Adam Zahller on Music for Merce, Night One
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Adam Zahller on Music for Merce, Night One

Left to right: Quinta, Ikue Mori, Philip Selway, Christian Wolff, David Behrman, Joan La Barbara, John King, Zeena Parkins, Fast Forward, George Lewis. Photo: Gene Pittman

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, composer Adam Zahller shares his perspective on the first evening of Music For Merce: A Two Night Celebration. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

Large swathes of the audience didn’t need John Cage’s stage backdrop to be reminded of this ancestral spirit’s presence in the room. The spotty but spunky crowd who turned out for the evening—youngsters with finger tattoos, aging arts boosters, and local emissaries of the AACM among them—clearly knew the score: Grandpa Cage is watching over us. From the look of his hauntingly beautiful etching, it would seem that Grandpa, prescient as always, had in return understood something of our present situation: others are watching, too. The intermittent black strips looming from the rafters resembled the redactions of a leaked NSA surveillance document, brought to life as titanic phantoms. I imagined Cage foreseeing that his benign timers would metastasize into iPhones, that his warmly hissing magnetic tapes, shortwave radios, and Victrolas would ossify into Macbooks. I could see him peering at us through the tiny cameras that crowded the stage, chuckling.

We chuckled, too. During curator Philip Bither’s unwitting anacrusis to Cage’s famous Indeterminacy lectures, we chuckled knowingly at the comment that the evening’s culminating EVENT would be “a world premiere every time it’s performed.” This was good; it showed esprit de corps.

Bither promised us that the concert would be “breathtakingly historic.” My inner Cageian imp tells me that so is every ascent of a sufficiently steep flight of stairs. No matter. This was a touching and unifying occasion, a jovial tribute to Merce Cunningham’s not-to-be-underestimated musical legacy, and a reminder that art makes a loving family for us at home here on the stolen prairie, just as it does for those out East, on the coastal lowlands and barrier isles.


Set 1: Christian Wolff’s Or 4 People

Wolff at piano, with melodica and other toys; Behrman mostly playing tenor recorder and harmonica; Lewis on trombone/mutes; King on Stratocaster

After a slightly faltering start, the players found each other in one-mind continuity, building a distended klangfarbenlullaby of gorgeous spectral harmonies, passing pitches across the stage from tonecolor to tonecolor, drip by drip, like stalagmites forming in air, occasionally punctuated by skronches, clacks, and gritty hammer-ons, articulating space. Four gray-haired men became happy little boys as they grinned to find themselves concluding together.

Set 2: Joan La Barbara’s Solitary Journeys of the Mind

La Barbara, voice and microphone

Miracles of amplification! Not just the microphone boosting the subtlest details of La Barbara’s endlessly flowering virtuosity, candle-flame upper-partials dancing above her sonorous mezzo, but her hands amplifying in gesture the spinning-out of musical ebb and flood, and her breath itself, amplifying the internal structure of its exalted chamber with each practiced inhalation, exhalation. Hearing this, one understood better what it was, centuries ago, that etched those beasts onto the cave walls at Chauvet.

Set 3: Philip Selway/Quinta: Yaasholl, One Note Arpeggio, and Of Course I Do

Mori on xylosynth (first tune only); Selway on xylosynth and piano; Quinta on synthesizer, musical saw, xylosynth; King with “assist” on synthesizer (end of last tune)

Selway’s connection to Merce Cunningham dates back to a much-hyped 2003 Sigur Ros/Radiohead collaboration with MCDC titled “Split Sides.” At the time, Laura Shapiro from New York Magazine characterized the music as “art rock on its best behavior. Mild, a bit tentative, sometimes disconcertingly reminiscent of New Age, the music was nowhere near as scary as the work of Cunningham’s usual collaborators.”

Fourteen years later, if anything, the music has tamed further. It was pleasant, in the washy sort of way that advertisers like for making soaps, pills, and software feel “inspiring.” In its finest moments, its saccharine pan-ionian harmonies and moody upper-neighbor-tones gave even my prickly heartstrings a slight tug. Quinta’s intonation on the musical saw (when she picked it up, another knowing chuckle emanated from the crowd; I’m not sure why) was revelatory. By far my favorite sound, though, was the tap of mallets against the xylosynth, slightly audible above the gentle thrumming of the music.

