by Donald Hagar
Photo: Willie Davis for the New York Times
The temperature topped 95 degrees last Friday, and what better way to cool down than to hear the Flux Quartet in its first John Cage Centennial birthday celebration concert at Bargemusic? After all—Bargemusic is, indeed, air-conditioned.
The program included works by Cage, as well as Morton Feldman, Christian Wolff, and Earle Brown—all composers that were closely associated with Cage and his methodology. Tom Chiu, Flux Quartet’s first violinist and emcee for the evening, demonstrated the group’s eagerness to educate the public about this music by speaking between pieces and showing the audience the printed music. Mr. Chiu even conversed with some young string players in the house during an alternate tuning break, advising them, “You have to learn the rules first before you break them!”
Feldman’s Three Pieces for String Quartet could be summed up in this basic gesture: pluck–long tone–pluck, for the entire three movements of the work. With this backdrop a simple pizzicato arpeggio became a climactic moment. Played at a very soft dynamic and passed on from instrument to instrument, the tones seemed almost meditative.
Though Christian Wolff’s Lines
shared a structure similar to Feldman’s quartet, it displayed more tonal manipulation. Long tones were prevalent as in the Feldman, but the addition of growls, tremolos,
and sliding string shrieks made the piece exciting as well as contemplative.
Earle Brown created scores first in Jackson Pollock-style graphic notation before converted them to conventional music notes, as was explained by Flux violist Max Mandel right before going straight into Brown’s 1965 String Quartet. Like the Wolff quartet, Brown explored more of the instruments’ alternative sound-producing abilities, where sustained tones and languid melodies broke out into spasmodic flourishes of rapid bow work.
The birthday boy was represented by two pieces, the first being Speech, for Five Radios and Newsreader. Here, guest musician (and artistic director of Bargemusic) Mark Peskanov joined the Flux members as each of them manipulated radios according to Cage’s written instructions. A reading of several short excerpts of current newspaper articles was added to the soundscape, carefully read per Cage’s instructions by baritone Thomas Buckner. Laughter erupted as Mr. Buckner read that “yoga instructors are sick with envy” at Romney’s newfound flexibility on healthcare, while radios cranked out reggae, smooth jazz, Talking Heads, talk radio, and salsa.
Cage’s Four was like the other string quartets in that sustained tones were the building blocks of the piece. Each tone played by an instrument was layered by tones from the other instruments, creating a series of waves of pure sound. A typically Cage-ian element of chance was added when the performers traded parts in the middle of the performance.
It was obvious that the Flux Quartet loves this repertoire, and they played with the requisite care and technical command. The Cage Centennial celebration will continue with the Flux Quartet as part of Bargemusic’s Here and Now series on Wednesday, July 11 and Wednesday, July 18.