Who is John Cage? Does it matter? At a certain point music must “speak” for itself, allow the musician to interpret the music and the listener to have the pure experience. It can be useful and interesting to have “background” whether historical or technical, as Mark Stewert gave a little of in his introductory spiels before he played, particularly when that information helps people with the music. But often with Cage’s music so much of the idea is in the concept, in the construction that there’s a risk that the listener thinks they’ve “got it” before a note is played. This, and the strong tendency toward cult worship of Cage, is ironic considering his is so often performer’s music. Cage’s cleverness is often overemphasized, he seems either to be taken too seriously or too facetiously, which threatens to reduce his pieces to one-liners, something he seems to have reliably avoided. His music seems more composed to help people to think on their own about music, any music, without drifting between clichés and received wisdom in a deoxygenated modern world. From sometime in the 19th century, music started to come about which anyone could listen to and appreciate intuitively without any training or “background” except maybe literacy and some emotional intelligence, whereas before the French Revolution a Baroque composer could expect a great deal more technical musical knowledge from the audience. One hopes music can transcend or make a false dichotomy intuition versus intellect (nowadays maybe more a corporate misunderstanding of Carl Jung’s types, anyway the “debate” is sophomoric). John Cage’s music, and other experimentalists’, seems often explained and even appreciated from pure intellect, whether using mathematical or philosophical or religious principles, music you “get” just from the score and it’s always trippy. Music, the thing, whatever it is, you listen to while the musicians interpret and play, in the end “paints” it own background and has to be taken as the thing in itself. Cage’s music is music because it can stand on its own, make its own background even when it comes from nowhere. Mozart’s music came from nowhere and he was no innovator. As far as we know he walked about with music coming to him, the more he wrote the more came, and to ask: where did it come from? how did he think up such music? is like asking how space or time can be infinite, how a four dimensional universe can be expanding, how can we have free will, or what happens after death.
Such a broad range of small detail, an infinite diversity of subtle variations in tone, attack, dynamics etc., more than is practical even for a composer to write into a score, is possible, even common on the string instruments, especially the violin, and it seems to be much easier to find violinists capable of nuanced playing than any other instrument, flute, horn, oboe, for example, though maybe not piano, though these instruments are not directly comparable. The string quartet then presents so many musical possibilities not to mention possible combinations of musical personalities, for both the performer and composer, and such opportunities for experimentation with the genre's huge density of detail, relative speed of composition, and fantastic possibilities at the frontiers of musical sound. It is easy too to compare a symphonist's writing string quartets to a painter's drawing of finished studies, and this tradition continues, even if new symphonies and operas are relatively rare, as we see here in this program which includes the newish work by Gordon Kerry whose pieces, like Ian Munro's last year, will feature in most of this year's chamber music concert tours organized by Musica Viva.
This fascinating and varied program, each piece using equally colorful but very different orchestras and very different forms and structures, shows us some of the breadth of the Sydney Symphony. Their style is nimble enough to express itself in multifarious ways and Ashkenazy's style and approach to symphonic music is well suited to the three pieces. To mark the occasion of the orchestra's 80th anniversary, they have done something special in commissioning themselves a new piece by way of an open competition. Elliott Gyger's entry was chosen, and though only alloted a short amount of time to fit into this larger program of more familiar pieces, it does rather expand under the intensity of its short broken up motifs and its varied colors, sounds and textures, qualities Ashkenazy, at least as a conductor, seems to relish. The piece's title refers to the SSO's origin as a radio orchestra formed along with the Australian Broadcast Corporation in 1932. Gyger says he used an ensemble of 17 instruments, the same in the original 1932 radio orchestra, which for his "dialogue" are spread through the larger orchestra: three violins, viola, cello, bass, two each of trombones, trumpets and clarinets, a horn, sousaphone, piccolo, piano and percussion.