Vortex Percussion Ensemble celebrates the work of influential avant-garde composer John Cage 

Cage Match

Cage Match

A hundred years after his birth, can we call John Cage an old master of new music? After all, the controversial and widely influential avant-garde composer was never one to shun paradox: "I have nothing to say and I am saying it" is just one of his charmingly gnomic conversation-starters.

At any rate, the Blair School of Music's Vortex Percussion Ensemble stages a Cage retrospective concert this weekend to celebrate both the composer's centenary and his 50-year partnership with modern dance legend Merce Cunningham. And in a terrific coup for the innovative student ensemble, the show's closing "MinEvent" will feature former members of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, which disbanded last year after a farewell tour following the choreographer's death in 2009.

The evening should offer surprises for Cage fans and novices alike. "The impetus for this concert is to present the broadest Cage to the broadest audience," says Vortex director Michael Holland. "We hope to break some stereotypes of Cage as a shock-value artist or an anything-goes kind of guy."

Sunday's concert caps off a full weekend of Cage/Cunningham events at Vanderbilt, including master classes by Cunningham-trained dancer Jennifer Goggans and a half-day symposium organized by Blair musicologist Joy Calico. Vortex has already embarked on a whimsical campaign of unscheduled "live elevator music" to publicize the concert on campus.

Holland has spent more than five months designing and coordinating a program that reflects a wide sample of Cage's diverse output. Officially, Vortex consists of about a dozen students, but like Cage himself, the group makes a habit of collaboration — counting musicians, dancers, choreographers and technicians, the April 1 performances will involve upwards of 70 people.

Holland excitedly recounts how the ex-Cunningham dancers came on board. Hoping to use some Cunningham choreography, he contacted Patricia Lent, director of repertory licensing for the Cunningham Dance Foundation. She responded graciously and enthusiastically, he says, but the licensing costs seemed prohibitive for a small student ensemble.

So Holland took a chance and suggested that some foundation dancers get involved in the event. After some head-scratching over how this unusual proposal might work, there was a pause in the telephone conversation. "Then she told me, listen, we're just going to do what Merce would do, which is to say yes and work out the details as we go along."

Cage and Cunningham met in 1942 and worked together until Cage's death in 1992. They solidified many of their shared ideas in the 1950s at Black Mountain College, where their collaborators included painter Robert Rauschenberg and poet Charles Olsen.

Besides the rare treat of Cunningham-trained dancers on the bill, Sunday's performance showcases Cage's rarely heard 1940 Fads and Fancies in the Academy for piano and percussion, with new choreography by Marsha Barsky and Erin Law of Nashville dance group Company Rose. Originally staged by noted modern dance educator Marian Van Tuyl, who was Cage's colleague at Mills College in the late 1930s, this atypically programmatic work was "lost" from Cage's catalog until late in his life.

With the help of dance historian and Van Tuyl archivist Joanna Harris, Holland unearthed 16 mm film footage of the original production and compared it to the choreographer's dance notes. Harris encouraged Vortex and Company Rose to "create something vibrant and fresh." Holland says the new staging is not a historical re-creation but is informed and inspired by his research.

Other works on the program span four decades, from the watershed 1942 percussion ensemble Credo in US to a 1984 vocal setting of text from James Joyce's Finnegans Wake. Along the way, listeners will encounter familiar percussion instruments, but also radios, conch shells, a toy piano and assorted plant materials.

Which brings us to the ever-contentious topic of Cage's aesthetics. He's been hailed as a visionary and reviled as a nihilist, but either way, he's too often parsed in philosophical rather than musical terms.

No doubt that stems partly from his knack for aphorism: Holland cites the strident 1939 dictum "Percussion music is revolution." That's heady rhetoric from a manifesto-laden era, but Cage is also making the practical observation that composing for percussion opens up music to pretty much anything that can make a noise. In 1937 he predicted that musicians would eventually use electronics to augment the traditional roster of instruments with an unrestricted palette of sounds.

Which turns out to have been pretty accurate, as you can verify with your nearest radio. But we're jumping ahead.

Anyone interested in modern music surely has some notion of Cage. He's the guy who stuck screws and weather stripping between piano strings to make them rattle and thump. He's the guy who flipped coins to select pitches. He banged on brake pads and tin cans. He was into Zen and the I Ching.

He wrote a silent piece, where the music is whatever happens while the performer just sits there not playing anything. Which means everything's music and all sounds are equally good, right?

OK, of course we know things are more nuanced than that. The "silent" piece 4'33" is divided into three movements: Even here, Cage is still creating a structure. The virtuosic Freeman Etudes for violin prove Cage no foe of instrumental technique, and musicologist James Pritchett recounts the composer's purposeful design of chance processes to yield specific musical effects — a far cry from sheer chaotic randomness.

The point here is just that Cage's long career resists tidy summary, and Holland would love it if Sunday's concert helps dispel some preconceptions and oversimplifications.

Is there tension in creating a retrospective of a forward-looking composer who wrote, "My favorite music is the music I haven't heard yet"? The purpose, says Holland, "is not just to put Cage and Cunningham's names out there, but to engage people with their practices. I like to think Cage would smile to see us keeping his practice alive."

And it's the smiling, good-humored Cage who remains so memorable, the Cage who said, "My mind seems in some respect lacking. ... However, I have a redeeming quality: I was gifted with a sunny disposition."

Email arts@nashvillescene.com.

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