In recent weeks the cycle of contemporary music organized by Martín Bauer for the Teatro San Martín has dominated concert life. Prior to that there were many homages to John Cage due to the centenary of his birth. This is a very personal review of some of these sessions, for it is a field where critics tread on thin ice and their points of view may be completely contrary to those of other colleagues. There is no "truth" on these matters, but one has to have the intellectual honesty of passing judgment no matter what. And that´s what I will do.
I first met John Cage´s music when I heard a record of his "Sonatas and interludes for prepared piano" (1948) back in 1956; at the time I found the novel sounds interesting, but better in short doses. In the Sixties he came to BA providing the music for his longtime companion, choreographer Merce Cunningham; I saw the show, I was intrigued by the abstract dance and found the music a good support for the visuals but not viable by itself. Later I disliked his iconoclastic Piano Concerto and gradually I got quite angry to find that a whole "progressive" generation thought that Cage was to music what Duchamp with his Urinal had been for the Arts; later still I got even angrier when many art critics thought Duchamp´s "work" more important than Picasso´s "Les demoiselles d´Avignon". "Conceptual art" has devastated the visual arts and now we have conceptual music: once you understand the concept, nothing is left, and a second audition is a thankless endeavor.
Out of many concerts consecrated to Cage I chose a very long one offered in a strange venue, the Colón´s main foyer. I only heard half of it. The evening started with the complete Sonatas and interludes for prepared piano, 1 h 10' ; it proved that the musical material is thin and that what holds the attention, more than the melodies or rhythms, is the instrument itself, the piano intervened with bolts and nuts to give a gamelan-like timbre. It was beautifully played by a talented lady, Aki Takahashi. Then singer Joan La Barbara voiced "Experiences Nº 2" (1948), "Aria" (1958) –an unexpected good tune-, and with piano, fragments of the 1970 "Songbooks". This alternated with "Freeman Etudes Nos. I, III, VII & VIII" (1977-80, 1989-90), played by violinist David Núñez. Apart from the Aria, the rest was ugly experimental stuff based on odd uses of the voice and the violin. After this I decided to leave; there were more pieces for voice and for violin, and then four percussion scores plus something called "58", referring to the quantity of players.
Another trend of the last forty years is minimalism, and I have little sympathy for it. The relentless redundancy of small tonal cells soon becomes boring, but it connects with some endless nirvanas of progressive popular music and it has its fans. I, along with most people, booed lustily when Terry Riley´s "In C" was premiered here about four decades ago conducted by Lukas Foss (the concert also included Cage´s Piano Concerto). Then came Philip Glass and I rather had fun with his descriptive music for the film "Koyaniskaatsi"; as support, it works; by itself it fails. And so does most of Glass´ prolific output; when he came alone as a pianist I skipped the event. The mystic minimalism of some Eastern Europeans is better, and I respect some of Arvo Pärt´s and Henryk Gorecki´s production. As for the Americans, there are two that have had higher quality than Glass: John Adams with his political opera "Nixon in China", and Steve Reich, who was present recently in our city for a concert dedicated to his works.
He made some statements in an interview, and I was glad he called Cage´s music ugly. "I don´t tolerate music without a whistlable melody and a marked rhythm",
he also said. The concert started at the Casacuberta with a very simple piece: "Clapping music" (1972; he and a girl clapped. "Nagoya marimbas" (1994) was short (5') and agreeable. "Proverb" (1995) was longer (16' ) and more varied: five voices, two chamber organs, two vibraphones. And "Tehillim" (1981), in two parts, was quite long (33´) and showed the catholicity of his taste, for he made a synthesis of modern elements with different traditions, such as the Notre Dame Medieval School, African drums and Jewish klezmer. Sometimes the interest flagged, but most of it was intriguing and listenable. Brilliant executants: Synergy Vocals (six splendid British singers), Ensemble Perceum (an excellent Uruguayan percussion group) and thirteen Argentine players, all conducted with precision by Pablo Druker.Great players are certainly essential to give avantgarde pieces their full due, so I welcomed the occasion to hear the famed Klangforum Wien, one of the best specialised ensembles. Indeed they are fantastic both in their individual playing and perfect interaction. But even them couldn´t save their second programme (in the first there were Xenakis and Ligeti, two important composers, but I couldn´t hear it) at the Colón. I can understand their faithfulness to Beat Furrer, for he founded the ensemble; however, I found "Still" a mere exercise in manipulating sounds. Georg Friedrich Haas´ "Monodie" was of similar aesthetics. Finally, the long (37´) "Monadologie XII" by Bernhard Lang was hard to take in its arid experimentation.