resonant world: John Cage and Morris Graves

This past Sunday I attended resonant world: an afternoon of music by John Cage for the exibit The Visionary Art of Morris Graves at the Meridian Gallery here in San Francisco.

Morris Graves was an influential artist in the 20th century, based primarily in the Pacific Northwest. The exhibition features about 50 works spread over several decades of his career and two floors of the gallery. Many of his works, which were mostly on paper, had a very simple quality, but often with some recognizable object or concept at its core. I was particularly drawn to a few of his works, including Minnow, Irish Animal, Waning Moon and Roadside Plants and Machine Age Noise. Graves’ work is often described as having Asian and mystical influences, which were apparent in Minnow and many others, but in works like Irish Animal a noticed a humorous quality, something approaching graphic art.

John Cage became a longtime friend and admirer of Graves after the two met in 1935. He described Graves’ work as “Invitations”, or invitationals to attend to the ordinary details that are “ordinarily ignored”. Although the pieces in the program were not directly a response to Graves’ art, they do fit the spare nature of some of his works, and the focus on simple details, as well as the space of the gallery in which those works were presented.

[Raskin, Greenlief and Adams.  Photo by Michael Zelner.  Click to enlarge.]

The first piece, Atlas Eclipticalis featured the saxophone trio of Philip Greenlief, Jon Raskin and Steve Adams. The title refers to the path of the Sun through the constellations of the zodiac, which Cage used as a source for the score of the piece, using tracing paper to determine the placement of dots and then adding a five-line music staff. The trio’s performance was derived entirely from this score. The result was a very sparse musical texture, with large areas of silence punctuated by individual isolated notes from each of the saxophones. There were also moments where the performers played together, forming interesting beating patterns as the simultaneous tones interacted with the room as well as perfect octaves and minor chords that were a bit startling (but quite effective) within the context of the whole piece.

Atlas Eclipaticalis was followed by a performance of Three for “three players having a variety of recorders.” Conveniently, we happened to have three players who each had a variety of recorders, the Three Trapped Tigers (David Barnett and Tom Bickley with special guest Judy Linsenberg). The recorders ranged in size from the familiar C soprano recorders and alto and tenor sizes seen in renaissance ensembles, to very “modernist” F contra-bass recorders composed of wooden rectangular sections with black buttons and levers – I am guessing these were Paetzold recorders.

[Three Trapped Tigers (Bickley, Lindsenberg, Barnett). Click image to enlarge.]

The piece unfolded as a series of chords – the timing of individual notes was left up to the performers – with frequent pauses and changes of instruments. The large number of recorders and frequent changes suggested a solo pipe organ performance as much as a wind ensemble.

[David Cowen reading.  Photo by Michael Zelner.  Click to enlarge.]

Throughout the afternoon, simultaneous to an in between the musical performances, there was a reading of Series RE: Morris Graves, a “long poem derived by John Cage from his own recollections, conversations with Graves and friends” and other sources as described in the program notes. The poem was read by Dave Cowen. I did follow the recommendation to explore the space during the musical performances, including viewing the artwork with the music resonating down the stairs from the floor above, and pausing at partitioned area where the reading occurred. (Note: in the above photo featuring Cowen’s reading, one can also see Graves’ Roadside Plants and Machine Age Noise.)

[Fischer and Binkley enjoying tea and snacks. Click to enlarge.]

The final performance featured selections from Cage’s Song Books (Solos for Voice 3-92) interpreted by members of the Cornelius Cardew Choir. The songs derive from a variety of written sources, with some using graphical-score notation (a current favorite technique of mine) or text-based instructions. From these scores, performs are free to interpret and improvise their actual performances. Some of the songs were purely vocal and melodic, others were more theatrical, while others combined electronics with other elements. Among the moments that stood out were Tom Bickley and Brad Fischer enjoying tea, Sarah Rose Stiles pouring a cognac into a glass with contact microphones, projection of slides “relevant to Thoreau” behind a theatrical performance, a graphical score directing the pressing of keys on an amplified manual typewriter (performed by Eric Theise), and the use of the text from that typewriter in another song. There was also a large orange stuffed fish on a table.

[Sarah Rose Stiles.  Photo by Michael Zelner.]

[Sandra Yolles, Marianne McDonald, Brad Fischer and Tom Bickley.  Projection of “drawings related to Thoreau”. Click to enlarge.]