Boulez and Cage, Talking to Each Other

United StatesUnited States Boulez and Cage: Jessica Aszodi (mezzo soprano), International Contemporary Ensemble, Steven Schick (conductor), Miller Theatre at Columbia University, New York City, 20.9.2012 (BH)

Jessica Aszodi, voice
International Contemporary Ensemble
Maiya Papach, viola
Eric Lamb, flute
Dan Lippel, guitar
Nathan Davis, percussion
Matthew Gold, percussion
Ross Karre, percussion
Steven Schick, conductor

Pierre Boulez
: Avant “L’Artisanat furieux” from Le marteau sans maître (1954)
John Cage: Music for Flute, Guitar, Viola (1984-87)
Boulez: Commentaire I de “Bourreaux de solitude”
Cage: Amores, movement II (1943)
Boulez: “‘L’Artisanat furieux”
Cage: Aria (1958)
Boulez: Commentaire II de “Bourreaux de solitude”
Cage: 1’51/2” for a String Player (1953)
Boulez: “Bel Édifice et les pressentiments” (version première)
Cage: 4’33” (1960)
Boulez: “Bourreaux de solitude”
Cage: Radio Music (1956)
Boulez: Après “L’Artisanat furieux”
Cage: Solo for Flute from Concert for Piano and Orchestra (1958)
Boulez: Commentaire III de “Bourreaux de solitude”
Cage: Atlas Eclipticalis (1961-62)
Boulez: “Bel Édifice et les pressentiments” (version double)
Cage: Amores, movement III


In the mid-twentieth century, Pierre Boulez and John Cage met in Paris, and for a few years wrote to each other, resulting in a chronicle of their letters, The Boulez-Cage Correspondence. Riffing on this idea, Steven Schick and the International Contemporary Ensemble imagined how this dialogue might take shape as a concert, choosing Cage pieces requiring the same instrumentation (or portions). Schick’s provocative idea was to take the movements of Le marteau sans maître and intertwine them with short Cage works, creating an unbroken conversation (about 80 minutes, without intermission). The result, part of Miller Theatre’s Composer Portraits series, was an arresting experience that no doubt stuck in the minds of many in the room for days afterward.

As one might expect, the new context created commensurately fascinating takes on both composers; one odd result was bring to mind still other composers. The perpetual motion of Boulez’s Commentaire I from “Bourreaux de solitude” emerged almost Handelian, sandwiched between Cage’s Music for Three and the second movement of his Amores. Jessica Aszodi’s luxurious reading of the vocal part in Boulez’s “Bel Édifice et les pressentiments” made the section sound like Debussy, with equally sweeping work from Maiya Papach on viola, Eric Lamb on flute and Dan Lippel on guitar. And during Commentaire II, Schick’s conducting was so sensuously effective, I had the odd, fleeting image of him leading Der Rosenkavalier.

Despite the unbroken path charted by Schick and the superb players, three moments caused spontaneous applause. Aszodi, an Australian mezzo-soprano, had a star turn with Cage’s Aria (1958), channeling Betty Boop’s squeak or the guttural growl of Regan in The Exorcist—in styles patriotic, baroque, bluesy, angry—as Lamb added a coughing fit and others offered a chorus of torn paper. The audience erupted, happily. Later, Lamb’s reading of Cage’s Solo for Flute (from Concert for Piano and Orchestra) deployed several flutes—and a piccolo—along with whistling and light drum taps, in an epic interpretation. And in the iconic 4’33” (with the house lights turned up like midday sun) I sensed antiphonal ticking sounds from backstage, creaking chairs, a purse unzipping—and my stomach gurgling—before the audience whooping ended the (almost) silence.

To begin a final trio of works, a starry midnight sky filled the back of the stage, with additional musicians scattered throughout the hall, as Schick, standing facing the audience, led the group in Atlas Eclipticalis, carefully moving his arms like a human sundial. Aszodi returned for “Bel Édifice et les pressentiments” (version double) in frenzied, stuttering fragments, before percussionists Nathan Davis, Matthew Gold and Ross Karre returned in the third movement of Amores, its subtle, quietly ticking woodblocks evoking a conversation slowly waning. Given that the dialogue between the two composers eventually faded, it’s not a bad metaphor.

Bruce Hodges