On Dec. 16, Dutch pianist Reinier van Houdt (inset) performs a program at the Goethe-Institut, including the Boston premiere of Walter Marchetti's "Concerto per la mano sinistra" (Concerto for the left hand), in which the hand in question is given the competing, contradictory demands of performing the score and holding up a large umbrella — a theatrical game of obligation and distraction entirely typical of its composer. Undeserved obscurity is something of a cliché, but that Marchetti is not better known feels almost like a backhanded tribute to his principles, his having continually confounded expectations for so long.
It was at Darmstadt, the European mid-century modern-music mecca, that the Milan-born Marchetti met John Cage, who would become an inspiration, and Spanish composer Juan Hidalgo, who would become a co-conspirator. Hidalgo and Marchetti were included in a famous (and famously denigrated) 1959 concert that Cage headlined at Milan's Rotonda del Pellegrini; the pair soon after formed the Zaj group, the Madrid-based artistic collective that flourished in the '60s and '70s, with Marchetti, Hidalgo, and Esther Ferrer as core members. Zaj engineered anything-can-happen combinations of performance art, visual art, anarchic happenings, and conceptual absurdities.
Over time, Marchetti's music, initially reminiscent of Cage's aleatoric style, turned in decidedly personal, playfully evasive directions. "Per la Sete dell'Orecchi'" ("For a thirst of the ears"), an evocative recording of rocks being thrown down a well, seems to critique both a limited idea of musical sound and the impulse to aestheticize all sounds as mere music. "Utopia andate e ritorno" pairs a recording combining a Marchetti piano recital and the sounds of a storm with the same recording, reversed — Shakespeare's fabled "mirror up to nature" itself confronted with a hopelessly distorted reflection.
Cage honored sounds music refused to include; Marchetti points out what music simply can't encompass. "De Musicorum Infelicitate" (subtitled "Ten Pieces in the Form of Painful Variations") presents six-minute slices of an impossibly dense flurry of piano, the compositional impulse exhausting itself back into pure sonic ambience. Marchetti wrote a "Composition for Eight Orchestras" making deliberately impossible demands on a deliberately impractical number of musicians — classical music's core equipment, score, and ensemble, sabotaging the possibility of any music at all. That Marchetti is so comparatively unheralded is both a consequence and an encomium to his purposeful elusiveness. But the sniper-precise wit with which he targets musical tradition is liberating. "To compose music is to tell lies," Marchetti, characteristically, once insisted. "Just listen!"
Non-Event presents Reinier van Houdt, performing Luc Ferrari's "36 Enfilades" for piano and tape and Walter Marchetti's "Concerto Per La Mano Sinistra" for umbrella and piano, Dec. 16, 8 p.m., Goethe-Institut Boston (tickets $15; nonevent.org/#houdt/).
Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.