The shock value of a work of art can be notoriously fleeting. Duchamp’s signed urinal once stunned even his fellow artists, and sounded a call for rethinking the relationship of art and society. Now replicas of his porcelain provocation grace the collections of museums around the world, and sell for close to $2 million.
By comparison, John Cage’s legendary silence piece — “4’33” ” — remains controversial 60 years after its premiere, capable of inciting suspicion, resentment, or perhaps most often, simple misunderstanding. Some listeners may suspect they are the butt of a conceptualist’s joke, as they sit watching a performer doing absolutely nothing on stage for the specified duration of time. But Cage was dead serious. He was out to upend our notions of where one can find music, to open our ears to the background hum, the ambient noise, the native acoustic textures of the world around us.
In their performance of “4’33” ” on Thursday night at the Gardner Museum, members of A Far Cry stood almost motionless in the darkened hall as a large audience took in the shuffling of programs, the occasional cough, the apparent sound of something being moved in a nearby hallway, and yes, a few stretches of beautifully pure silence. These days, with holiday themed-musak piping forced cheer into so many public spaces, it was hard not to appreciate this all-too-brief trip in the Cagean quiet car.
By way of providing context, A Far Cry began the night with other Cage works of the early 1950s, including the “Imaginary Landscape No. 4,” a piece for 12 radios. It turns out reception is not great in Calderwood Hall, though this conceptual piece still makes its point — about negating artistic subjectivity — all the same with pure static. For the “String Quartet in Four Parts,” A Far Cry divided into four distinct ensembles, stacking up dry vibrato-less tones like swatches of fabric. In its texture and its long moments of pervasive stillness, this work takes you as close to silence as possible while still giving the musicians something to play.
“Moz-Art à la Haydn,” a delightfully impish work by Alfred Schnittke, broke the Cagean quiet with its cyclonic treatment of Mozart fragments, as if recollected in a frenzied dream. A Far Cry frolicked in the music’s virtuosity and prankster dissonances, and brought some of the same irresistible energy to its closing account of Haydn’s “Farewell” Symphony. Haydn famously has the players leave the stage one by one during the final Adagio, and here each musician did so after turning out a stand light, bringing the hall gradually toward darkness. I sat near the exit, watching the players depart one by one, and thinking of Cage’s comment about the most important aspect of his silence piece: “It leads out of the world of art into the whole of life.”