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September 2012 - Posts

Centennial Of Maverick American Composer John Cage - Visionary Genius or Charlatan ?

  John Cage was born 100 years ago today . He was either one of the most important composers of the 20th century or a  complete and utter charlatan  depending on what  you think of his music .  Some consider him to be a visionary genius and  bold innovator  and others  dismiss him as  a  trendy pseudo composer and  pseudo intellectual poseur .  He died  twenty years ago  just a month before his 80th birthday . 

   Cage  was born in Los Angeles  and was a maverick from the very beginning .  He studied  briefly  at UCLA  and USC with  the great Arnold Schoenberg, whose  compositional style, with its  tightly controlled 12 tone  techniques were diametrically opposed to  the aesthetic views he came to develop ,  and the older composer described him as  not so much as composer but "an inventor of genius." In fact, Cage's father was a rather eccentric  professional inventor . 

   Cage  sought to  depart from everything  classical music as we know it  stands for ;  pre-existing forms such as sonata ,  variation etc, conventional harmony ,  use of standard instruments, etc .  He made pioneering use of  aleatoric , or  made up  on the spur of the moment  chance  improvisation  , and  used the  fampous I Ching  of Chinese philosophy  as a means to  create  chance music  constructed by arbitrary  means  . Alea means dice in latin  , and composition for Cage became something of  a  casting by dice  affair .

   Cage  made the use  the of silence as an integral  part of his  compositional techniques , and perhaps hjis most famous  work ?  is the  so called  4 ' and 33' , or four minutes and 33 seconds of silence  in front of a piano . The performer ?  just sits there at the keyboard  and does absolutely nothinhg for four minutes and 33 seconds .  The ocmposition consists of whatever random sounds  happen  , coughing  ,or whatever .  Is this real music or  just a clever gimmick ?   Not every one agrees .

   Like his music or not, Cage was very much taken seriously during his lifetime  by  many  important  composers  ,critics and musicologists  , and he became something of a cultural hero in  Europe .  He tended to be rather dismissive of pretty much the whole centuries long tradiition of western classical music, and even declared that "Beethoven was wrong ", in his approach to composition, that is .  But how was Beethoven supposed to know that 200 years ago ?  You might as well  find fault with Goya because he did not paint like Salvador Dali . 

   Cage was also a devotee of Zen Buddhism  and  an amateur mycologist, or  expert on mushrooms , and  was able to distinguish posionous from non-poisonous  mushrooms caught in the wild !   He  developed a  method of putting nuts ,bolts, and other  metal objects inside pianos  to make them sound, well, rather strange .  This is called "prepared piano ". 

   Whether you consider him to be a real composer or not, Cage was certainly a colorful character !   Some of his works can be heard on youtube for free . 


Posted: Sep 05 2012, 06:29 PM by the horn | with no comments
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Documentary About The Met's Latest Ring Production On PBS September 10

  Careless me.  I forgot to mention that as a prelude to  the PBS Ring  this month ,  there will be what looks like a fascinating documentary  on  the controversial production  by Susan Froemke, a noted maker of documentaries , called  "Wagner's Dream ".  It will  show how  director  Robert Lepage and  an army of  technicians  and assistants  prepared the ambitious  and  technologically  sophisiticated  production  for performance  , as well as how the singers  and conductors  adapted to its  consiuderable demands and difficulties . 

   The production features a massive unit set of metal planks which constantly  move  around the huge  Met stage  along with computer-generated special effects of all kinds  which would have been impossible  with conventional  stage technology .  It has caused numerous difficulties for the singers  and there have been  some technical glitches  during performances  which were downright embarassing  .

   Many critics  and  commentators  have  reacted  negatively to the production and even  dismisse it as an artistic failure .  Not having seen it yet, I will withhold judgment  and you can decide for yourself  , although this may be difficult if you don't have other Ring productions with which to compare it .  There are quote a few of them on DVD now,  including the Met's previous  and traditional  version ,  several from the Wagner shrine in Bayreuth  and other  European opera houses  which  tend  to  take  great liberties with  the  story in terms of sets, costumes and staging, setting  the action  in the present day  with  the characters  in modern dress etc. and  have all manner of  ridiculous arbitrary  production gimmicks which fly in the face of Wagner's original intentions .  Such productions have been endemic to Europe  in our time, not only in Wagner, though less so in America . 

Posted: Sep 04 2012, 11:01 PM by the horn | with no comments
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Don't Miss Wagner's Complete Ring On PBS September 11 To 14 !

  If you've never experienced Richard Wagner's  stupendous  "Ring of the Nibelungen "  cycle before , you will have your chance beginning  next September 11 through 14 on PBS .  This  mind-boggling  apocalyptic  operatic  epic  is certainly  a daunting  experience for opera newbies,  but  there will be English subtitles  and you can easily  google the complete plot .  Wikipedia is a good source for this .  PBS is presenting the controversial  recent  Met production  with  computer-generated special effects  by the renowned Canadian  director Robert Lepage , and the conducting duties are shared by  James Levine and  recently appointed Met principal conductor Fabio Luisi, who had to step in because of Levine's  protracted ailments , and  many of today's leading Wagner singers will be in the cast, including  Deborah Voigt, Bryn terfel, Stepahnie Blythe,  Eric Owens ,  Waltraud  Meier and Jonas Kauffmann in the very large cast .

   Wagner's  gargantuan  epic  cycle of four  operas , or "music dramas" as he preferred to call them , is based on  Germanic and norse  mythology , complete with gods, goddesses,  superheroes,  giants,  dwarfs, Valkyries  on magic steeds ,  water nixies, a ferocious dragon,  a magic  sword,  and a magic helmet which enables you to become a shape shifter , among other  cool things. But the central object in the story is a  fateful golden ring  made from the magic gold of the river Rhine which  gives its owner supreme power over everyone and everything.  But there's one catch - there is a  terrible curse attached to it which  leads to the  death and destruction of any one who possesses it .

   Does this sound vaguely like  Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings"  and  the movie series ?  Well, sort of , but not exactly .  The end of the cycle,  called "Twilight of the Gods," ends with  the  death of the superhero  Siegfried  and  the  destruction of the gods,  who have been  corrupted by  the  lust for power of their chief god, Wotan (Odin in Scandinavian mythology ) as  Valhalla , their  mighty abode in the skies  burns  and th eRhine overflows its banks, flooding the earth . It's an awesome, apocaplyptic ending  . 

   Wagner's stupendous music  far surpasses  any of the film scores by hollywood composers , as skillfull and effective as they are .  You wil also be able to  experience this  Ring through streaming at the Met's website  , and later on DVDs when it comes out .  Wagner's Ring is like nothing you have ever experienced before !   The four  parts of the Rng are "Das Rheingold " (The Rhinegold,) "Die Walkure".(The Valkyrie), "Siegfried"  , and  "Gotterdammerunf"  (Twilight pof the gods).  It's about 16 hours of music  spread over four evenings ,  but  an experience not to be missed !

Posted: Sep 04 2012, 09:46 PM by the horn | with no comments
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