Photo by Jacob Blickenstaff

November 10th, 2017

Freethinkers of the Keyboard: From CPE Bach to John Cage at 92Y – Buttenwieser Hall

92Y has a knack of spanning centuries of music in their programming, while bringing both the old and new into greater focus.  Pedja Muzijevic’s recent late-night recital exemplified just that in the program called Freethinkers of the Keyboard, “dedicated to musical innovators, mavericks and iconoclasts.”  Experimental design took center stage, including works from Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, the son of Johannes Sebastian to John Cage, the modernist master most famous for his composition of four minutes and thirty-three seconds of no composed music at all.

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach

C.P.E Bach (1714 – 1788) represented a changed in aesthetics from his father’s Baroque interest, which was quite out of fashion at the time.  The more classical son received far greater fame in his lifetime, producing what could be called popular music unlike his pedantic father.  Pedja Muzijevic proved he was on form from the start performing C.P.E Bach’s Sonata in G minor with dramatic sensitivity.  A regular staple in the parlor of 18th Century homes, this composition now sounds extraordinary with a certain regal elegance that is a times breathtaking.

John Cage (1912-1992) was another innovator in terms of aesthetics, dedicated to bringing new ideas into being by drastically changing our perception of music.  He said famously, “In the nature of the use of chance operations is the belief that all answers answer all questions.”  This is the inherent notion in 4’33”,  a shift in musical emphasis to listening not making.  The composition was not his only innovation, there were many.   Cage also wrote music for prepared piano, making alterations to the piano by placing objects, like screws or bolts, called preparations, at certain intervals of or in between the strings themselves.  To listen to prepared piano now in the digital age where every possible sound can come out of keyboard including a dog’s bark, is almost quaint but the genius is not lost.  At times the piano can sound like a drum beating time against simple chords.  It must have been a shock when Cage first performed these works for it not only challenged tradition but the instrument itself.

Muzijevic called W.F. Bach’s (the less famous son) Fantasy in C minor, FK 15 “a glorious mess.”  In fact, it is all over place in a pleasing way with styles ranging from concerto, to overture and fugue.  Keeping with the program, the composition reflects the general freedom and jovial aspect of improvisational music.  It shows both the Romantic and Classical side of J.S. Bach’s other surviving son.

The last four works in the program “end in the most bizarre way,” Muzijevic explained, adding “weird things will happen – do not call the authorities.”  American composer Henry Cowell (1897–1965) also tinkered with the inner workings of the piano, introducing a technique that involved scraping the strings and plucking them.  His Aeolian Harp, 1923 in Tempo Rubato is a welcome addition to any program with its soft tone mimicking the wind harp.  Kurt Schwitters’ Excerpt from Ursonate followed,  something rarely performed in a classical music program.  The work by the infamous Dada adherent is an expressive sound poem that was gamely performed by the Muzijevic as if it was second nature.  It fit perfectly, dovetailing Cowell’s Aeolian Harp and the finale, Rondo in A major, Wq. 58/1 by C.P.E. Bach.

So what does this varied performance impart to us and why?  It is my humble opinion that it provides sharper clarity to both modern and classical forms.  The juxtaposition emphasizes the forms themselves for greater enjoyment.  Toggling to and fro expands our sense of musical interpretation required of classical music.   Pedja Muzijevic’s erudite performance and re-contextualization of works that broke historical boundaries makes them even more fascinating today.