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Music: Yesterday’s Revolution

3 minute read

In its 23 seasons, Venice’s International Festival of Contemporary Music has more than once moved its audiences to near violence; in his 48 years, self-styled Non-Expressionist Composer John Cage, the “prepared piano” man, has reduced more than one audience to near lunacy. Last week U.S. Composer Cage and the Contemporary Music Festival linked forces in a concert at Venice’s famed old La Fenice Theater. The explosion could be heard across the Grand Canal.

Mad Melange. For his Venice performance, Cage prepared a typically mad melange of musical low jinks. The evening started mildly enough with Round i, in which Cage and Pianist David Tudor sat at different pianos alternately plunking notes at up to 20-second intervals. Presently Dancer Merce Cunningham started undulating in symbolic suggestion of an embryo wriggling toward manhood. By Round 3, when Cage was thumping his piano stool with a rock, the restive audience began to jeer. The jeers grew in Round 4. as Cage and Tudor launched into a piano duet, playing chords with their elbows while assaulting the piano’s innards with knives and pieces of tin. After Round 6, in which Cage slammed the piano top with an iron pipe and dropped bottles on the floor, an elderly music lover strode to the stage, walloped Cage’s piano with his walking stick and stalked out shouting “Now I’m a musician, too!”

Soon Cage and Tudor were darting about between three record players, shifting from Mozart to blues to a recorded speech by Pope John XXIII calling for world peace. By the finale, fights had broken out all over the theater. “Get out of here!” screamed the traditionalists. Replied an unCaged modernist: “Go somewhere else if you want melody! Long live music!” Cage barked at the audience; the audience barked back at Cage. One notable dissenter: Igor Stravinsky, who found the whole business so tedious that he slipped out in mid-concert. Asked if the tumult was equal to what went on at the Paris premiere of his own Sacre du Printemps in 1913. the old man replied proudly: “There has never been a scandal like mine.”*

Deft Exercise. Later in the week Stravinsky touched off some mild demonstrations, of his own. Occasion: the world premiere in Venice of his seven-minute Monumentum Pro Gesualdo di Venosa Ad CD Annum, inspired by the music of late-16th-century Madrigalist Don Carlo Gesualdo, who has long fascinated Stravinsky (Gesualdo had his wife and her lover murdered and is said to have suffocated one of his own children before relieving his tensions in song). In 1956 Stravinsky set himself the task of “recomposing” three Gesualdo madrigals for orchestra. The results added up to little more than deft exercises in Stravinskian orchestration, but the audience warmly applauded the ailing, 78-year-old composer (he was carried up and down stairs in a sedan chair).

Perhaps the most significant thing about the festival was the attitude of young Italian composers, who were amused by Cage, tended to find Stravinsky somewhat decadent but accepted both of them with respect.

* At the first bars of the prelude of Sacre, the audience began to laugh, and by the time the piece was a third of the way through, the audience was rioting and shouting so loudly that the orchestra was drowned out. Nijinsky, who choreographed the work, had to scream at his dancers from the wings to keep time.

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