Music of Changes – 22 September

Music of Changes
Never Again

Tania Chen (piano)
John Lely (percussion)

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 22 September, 2002
Venue: Purcell Room, London

Music of Changes was an important milestone in Cage’s development as a composer and it was good to have an opportunity of hearing the work, ten years after his death, in a thoroughly rewarding and authoritative performance.

For the first time, Cage employed what he termed ’chance operations’, derived from the ancient Oriental book “I-Ching”, to determine the sounds, durations, dynamics and effects – indeed, all the perimeters of the music – should be included. Thus he was ensured that the result did not express what he, as an artist, wanted or felt. In Music for Changes, the whole gamut of what is practical or possible on or inside a piano is required – quite apart from staggering virtuosic keyboard skills. The keys are depressed silently to create harmonic vibrations, dense arm clusters evoke a violent effect, parts of the frame are struck, as are the strings in various different ways, and the piano lid is tapped or shut from time to time. Much of this may sound merely pretentious or even ridiculous, but there is no doubt that a serious musical mind is at work in this work, which is fully and traditionally notated, unlike many (though by no means all) of Cage’s later works.

What struck me during this performance was the sheer delicacy and poetry of much of the piano writing – leaving aside the ’effects’ for the moment. There are quite touching instances where suddenly a major chord sounds in the distance, or one note echoes in isolation. These are set alongside more florid passages with wide-ranging leaps. It is futile to consider this music in terms of conventional development – as it is to criticise it for not operating in this way – rather, the piece is a series of musical ’events’ carefully devised and stunning and provocative in their impact.

Tania Chen was fully equal to the task of delivering a convincingrendition. A player needs nerves, hands, arms and fingers of steel to play this music. Chen provided this and more – subtlety and repose where called for. In many ways, it would have been a more rewarding occasion had Music for Changes’ stood alone in this recital, as the ear and mind were ready for a rest after this 50-minute marathon.

However, we were given an opportunity to hear, after an interval, John Lely’s Never Again, composed this year. Without wishing to be facetious, the title is one I wholly concur with but a better one would have been ’Its Been Done Before’, as this is a wholly reactionary composition very squarely modelled on the musical ’happenings’ of the 1960s, pioneered by Cage himself, along with others.

The piece requires a plethora of toy instruments and car horns,whistles, pipes and other sound-makers (including a pencil sharpener) to be deployed along with occasional comments from the piano. Many of the sounds were quiet, and some no doubt intended to amuse (although audience reaction was muted) but it all seemed to me to be of little purpose, given that this type of performance is, frankly, redundant nowadays. We were informed that a recent performance in Cologne was “entirely improvised” but that this evening’s had been “more thoroughly prepared”. It would have been informative to know specific differences. Never Again’ requires “any number of players with noise-making devices” and that there is “a fairly detailed description of the process of the music”. In this regard, some of Cage’s later creations and the work of Stockhausen comes to mind, where From the Seven Days (1968) includes written directions for performance, creating an intensity not heard on this occasion, and in Kathinkas’ Gesang (1983) his use of toy instruments is haunting, eerie and atmospheric.

With such models, Lely’s creation seemed rather silly. This was nevertheless an important evening for Tania Chen’s Cage performance and I hope to have the opportunity of hearing her bring her gifts to similar repertoire in the future.

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