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Showing World He Still Has Classic Touch : John Cale's musical explorations have taken him everywhere from Tanglewood to the Velvet Underground. His concert in San Juan Capistrano on Monday night provided a chance to critique him from two perspectives. : Classical review: He uses the power of contrast to his advantage, particularly in songs backed by piano.

October 05, 1994|SUSAN BLISS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO — John Cale brought an amalgam of rock, musical theater and classical methods to the Coach House on Monday night. A classically trained composer and one-time member of minimalist La Monte Young's Theater of Eternal Music, he perhaps is best known as co-founder of the Velvet Underground, the rock band that traveled with Andy Warhol as part of his mid-'60s mixed-media show, the Exploding Plastic Inevitable. However, before a moderate audience here, he brought only glimmers of an experimental bent.

Much of the show--all of the first half--would have fit comfortably into standard rock repertory or a Broadway musical a la Andrew Lloyd Webber, distinguished only by a sure dramatic sense.

Cale is no melodist, and his edgy voice has to rely on interesting settings and potent lyrics to add conviction to static vocal lines. Fortunately, he understands the power of contrast, particularly in songs with piano background (he played only piano and guitar in this solo performance). Even in his least adventuresome songs, he balanced recitative-like barrenness or rhythmically buoyant, repetitive piano accompaniments with powerful chordal breaks that employed full keyboard range.

On its own--as in his musical setting of the Dylan Thomas poem "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night"--this process tended toward the formulaic, yet Cale also could use it to his advantage.

In such selections as "Fear Is a Man's Best Friend," the New York-based native of South Wales set an atmosphere of tightly controlled hostility, and escalated--through a massive piano interlude that quoted classical repertory--to a cathartic, pounding and screaming finish.

He delivered the Elvis standard "Heartbreak Hotel" as a chanteur, dark and almost tuneless, backed by an angular accompaniment that expanded a brief, dissonant motive. He turned to tone clusters for a forceful and disdain-ridden effect in his first encore, "Paris 1919."

Taken individually, there is nothing new about the techniques Cale used. Contrast is an integral part of all art. Composers often have cited their musical forebears. The use of tone clusters and intervals traditionally considered dissonant abounds in 20th-Century works, and fine songwriters frequently have sought lyrics of high literary quality and emotional content.

But most of the musicians who fit this description today are playing to a few other devotees--mostly trained musicians themselves--on college campuses and in composers' forums.

Cale is fitting his experimentation into a popularly accepted format. The forays are not always successful. Still, he has a tremendous potential audience, perhaps more open to the unfamiliar than the average classical concert assembly. As the text to his "Style It Takes" notes: "You have the money, and I have the art. I've got the style it takes, and you've got the people it takes."

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