John Cage at Tom’s Place

Today we look at last week’s performance at “Tom’s Place” in Berkeley featuring vocal and piano music of John Cage. Cage is of course one of my musical heroes, and his works for prepared piano are among my favorites.

The concert opened with two of his early pieces for prepared piano performed by Janis Mercer. Waiting (1952) consisted of a long period of silence followed by a short repeated phrase, followed by more silence. It could be seen as a stepping stone of sorts between Cage’s prepared-piano music and 4’33″, which was also written in 1952. Mercer also performed Bacchanale (1940), Cage’s first piece for prepared piano. It opened with dramatic repeated tones that evolved into shorter and then longer repeated phrases. The harmonies were anxious and fit with the timbre of the prepared strings. Prepared piano is sometimes called “piano gamelan”, and the name seemed appropriate for this movement, with its polyrhythms and complex minor harmonies. The following movement was much more percussive, with something that suggested bass and hi-hat.


[Janis Mercer. Photo by Michael Zelner.]

The concert continued with John Smalley performing Experiences No 2 for solo voice. This was the first of two pieces on the program that Cage wrote for Merce Cunningham dances. This one used a text by e.e. cummings. Musically, it had a static and yearning quality, with phrases having an “incomplete” feeling melodically.

This was followed by an untitled vocal interlude from Four Walls informally titled “Sweet Love”. It is a playful piece, both in terms of its music and text (which was written by Cunningham). The performance by Laurie Amat clearly brought out this quality.


[Laurie Amat. Photo by Michael Zelner.]

The concert resumed after a short intermission with In a Landscape featuring Mercer again on piano. Not only was the piano of the “unprepared” variety, the piece was actually quite tonal, with a dreamlike quality and something approaching a folk melody If I was presented the piece and asked to guess the composer, I would be more likely to say Debussy than Cage.


[John Smalley and Laurie Amat. Photo by Michael Zelner.]

The final piece of the evening was Litany for the Whale, song by John Smalley and Laurie Amat. The piece consists of slow vocalization of the letters of the word “whale” in call-and-response form over an extended period of time. The length of the piece (over twenty minutes) and slow motion make it quite challenging for both the performers and the audience. For the performers it was quite an endurance test and for those of us in the audience the challenge was to keep focused on it. What worked best was to go into a meditative state and focus on some details of sound while letting others simply pass.

The show was quite well attended with a full and appreciative house. Overall, I was glad I made the trip to Berkeley on a Wednesday evening to hear it.

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