July 10, 2012
by Alexandra Gardner
John Cage’s centennial year has resulted in a gaggle of new recordings, multimedia offerings à la 4’33″, as well as festivals and events around the country. Whether or not one embraces wholeheartedly Cage’s later integration of chance procedures and conceptual thought into his works, there is no denying that some of his most compelling music is the early compositions for percussion, which provide a wealth of insight into the composer’s internal musical landscape. At the time these pieces were created, his sonic palette, which consisted of pretty much everything and the kitchen sink, was somewhat revolutionary, though it has now become a common language for percussionists. The Chicago-based ensemble Third Coast Percussion has released a new CD and separate surround sound DVD on Mode (available either individually or together) of six early percussion works that will perk up the ears (and eyes, if you choose to include the DVD) of anyone even remotely interested in percussion music performance and/or John Cage.
The discs begin with Cage’s three Constructions, presented in reverse chronological order. Third Construction features the widest selection of instruments, with metal, wood, and skin categories all represented in force. The constantly grooving rhythmic complexity and the extensive instrumentation make it a milestone in percussion repertoire. Second Construction begins with a gamelan-esque arrangement of oxen bells, joined by a repeating rhythmic melody on piano grounded by snare drum brush work, and an assortment of shakers and small drums. First Construction (in Metal) is just that—a metallic rainforest of thundersheets, tam-tam, cymbals, and “piano innards.”
The 1936 work Trio is a short three-movement composition scored for bass drum, woodblocks, bamboo sticks and tom-toms. Heard after the Constructions, its dance-like, often gently bubbling rhythms sound relatively simple in comparison, and it is illuminating to hear how Cage’s future sense of rhythm and structure grew out of this work.
The Quartet for unspecified instrumentation has been sending percussionists on junkyard treasure hunts since it was created in 1935. Here Third Coast has separated the four movements into separate instrument groupings of primarily wood, metal, and skin, and the third movement employs the harp of an old upright piano as the primary instrument to create a beautiful and otherworldly soundscape.
The final piece, Living Room Music, finds the performers inside architect Bruce Goff’s Ruth Ford House, literally playing the space—metal beams are struck with spoons, carpet is scraped. There is the open-handed thwacking of wooden surfaces in the first movement, “To Begin.” For the second movement, “Story,” they relax in comfy chairs and, as the liner notes state, “rap” Gertrude Stein. Slide whistle is featured in the “Melody” movement with a background of spoons and a very familiar computer bleep sound that many will immediately recognize. “End” is all glass objects all the time. While every one of the performance films is beautifully presented, with lots of close-ups of fascinating instruments and the hands playing them, the video of Living Room Music captures the space and the performers in a way that makes you really wish you could be there, hanging out with them.
In my experience, Cage’s percussion music is best fully appreciated live; being able to see performers play the arrays of coffee cans, flower pots, drums, utensils, and bells brings the music’s visceral character to the forefront of the listening experience. In this case, an added benefit is being able to watch Third Coast Percussion obviously having a blast performing all of these works. The DVD beautifully conveys both the richness and the delightful quirkiness of Cage’s percussion music, instilling a deeper appreciation of the composer’s creative outlook. The recordings alone are of exceedingly high quality and satisfying in and of themselves, and the DVD adds another layer of depth, personality, and—quite literally—color to the music that is well worth the investment.