John Cage fest at NU: Collages of noises and sounds so quiet you could hear keys drop

"I have nothing to say, and I am saying it."

John Cage's often-quoted line popped up toward the end of the final concert of the Northwestern University Bienen School of Music's John Cage Festival last weekend.

In three packed days of performances and symposia, during which scholars and musicians pondered the composer's ideas, impact and influence, his modest declaration cut in several directions. Nothing is never really nothing, Cage argued – it all depends on our willingness to turn off our preconceptions as to what music is and isn't, and surrender to the sounds around us.

I came away baffled by some of the sounds I heard, surprised and enchanted by others. Cage's music has done that to listeners for more than a half-century. I don't suppose we will soon see peace between the camp that defends him as a liberating genius and the camp that decries him as a charlatan. Meanwhile, festivals such as the Bienen School's serve a necessary function in getting the music and ideas out there. Only then can the historical sifting process begin.

The best of what I heard came courtesy of Stephen Drury, the immensely gifted, Boston-based pianist and conductor who has recorded several discs of Cage's piano music. He devoted the better part of one concert to a survey of Cage's solo keyboard pieces – from the charming, Satie-esque simplicities of the 1940s works to Book III of the ferociously difficult "Etudes Australes" (1974-75).

Cage composed these 32 duets for two independent hands using star charts as source material. The result, ironically enough, is as rigorously structured as anything Pierre Boulez or any other unremitting modernists with whom Cage took issue ever wrote. "Good luck," Drury warned the audience before launching into music that proved as tough to play as it was to listen to.

Such was Drury's superhuman mastery of Cage's virtually unplayable opus, however, that I hung on, wondering where the jagged aggregates of pitches would lead. At one point, an audience member dropped his keys. Another sneezed. Aural relief! Cage would have approved.

The composer could create wondrous-strange sonic landscapes by taking away notes from his source material – witness his 1979 "Hymns and Variations" for 12 amplified singers, based on early American hymn tunes by William Billings. The austere texture recalls medieval polyphony (without the polyphony) while anticipating modern minimalism (without the repetition).

At another concert, the wizardly virtuosos of the So Percussion ensemble were joined by NU student percussionists for an audiovisual collage made up of assorted Cage pieces piled atop a reading from his writings, Beatles tunes and newer music. For good measure, a player munched a green apple; others soldered wires onto an illuminated screen; another alternately donned and removed his jacket. All this was the converse of Cage's famous "silent" piece, "4'33."

Seldom have I appreciated the absence of sound so much as I did when this nihilistic sonic freakout had finally run its course. If such reactions constitute the only "meaning" that could be attached to such performances, Cage would, I suspect, have considered it enough.

'Beyond the Score'

Gerard McBurney, the creative director and narrator of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's "Beyond the Score" series, came up with one of the most illuminating programs in the series in 2007 when he examined the musical and historical sources of Igor Stravinsky's "Le Sacre du Printemps" ("The Rite of Spring"). Problems with the visual aspect prompted him to rethink the presentation in time for the centenary of this landmark masterpiece. His revised, and improved, take on the "Rite" launched the 2012-13 series in two performances last weekend at Symphony Center

Much of the script was retained from the previous multimedia exploration. McBurney drew liberally on scholar Richard Taruskin's research into the folkloric sources of Stravinsky's inspiration, as passed along by the Russian landscape painter Nicholas Roerich, who designed the scenery and costumes for the ballet. Thus primed with aural and visual information, the audience went into the complete performance of "Rite of Spring" conducted by Charles Dutoit with minds and ears freshly stimulated.

The hourlong format meant that some things had to fall by the wayside. The "Rite" as ballet did not figure in the discussion, nor was there mention of the notorious riot at the ballet's 1913 premiere in Paris many scholars now believe was touched off not by the music but by the Nijinsky choreography. I was sorry McBurney did not touch on the composer's famous discussion of the "Rite" in which he observed he was "the vessel through which 'Le Sacre' passed."

Be that as it may, the rich web of projected imagery and pages from the score – combined with Chicago actors Matthew Krause and Bradley Armacost reading from the writings of Stravinsky and Roerich, along with plentiful musical examples (including ancient Lithuanian folk melodies performed live and via field recordings) – made for a compelling and informative presentation. McBurney let his audience see and hear a sketch for the final "Sacrificial Dance" Stravinsky discarded as being too tame a conclusion. Hilary Leben's visual design overlaid period photographs of Russian peasant women with swirls of pastels, the images appearing and receding as if into the mists of history.

The "Beyond the Score" series will continue with "The Tristan Effect" (Feb. 22 and 24,) and an examination of storytelling through music, based on Rimsky-Korsakov's "Scheherazade" (May 10 and 12); 312-294-3000, cso.org.

Sharps and flats

If the orchestra you hear playing on the soundtrack to Steven Spielberg's film "Lincoln" (now in national release) sounds familiar, it should be. It's the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, performing longtime Spielberg collaborator John Williams' score, under the composer's direction. The CSO, along with members of the Chicago Symphony Chorus, recorded the score at Orchestra Hall in May.

A host of CSO and Bienen School of Music faculty musicians, along with the Calder and Escher string quartets, the chamber orchestra A Far Cry and violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg's New Century Chamber Orchestra, will headline the 2013 edition of Northwestern University's Winter Chamber Music Festival. The seven programs will run Jan. 11-31 in Evanston's Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, with concerts spanning the Baroque through the 20th century. For more information, call 847-467-4000, or visit pickstaiger.org.

jvonrhein@tribune.com

Twitter @jvonrhein

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