Set 4: John Cage’s Fontana Mix, Aria, and Indeterminacy, performed simultaneously

Mori & Behrman, laptops; La Barbara, voice; Fast Forward, narration

Enter Grandpa, radiant. Despite Fontana Mix feeling a bit hemmed in by digitization, this set came on just like the big game after a commercial break. To the kind of people that come to an event like this, this is straight-up classical music, and I, for one, am a fan.  Fast Forward gave voice to Cage’s well-worn anecdotes with the same gusto that Heifetz puts to a Brahms concerto, proving that there are still hilarious wonders in these slightly yellowed scores. The serendipitous ending: “I know you’re very busy. I won’t take a minute of your time.”

Set 5: David Tudor’s Untitled

John King on Laptop

Whippoorwills and vampire bats caught in quadrophonic black holes fluttered erratically around the theater, the volume tastefully cranked. John King, propelling these creatures from the ease and comfort of his Macbook trackpad, was clearly having fun, rocking back and forth, smirking. The whirling of these sounds around our heads provided a potent counterpoint to the far more delicate spatialization essayed in the night’s opening work (Wolff’s Or 4 People). It made me think, however, that a whole computer universe couldn’t equal the complexity or spiritual heft of a melodica, a recorder, a Stratocaster, and a trombone.

Set 6: John King’s petite ouverture en forme de mErCE CunninGHAm

Wolff/Behrmann on piano; Lewis on trombone; Quinta on violin; King on Stratocaster

This piece started out as a piano solo written for Cunningham’s 90th birthday, and has apparently been arranged for chamber ensemble by the composer. The title is a nod to Erik Satie, one of John Cage’s most touted idols. Its capitalization scheme reflects the work’s use of “musical cryptogram,” in which letters from a name create a musical motif, a longstanding practice in classical music, predating even Bach (who used it famously). In true Cunningham/Cage tradition, repetitions within the form are determined by dice throw.

If this all sounds a bit academic when explained, it does in musical realization as well. Absolutely delightful, however, was watching Wolff and Behrman share a piano bench, plodding along with the piece’s pachydermic triads, using absolutely zero pedal. Hearts beamed.

Set 7: EVENT

Full ensemble: Behrman, Forward, King, La Barbara, Lewis, Mori, Parkins, Selway, Wolff

Watching musicians old enough to be my parents or grandparents cue one another to thumb their smartphones in tandem, then proceed to punch furiously at their laptops, set me reflecting amusedly on my mother’s love for Facebook and solitaire apps. Unintended as it may have been, the presence of all these mobile devices on stage made a fitting update of Cage’s running commentary on technology in daily life—it’s here to stay, so we might as well practice listening to, even loving, it. Nonetheless, I was silently hoping that someone would receive a call and have to walk offstage.

Inevitable balance issues arose from the preponderance of digital signal paths, but on the whole the EVENT’s chaos was organized nicely. Center stage, gleefully taking the helm, was a decidedly “analog” Fast Forward, tossing handfuls of sticks at various drums. His energies were greatly appreciated. Every once in a while, one could hear an isolated plink from Christian Wolff at the piano, or Zeena Parkins at the harp (otherwise absent from the night’s program). It was wonderful to hear their voices piping up through the din.

Overall, the musicians kept things short, sweet, and cordial. Smiles abounded, onstage and in the crowd.

At the end, clapping people stood, probably trying to get up closer to wherever Merce is now.


 The Twin Cities crowd that appeared for this performance was visibly thrilled to be able to see so many venerable masters of the New York and London experimental scenes on one stage, in our own town. Excitement and gratitude were palpable in the room, and I was happy to be able to contribute my own. We did a great job, I think, warmly receiving our esteemed guests, who in turn offered a moving tribute to one of our city’s most welcome new residents: the legacy of Merce Cunningham, as embodied in his archives.

It was an engaging retrospective—a window into other cities, other scenes, other times. Now our task is to shift our gaze forward and carry musicking for Merce into the future. I know some local “experimentalists” who are up for the challenge.


Music for Merce: A Two-Night Celebration was performed in the Walker’s McGuire Theater February 23-24, 2017.

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