For the opening of its 11th annual Contemporary Music Festival--this time a modular unit within the current New Music LA '87 Festival--the folks at CalArts were not content to call upon any number of highly regarded composers with strong ties to the institute.
Instead they fixed on two disparate figures, John Cage and Pierre Boulez--incontestable pillars of the avant-garde both.
But what came across so brilliantly Thursday at the Japan America Theatre was a similarity between the American mystic and the cerebral Frenchman.
Chance may have had something to do with the fact that Boulez's "Domaines" (1968) and Cage's "Sixteen Dances" (1951)--scores focusing nearly as heavily on silence as notes--entertained terse, disjunctive islands of sound. But it's more likely that the juxtaposing of these two pieces was deliberate.
At any rate, the concert was produced in a way that emphasized similarities. For "Domaines," a sort of a clarinet concerto, soloist William Powell donned a silver jump suit, visiting one after another the five groups of instrumental isolates (trombones, strings, percussion, etc.). The idea of a central figure wearing a costume and moving about relates to the theatrical elements of the Cage piece, which employed the CalArts Dance Ensemble.
There was no sense, consequently, of one work being instrumental and the other being choreographic, one residing in sound, the other sight.
Yet the differences between Boulez and Cage came across lucidly. "Domaines" tells the tale of a feisty futurist of a Til Eulenspiegel who rages up and down the scale over wide intervals and an extreme dynamic scale, exacting acerbic commentary from each unit he signals. It is a tough and intellectually demanding work.
The Cage opus, which serves mainly to cue dancers, doesn't suggest anything angry at all. Rather, it promotes a nearly lyric counterpart to Boulez, reveling in sonic simplicity. In imaginative choreography by Kurt Weinheimer, Cristyne Lawson and Rebecca Bobele--the dancers progressed from abstractly militant postures mocked by a nose-thumbing hero, to a clever duet with music stands, to solos that included an Appalachian jig and a solemn paean.
Stephen Mosko, leading the Twentieth Century Players, provided a level of excellence matched by all the performers.