Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Artful disorder as defended art

On a rainy night in San Francisco, J&I made our way past the evening sidewalk sleepers to the precious guarded sanctum of Davies Symphony Hall. There we watched and heard this performance in the Symphony's American Mavericks series. The key performance was selected from John Cage's Song Books (program notes here). Distinguished soloists: Jessye Norman, Joan La Barbara, Meredith Monk, Jeremy Denk. Performing on a fine expensive professionally built set.

It was performance in the form of controlled pseudo-randomness. Instruments including walls and a basketball. Gestures including amplified quotations from Henry David Thoreau, especially, “The best form of government is no government at all, and that will be what we will have when we are ready for it.” With black flags, yet.

Here's a proper review of the concert -- favorable and thoughtful -- in the SF Bay Guardian. Anonymous reviewer "Marke B." brings out elements I'd like to go back and try to see again in the Cage performance, including some notions about those flags that go deeper than politics. And he pegs the concluding Carl Ruggles piece, "Sun-treader," dead-on as Newt Gingrich-flavored "dude music in the extreme".

Except I'm stuck wondering something.

Does it affect the meaning, or anyway the levels of irony or sophistication, of a work of calculated disorderliness if it is performed in a rare, valuable, venerated downtown sanctuary dedicated to the preservation of high culture against a howling wet nightful of outsiders? Supported by substantial money from companies (list available here) that have contributed substantially to the normalization of sidewalk sleeping?

Our group at the concert wondered, would the Song Sheets performance have been different if held in the Cow Palace, scene of pro wrestling matches and, scheduled next week, the Tattoo Expo? How about in an auditorium in a corner of an otherwise peaceful rural college campus?

Does it matter that Song Books was first performed in the thoroughly urban and disrupted environment of Paris in 1970?

I'm not arguing "is it art?" No. It's art. I'm not arguing "is it crud?" No. It's valuable. I'm not arguing, "Is it playing tennis without a net?" No. There's a net. Really quite a few nets. Strict nets, as becomes apparent on reading that the performance was assembled out of three volumes of instructions for performance elements described as Solos 3 through 92. (The Thoreau quote is Solo No. 35.)

I'm just asking, what's fruitful irony and what's hypocrisy or is it OK for them to overlap by way of it being the purpose of art anyway to make people think? No answer really. Just asking.

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