and surprisingly powerful. When I heard from Ben after the concert that he thought the recording had turned out particularly well on that piece, I was overjoyed. Concert was really the biggest surprise in terms of recording. That piece is so inundating and varied in the concert hall, I really wasn’t sure how it would translate to recording. Most of the recordings I’ve heard of it have been really kind of boring, but the short duration of the performance, and the inclusion of vocal parts (Jeffrey Gavett, from loadbang, and Gelsey Bell both performed from Song Books, but only selections that use the same notational structure as the rest of the Solos) makes the recording feel really alive. The spacing of the performers, while not obvious on the recording, adds a lot of depth to it, and there’s a great moment near the end that is just super jazzy and dark and moody. The piece was never rehearsed together, and none of the performers knew what anyone else would be doing, so this all just happened live, by chance.
CM: Was it difficult to choose among the Cage works for these concerts, specifically the evening concert?
Randy: In celebrating Cage’s centennial, we really want to look at the ways in which Cage’s work has influenced current music, so asking the composers we featured to select works, and thinking about the broad spectrum, really helped to focus the curatorial process. It was through a series of collaborative discussions with the composers involved that we arrived at the final lineup, and I think everyone’s influences came through in the final selection. Selecting the order of the works was a more challenging process. For the 2011 concert, we went purely chronologically, but for this one, that wouldn’t work, we sort of ended up structuring everything around the performance of Concert, which would act as the centerpiece of the first half of the evening, and so we ended up bookending the first half with very early works, introducing the evening with Living Room Music and closing the first half with “Nocturne”, which is just a really lovely early work, and provided a nice palette cleanser after “Ryoanji”.
The second half of the concert stood alone. “Four3” (the piece that was the second half of the concert) is such an interesting piece, it’s one of only two of the “number” pieces that includes melody, and it has this weird sine wave element (something I’m very interested in) – and then when we were able to perform it as accompaniment to the Merce Cunningham film, it all became very clear. Avant Media’s earliest productions were dance films with live music, so it was connected in that way.
CM: Can you talk about the performers?
Randy: Vicky Chow is featured heavily on this album, and she’s just incredible. She brings amazing touch and sensitivity, but also power. Hearing her play “Sonata XII” is an absolute pleasure. I performed “Ryoanji” with Megan Schubert, singing, and William Lang, who I’ve worked with closely for many years now, playing trombone. They both took a very purist approach to this piece, and the results were fantastic. I used a very old gong and a Mt. Fuji walking stick as my instruments, and our experience within that piece was transcendent. Will and Megan have such stunning and unique tones that hearing them combined in these long gliding lines is just excellent.
For the performers on Concert for Piano and Orchestra, we brought together a bunch of people that had performed in the festival in the past. Obviously Vicky did the piano part, and asking loadbang, who have done performances of Concert and Song Books a number of times (including on the first festival) to do strictly material from Concert was a nice challenge. Gelsey Bell is a remarkable vocalist and brought an interesting visual element to the proceedings as well, she performed “Solo 73”, which uses text from Merce Cunningham on dance, and did these sort of abstract poses and changed her facing, it was really lovely. Drew Blumberg, Nicole Camacho, and Victor Lowrie rounded out the group and we really ended up with a nice blend of instruments and textures. Because we used chance operations to determine where on stage everyone would be there were some interesting elements there as well. Will Lang was backstage, almost completely hidden, and Drew Blumberg was way out front to the left of the audience. The recording was taken from a stereo microphone at the front of the stage, so it’s a very specific snapshot of that performance, and a very different experience than what the audience had.
What I enjoy most about putting together these Cage concerts is trying to get to the heart of Cage’s instructions because they’re often extremely vague and specific at the same time. Doing a piece like Concert is so much fun because within this very specific framework, everyone can find a way to sort of make it their own and still keep it in the spirit of Cage.