REVIEW/ DRAWINGS: John Cage – Electronic Music for Piano with Tania Chen, Thurston Moore, David Toop, Wobbly at Cafe Oto

Tania Chen with Jon Leideker, David Toop, Thurston Moore
performing Cage's Electronic Music for Piano at Cafe Oto
Drawing by Geoff Winston. © 2018. All Rights Reserved

Tania Chen, Thurston Moore, David Toop, Wobbly
(Cafe Oto, 18 March 2018; review and drawings by Geoff Winston)

Interpreted by pianist Tania Chen in a formidable partnership with Thurston Moore, David Toop, and Jon Leideker (aka Wobbly), this performance of John Cage's Electronic Music for Piano thrived on the axes of tension and invention. The execution was infused with a collaborative spirit which enabled each of the four performers full expressive licence to unleash unpremeditated, unpredictable sonic explosions and collisions, something analogous to sherbet-filled flying saucers, those small sweets which zap the taste buds when the rice paper outers dissolve in the mouth.

Although Chen referred to Music for Piano 69-84 in her introduction, the initial point of reference in Cage's instruction is the somewhat elusive Cage's Music for Piano 4-84, a score which forms a skeleton for the processes of process based on micro-imperfections in the paper used as the substrate for a written music score. "Draw a stave on a sheet of paper and pitches would automatically appear within them," Cage had explained to David Charles, as noted by Toop in his insightful sleeve notes to the quartet's CD, the launch of which was the occasion for the concert at Cafe Oto.

Pin-sharp sound quality ensured that every nuance of the quartet's breathtakingly complex, layered improvisation was revealed to the ear – at times searingly intense, at others vaporous, permeable. Despite Cage's apparent antipathy to improvisation, the only way to respond to the dictates of his instructions, written out on a sheet of notepaper at a Stockholm hotel in 1964, was to actively create on the fly. David Tudor premiered the piece a few days later, doubtless a very different proposition to that of Chen's quartet.

The licence to invent was cast in Cage's hastily written, concise yet cryptic instructions. "Single tones (K, M, P) and noises (I, O) … feedback, changing sounds (microphones, amplifiers, loudspeakers – separate system for each piano [margin note: transformations] … without measurement of time (no notation) … consideration of imperfections in the silence in which the music is played … osciloscope [misspelled]."

As the prime mover of this project, Chen drew upon her enduring fascination with Cage in the careful selection of her co-performers. Each brought a unique, inflective character to bear on this dramatic realisation. Surprise was the keynote, with tactics of diversion and anonymity driving the richly concocted soundscape. Tiny paper tears, voice samples, squalling feedback, hammered destruction, delicate piano phrases all played their part.

Chen, intermittently studying and flicking the pages of Cage's earlier score, then sidelining the manuscript, concentrated on unlocking the potential of the piano with physical and electronic interventions to complement keyboard and spoken episodes. The laptop electric guitar was Moore's primary weapon of choice, with bowed, shredded and ambient outputs and lapping feedback. Toop's table-top guitar, one of a diverse arsenal of instruments and sound emitters, added depth to the distortions alongside amplified micro-sounds and the shearing of a large bamboo pipe which he tore apart at the start of the concert's second half. Leidecker, the most inscrutable of the quartet, hardly moved behind his table as he deftly insinuated camouflaged electronic mayhem with scatterings of subversive diversions throughout.

The richness of the experience derived from the constant stream of unpredictable, overlapping sounds whose sources from within the ensemble became blurred as they merged, dissolved and broke free. This really was a group effort – enriching, and creative in the best sense.

The CD, released by Chen through Omnivore Recordings, was recorded and produced in California by the like-minded Gino Robair, with an equally fresh interpretation of how to assemble Cage's Electronic Music for Piano for disc, as described in his sleeve notes.

The abstract sound world of Cage's Electronic Music for Piano
performed at Cafe Oto by Tania Chen and co-musicians
Drawing by Geoff Winston. © 2018. All Rights Reserved


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