I caught the first half of an all-John Cage concert last weekend, which was part of this year’s Avant Music Festival.  Appropriately, the night started off with the audience participating in the chance determination of the lighting designs to be used during Cage’s Song Books, via the use of coin-tossing and consultation of the I Ching.

First on the program were two early piano works from 1948, performed by Vicky Chow with delicate restraint and a velvety touch (Dream is the first clip in the video above; a clip of In a Landscape follows at 0:47).   Next on the program was a performance of Song Books by contemporary vocal ensemble Ekmeles, which occurred simultaneously with a performance of Music for Piano 4-19 (played by Vicky), and Indeterminacy, read by Randy Gibson.  While Randy read out various—often humorous—anecdotes and stories written by Cage, Vicky plucked and meditated over the piano, and the three singers from Ekmeles (Christie Finn, Jeffrey Gavett and Megan Schubert) sung short bursts of song and performed other actions, like writing a letter, or drinking a shot of whiskey with a microphone at throat to amplify the gulping sound (clips of the performance begin at 1:28 in the video).

Perhaps just as interesting as the panoply of activity happening onstage were the inadvertent moments when all the performances seemed to sync up: Vicky would pluck a note just as Megan would begin to sing on the same note; Randy would pause mid-sentence and Christie would sing something that seemed to complete his thought.  Each of the singers took on a different persona for the duration of the piece, with Jeff taking on perhaps the most humorous persona, performing the different vocal affects indicated by Cage with bravado, and coming onstage towards the end of the performance with one skate on.  All in all, the performance came off as a surprisingly engaging bit of music theater (so to speak).

You can hear Ekmeles in a performance of Chris Cerrone’s opera Invisible Cities on May 13th and 14th at the Italian Academy at Columbia University.