Sunday, December 16, 2007

John Cage in Living Color

It's the end of what feels like a never-ending semester, and the other day, the student for whom I designed a grant-funded tutorial on extended vocal techniques performed John Cage's "Aria" before the university music department's diversity committee (the committee had funded my grant in the hope of attracting more minority students into academic music studies). I had been worried about how all of this would turn out; how does a nineteen-year-old black girl from Canarsie convincingly interpret what is now a rather stilted, static, and dated piece by perhaps the whitest of American composers? Well, my fears were laid to rest, because S. did an amazing job. Cage notated his score with colors and lines, asking the performer to devise a lexicon of vocal sounds, styles, and techniques to correspond with each color. The singer for whom he wrote the piece, Cathy Berberian, had designated styles like "folk," "Oriental," and "Marlene Dietrich" in the first performance in the late 1950s. S. reinterpreted the color notation, using what she had conceived as the voices of black Brooklynese, !Kung-style tongue-clicks, black female prophecy, and Pygmy growls, among others. She was wildly creative and subtle, and appeared before the committee in jeans, bare feet, and a white t-shirt emblazoned with one of Cage's notations from the score, a red squiggle set to the words "In Armonia." In spite of my doubts about the diversity committee's aims, I hope that S. will go into academic music studies. She was really impressive.

In a funny way, her performance also restored my faith in New York City for a brief moment; it seems to me that a talent like hers could only be the product of the strange nurturing of this fragmented metropolis.

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