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When They Channel Avant-Garde Composer John Cage, Anything Can Happen

On June 29, 100 musicians—noise art freaks and electro-acoustic improvisers, percussionists and violinists, seasoned professionals and green novices—will gather in the Center for the Arts at the Armory in Somerville to perform John Cage’s “Variations III” for the season finale for the Opensound experimental music series. Spread out across the vast hardwood floor while the sinking sun glances obliquely through the Armory’s tall windows, each equipped with a score and a clock, they will play for 90 minutes. What it will sound like is anybody’s guess.

Because Cage, the widely influential avant-garde composer who died in 1992, was besotted with what happened when he very carefully, very strictly arranged for anything to happen. “Chance operations,” he called it.

“The thing that’s important to realize about John Cage … is that it’s not improvised music,” explains Opensound’s producer Lou Bunk, who is an assistant professor of Music at Franklin Pierce University. “You know how a jazz quartet will listen to other players in the group and respond to them? This piece, and most of Cage’s music, doesn’t ask you to listen to the other musicians and respond, but just to implement the instructions no matter what’s going on around you. And that’s where a lot of the unpredictability happens, because in this case you’ll have 100 people interpreting the score in 100 different ways all in the room at the same time, not listening to each other, yet using the same rules to create the music.”

“Variations III” has been included in Opensound’s season finale since 2010. The piece was introduced by the Somerville-based group’s then-co-director Lou Cohen (featured in the video above), who died last August at the age of 75. This year’s larger-than-ever undertaking was concocted in honor of Cohen, with many of the musicians crowd-sourced through an open “call for participants” on Facebook. The concert will conclude with a listen to a short recording of one of Cohen’s final performances of his own electro-acoustic music.

“Variations III” is not a score in any conventional sense of the word. Written for “one or any number of people performing any actions,” it consists of a sheet of transparent plastic with 42 identical circles printed on it. The performers are instructed to cut out the circles and drop them onto another sheet, locate the densest cluster of circles, and determine what to play when based on how the circles overlap. The piece is a paradoxical combination of freeness and structure, and requires a fair amount of pre-performance preparation. Musicians have complete control over what actions they will perform—they could choose to snap their fingers, read from the Bible, amplify the sound of their nails being filed—but once they decide what to do, they must hew rigidly to the rubric.

“I think the reason why it works and has worked over the years, is because it’s the kind of score that you can give to someone who doesn’t have a background in studying music,” says Bunk. “You don’t need to be able to read music to play this score. You do need to be open to the idea of preparing a score beforehand and you have to be of a certain mindset about your approach to music, a sort of avant-garde mindset, but you don’t need to read music to play this score. And I think that a lot of people who play in this scene, this electro-acoustic improv scene that Opensound is a part of, people come from a lot of different backgrounds.”

Cage is best known for his notorious 1952 composition, titled 4’33”, in which the performers are instructed not to play their instruments for the entire duration of the four-minutes-and-33-seconds-long piece. Contrary to popular belief, 4’33” was not designed to be a silent experience; rather, Cage intended for the ambient noise in the concert hall to take center stage. Granted, he also meant to challenge the very notion of music and to contort expectations around performance events. At the premier performance in Woodstock, N.Y., some audience members became so irritated that they walked out.

If 4’33” is almost defiantly avant-garde, there is a whimsical side to Cage’s work, too. He was one of the pioneers of Happenings, freewheeling performance art events that epitomized the ‘60s ethos of experimentation. He composed numerous pieces for prepared piano, in which the instrument’s strings, hammers, and dampeners are jury-rigged with screws, bolts and various other percussive junk to create a kind of aural Rube Goldberg machine, rattling haphazardly whenever a key is depressed.

Cohen was a great admirer of Cage, and even studied briefly with him in New York during a leave of absence from MIT, where he majored in math. He went on to a successful career in software design, though he continued to compose in solitude and fell in love with early music. As a retiree he pursued composition full-time, writing atonal electronic scores on his laptop and improvising with the aid of Wiimote game controllers. A stooped man who favored khaki cargo pants and a zip-up fleece vest, he improvised strange, meandering noise pieces with meditative stillness and laserlike concentration.

“He would invite 40 people over for house concerts. He had this really nice piano, he would invite musicians to come and play, and we would all be crammed into his tiny little living room,” remembers Bunk, who describes Cohen as a kind of grandfather to the Boston-area experimental music scene. “He’d play Baroque music on the harpsichord, and then someone else would come and do this wacked-out free jazz improvisation, and then someone would come and do this noise thing, and you know, he was sort of open to all this.”

Of the 100 or so musicians slated to play at the Armory on Sunday, many no doubt attended or participated in those very house concerts. Though the performance of “Variations III” is an undertaking of far greater scale and organization, its spirit is the same. That is the magic of “Variations III:” the cold, chaotic element of existential randomness is transformed through a communal experience, and the shared exultation of discovery.

Amelia Mason is a writer, musician, and bartender living in Somerville. She is a regular contributor to The ARTery. You can follow her on Twitter @shmabelia and Tumblr.

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