Black Mountain College Museum Hosts SŌ PERCUSSION Celebrating John Cage — Tightly Programmed Serendipity

Asheville North Carolina
Photo: Stefen Cohen

Read the related stories—

BLACK MOUNTAIN COLLEGE MUSEUM AND ARTS CENTER Review— Preserving a Cauldron of Creativity

MCA Presents MUSIC FOR MERCE Review – Celebrating the musicians connected with the MCDC (Merce Cunningham Dance Company)


There were only five more instructions to follow… 

Our neighbor— randomly sitting behind us — beamed with a broad smile as his daughter sang to him on speakerphone about sunshine.  She thinks I’m crazy…”, he shared.  He had just phoned her and told her that he loved her voice and needed to hear her sing— as our program instructions had told him to do.

We were all smiling by then, having been pressed into service as instruments of sorts.  We had fifteen steps to follow.  We had to be a pingpong ball.  We had to breathe, stomp, shout, and explore our phones as a musical instrument.  COVID worries be darned, we breathed deeply in and loudly out as told. Our last instruction was to keep switching seats.  Musical instruments though we be, the main admonishment was to listen.

Black Mountain College Museum Showcases Where Chance and Music Intercept

We were the audience at Sō Percussion’s tribute to John Cage in what they coined as Cage Country—Asheville North Carolina’s Arts Center called the Black Mountain College Museum.  It was at this college when Cage and his life and creative partner, choreographer Merce Cunningham, fleshed out collaborations in music and dance motored by chance.  Fourteen Cage and Cage-inspired works—many performed simultaneously—made up the program, including the Take a Deep Breath composed for us, “an audience of any size”.

Our happy Dad neighbor’s words swam into a swirling ether still overflowing with John Cage’s musings.

“…very doubtful…”

“…you may rely on it…”

“…my sources say no…”

“…it’s certain…”

“…better not tell you now…”

Asheville North Carolina
A glimpse of the instructions to the audience on how to perform. Note the Cage-like musical notation system being used.
Asheville North Carolina
Composer John Cage Photo from Wikipedia-- public domain

The chaotic orchestration was tightly supervised by an electronic clock projection on the wall.  It was quite a dominatrix clock—strictly keeping it all to 91 minutes— not a second more or less. 

At times the main soloists were the 8-balls that each of the Sō Percussion quartet members consulted for directions on their next move.  The pianist’s music seemed to sing a riddle— When is a piano not a piano? This piano made every sound conceivable except what one usually expects from a piano.  Cacti were amp’d so we could hear the music of needles.  Toothpicks in a gourd were plucked too. A performance of Cage’s What about the Noise of Crumpling Paper was true to its title.  The chaotic jumble on the crowded stage seemed to hold instruments the 8-ball of chance didn’t bring to our ears on that specific night and time.

And then came the quartet’s finale— Cage’s Third Construction.  Planters became chimes. A conch was blown as if ushering in an ancient holiday from another worldly dimension. The tempo quickened and startled when this piece’s mathematical explorations of rhythm seemed to bring all four —suddenly!— to the same bar.

One imagines that a journey to Black Mountain College Museum is quite the religious pilgrimage for Sō Percussion, whom, we learned in their intro, credits Cage for “giving them permission to do their thing.”  This felt like more than a performance. It felt like a shared moment in music history.

Visit the Black Mountain College Museum and Arts Center website for more information on upcoming performances.

Read more Picture This Post stories about John Cage and Merce Cunningham here.

Photos: Peter Kachergis unless otherwise indicated.

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