Lang’s “mystery sonatas” premiere compelling while Cage’s “Indeterminacy” fails to live up to name

Wed Apr 30, 2014 at 1:44 pm
David Lang's "mystery sonatas" received its world premiere Tuesday night at Zankel Hall.

David Lang’s “mystery sonatas” received its world premiere Tuesday night at Zankel Hall.

David Lang’s “collected stories” series at Zankel Hall concluded Thursday evening with a program titled “memoir,” an ungainly but strangely successful pairing of John Cage’s Indeterminacy in the first half and the world premiere of Lang’s mystery sonatas for solo violin after intermission. Cage worked from personal memories, Lang works with abstractions of his inner life, and there could not be two more different stories.

Indeterminacy is an odd piece, but one of the most satisfying for Cage lovers. Not recognizable as a musical composition, even taking music as nothing more than organized sound, it is fundamentally a lecture. But that was a medium that Cage turned into a unique and highly personal form of art. Cage, among other things the pioneer of the contemporary notion of the composer-performer, didn’t talk—he performed, and Indeterminacy is likewise tightly structured in time.

The complete version is ninety minutes of anecdotes of varying length, each to be relayed in the space of one minute—some are no more than a sentence while others demand such rapid speech that they are barely intelligible. There’s an element of chance in that the stories are written on index cards, one for each, that are to be shuffled prior to a performance.

The piece is most well-known for the recording that Cage made, with David Tudor producing electronic sounds, on Folkways. That’s ironic enough for a man who—as David Grubbs describes in his fascinating new book, Records Ruin the Landscape—hated recordings, and even more so because that record is excellent. Recordings in general are how we know his work, and the disciplined authority of his inimitable dry, bemused tenor voice and his superb articulation, is immediately appealing.

At Zankel, the actor Paul Lazar read, while percussionist Steven Schick played Cage’s 27’10.554” in tandem. Each was further accompanied by lighting from designer Eric Southern that was shaped by Cage’s Fontana Mix, a graphic score that the composer indicated could be used for indeterminate means.

This was not only true to Cage’s desires but struck a good balance of activity: Lazar reading, Schick scrabbling away at the percussion, light bulbs fading on and off and bursts of brightly colored floods on the stage. The details kept drifting though.

Lazar is a compelling enough speaker, though he did hesitate and get hung up on articulations at times. But he also read the (abridged) stories in the same order as on Cage’s recording. As the performance unfolded, there was a growing sense that he was recreating the recording, not giving an original performance. That seems, on its face, to go against Cage’s values.

Schick is perhaps far too musical in everything he does for this piece. His touch is so finely varied that he cannot let sounds just be sounds: there is expressive meaning in everything he does. That makes him a superb musician but not right for Cage, who demands a particular way of thinking.

Cage also thought his score could not actually be completely realized by a live musician, and allowed for prerecorded parts, but Schick played it all by himself sans electronics. Were there cuts to accommodate a single player? Hard to tell, but David Tudor’s random electronic squelches took the expression out of the performer’s hands and made it the responsibility of the listener in an ideal way.

The excellent young violinist Augustin Hadelich debuted Lang’s terrific piece. The title is a clear indication that the composer modeled the music after Biber’s own Mystery Sonatas, but without the explicit liturgical program, the duration, or the scordatura. Lang’s piece breaks down into seven components, each involved in his mind and heart with ideas of joy, sorrow and glory.

Lang has some of the clearest, most precise language of any contemporary composer, and Hadelich dug into the repeated, recursive phrases with physical and emotional intensity. Lang’s basic material is always simple—a rising and falling line, a series of arpeggios—and he transforms it by pushing the rhythms back and forth, repeating an internal section of a longer phrase, and through occasional, epiphanic modulations. There are unmistakeable similarities to Arvo Pärt, though Lang’s composition is not derivative. The aesthetic of the two composers meets at common points of repetition and inner spirituality.

Like his recent vocal music, the mystery sonatas is made with excellent craft and is attractive to the ear (although, in another oddity, more people left during this piece than during Cage). Unlike them, with their icy façades and forbidding hearts, this music is humane and vibrantly expressive. We are essentially bearing witness to Lang’s soul.

There are moments where one is lost in the long, constantly metamorphosing phrases, and there is a powerful yearning that makes one want to reach out and embrace what is being heard. The concentration and discipline of the writing is responsible for that, and so was Hadelich’s beautiful playing. His clarity and strength of tone and agility matched the music’s considerable technical demands, and his conviction that this was great music that must be heard had one hanging on every note and phrase, expecting to be both surprised and satisfied but what was to come. No composer could ask for a better advocate.

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