The circumstances surrounding the premiere of John Cage’s “Apartment House 1776” seem almost alien to the current state of the arts world: Six major American orchestras — Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Chicago, and Los Angeles — jointly commissioned the country’s foremost experimental composer to create a work celebrating the US bicentennial. The piece consists of 44 quartets derived from early-American hymn tunes, gently distorted by Cage; a group of instrumental “tunes”; and vocal solos representing four ethnic-religious traditions: Protestant, Sephardic, Native American, and African-American. All of the above overlaps according to the players’ individual choices, just as you might overhear in an apartment house.
Stephen Drury, New England Conservatory’s reigning contemporary-music magus, was in the audience in the fall of 1976 when Seiji Ozawa led the first performances of “Apartment House,” along with another Cage work called “Renga.”
In contrast to the reception in New York — where, according to The New York Times, there was a “mass exodus” from the hall shortly after the piece began — it elicited a lot of enthusiasm in Symphony Hall. “A lot of the audience reacted immediately and loved it,” Drury said recently. “And I remember getting into a shouting match with someone else in the balcony who didn’t like it at all. It brought out a very energetic response.
“It mattered back then,” he added. “People took risks.”
“Apartment House 1776” is on Monday’s program by the Callithumpian Consort for the Summer Institute for Contemporary Performance Practice, the annual Drury-led new-music gathering affectionately known as Sick Puppy. It will be joined by another Drury favorite also celebrating its 40th birthday: Steve Reich’s “Music for 18 Musicians,” a masterpiece of tight, motoric energy. So diametrically opposed do the two works appear to be at first glance that it was worth pondering what, if anything, they share besides their age, and how they’ll work together on one program.
“I never know the answer to that until it’s too late,” Drury answered, laughing. He focused initially on the two works’ sheer dissimilarity: Cage reveling in the strange simultaneities he sets in motion, Reich drilling almost relentlessly through the possibilities generated by a single set of chords. “They kind of sum up what had been happening in the last 10 years or so leading up to ’76, each demonstrating a peak of two major ways of writing music. I keep going back to the fact that they’re so completely unrelated.”
And yet, over the course of a conversation, unexpected parallels emerged, not the least of which was that both works represented an acknowledgment of traditions each composer previously had abjured. “Apartment House 1776,” Drury noted, marked a return to conventional notation after consciously abandoning it in earlier works. As for Reich, “Music for 18” was in part an embrace of harmony and orchestration, things he had intentionally snubbed in the tape and phase works on which his Minimalist reputation was built.
It was less a restoration than “like going through the wormhole and finding yourself surrounded by familiar objects,” Drury said. “Neither one is in any sense backtracking or being more conservative. It’s more like, now these guys have the tools, they can do things with simple material that was thought long exhausted. They had the mastery to be able to make exquisite and large-scale art out of the simplest things.”
And though the Cage might seem irrepressibly avant-garde in comparison to the more buttoned-down Reich, the latter presents its own pitfalls in performance. What began as an organic conception in
Reich’s own ensemble had to be transferred into a score that “tries to take what was a kind of hands-on creation and jam it into conventional musical notation,” Drury explained. “You kind of have to fight past the printed score and imagine yourself in the group when
Reich was making it. Nobody can sit down and read this piece the way it’s published [without] having found their way around it first.”
These are works that Drury has returned to over the years. Encountering them now, at this spot in his career and their lifespans, he finds that the experience has gotten easier and more fluid because “today’s musicians, this generation now, they know this material. This is their vocabulary — they’re not frightened by it, or confused or bored. They come into it ready.
“These pieces depend so much on the individual players, and I get such great players to work with these days that I just have to get them in the right place and looking in the right direction, and the strength of the pieces, the strength of the music, takes over,” he went on. “The love for this music that these people already bring takes over. And it just gets better and better.”
Presented by Summer Institute for Contemporary Performance Practice. At Jordan Hall, New England Conservatory, June 20 at 8 p.m. Free admission. www.sicpp.org