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LOS ANGELES FESTIVAL : John Cage: His Art and His Music

September 08, 1987|DANIEL CARIAGA | Times Music Writer

As one of the handful of genuinely influential composers of our century, John Cage's impact on musical thinking cannot be exaggerated. The program book of the current Los Angeles Festival, which offers fascinating insights on Cage the composer by Frans van Rossum, among others, gauges that impact.

But Cage's effect on audiences is more controversial. Even as admiring and fair-minded a colleague as Virgil Thomson has written, as long ago as 1970, that "a lack of urgency has been characteristic of Cage's music from the beginning."

No one could be surprised, then, that the second event in the festival-within-a-festival honoring Cage this week not only drew a small audience but also failed to spread much joy. It offered in its first half compositions by Cage protege Takehisa Kosugi and by the master himself; in the post-intermission, three Cage pieces delivered simultaneously. In both halves, it required patience to remain on the premises.

Kosugi's 26-minute electronic piece, "75 Letters and Improvisations" resembles a long set of variations hooked up to a low-budget light show; it irritates in its uneventfulness, though never offends by growing too loud. Visually, it is like three hours in an ophthalmologist's chair and might leave some observers with a headache. The composer was his own soloist at this matinee performance in the Japan America Theatre in Little Tokyo.

Percussionist Michael Pugliese then offered a selection of Cage Etudes from the 1970s, pieces played on a piano keyboard as well as by striking the piano strings with a variety of mallets. More uneventfulness.

Layering three Cage pieces--"Haiku," "O'00" " and "45' Minutes for a Speaker"--was a workable idea; it created some amusing moments, as when the speaker of "45' Minutes" referred in his lecture, accidentally it seemed, to sound-occurrences in the other pieces.

Still, watching and hearing David Tudor, who operated the "Electronic Web"; Kosugi, who made soup, then ate and drank it, all the while broadcasting the noises produced in the process, and Pugliese, who delivered the speaker's part (Why did he pronounce I Ching, "Ee-King"?) impassively, lost its charms long before these 45 minutes ended.

As Thomson wrote, "They (Cage's compositions) do not seem to have been designed for holding attention, and generally speaking they do not hold it."

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