by Robert Leeper
Two years ago, there was a parade of concerts in celebration of John Cage’s 100th birthday. Avant Media’s response: Why keep it to centennials and decades? And so, Friday night saw an appropriately mad staging of Song Books in celebration of Cage’s 102nd birthday at Wild Project, a suitably hip East Village art space.
Avant Media brought together a cavalcade of downtown stars for the start of its first full season, a complement to the Avant Music Festival held annually in February and March. These stand-alone concerts aim to focus not only on contemporary composers and their work, but also on the history of the American experimental tradition.
Song Books was Cage’s 1970 tribute to Thoreauvian anarchy. It is an indeterminate dream—performers are free to perform any number of the 90 available solos for as long as they desire, in any order they desire, and along with any other indeterminate pieces they desire. They are also explicitly freed to wear whatever they would like and continue and pause their own portion of the performance, as they would like.
In all of these respects, Friday’s performance was a rather tame one, however, completely in the freewheeling, often oddball sense of humor of which Cage was so fond. Performers walked through the crowd delivering gifts and doing jumping jacks. Despite Cage’s desire for an uncompetitive model, certain strains certainly stood out, such as Nick Hallett's declaration from Thoreau's essay Civil Disobedience, “The best form of government, is no government at all,” giving an odd chance-created structure to the chaos.
In another moment of absurdest comedy, Vicky Chow, normally on stage as a pianist, brought a dog out and brushed it for several minutes before, as if late for some important date, she rushed out the front door of the small theater with the dog in tow. Other solos included bits of newspapers current at the time as well as tributes to composers and philosophers important to Cage and his mode of thought. Some were lovely, lyrical pre-composed utterances; others asked performers to come up with their own interpretations of Thoreau’s beard or a sketch of French philosopher Marcel Duchamp.
In the program notes, Avant Media artistic director Randy Gibson says, “Because Song Books so elegantly reflects life, it is the piece we will revisit each year as we honor John Cage’s legacy.” As Cage’s technical innovation in electronics and rhythm are no longer fresh, it is his philosophies on life and music that will continue to add value to those who explore its intricacies. Not to mention, it's just fun.