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Cage en Liberté:

Concert et Musicircus

Ensemble Contemporain de Montréal

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Veronique Lacroix, artistic director

At Salle Pierre-Mercure

in Montreal on Tuesday

It's rare to complain about too much of a good thing in the world of contemporary music. Yet, the one-night only homage on Tuesday marking the 10th anniversary of John Cage's death was just that, a tad too long at just under four hours. A shame, really, because over all the concert, produced by the Ensemble Contemporain de Montréal (ECM), was loads of fun. That's right, fun: not merely intriguing or intellectually challenging. Totally appropriate given Cage's brilliant humour and enormously creative mind.

The program was eclectic and the staging imaginative. Bracketing the more formal concert elements in the Centre Pierre-Péladeau's Salle Pierre-Mercure were Musicircus happenings in the main lobby and the two balconies of the atrium. They included musique-actuelle reed and bird-call player, Jean Derome, harpsichordist Karoline LeBlanc, painter Katsumi Kimoto and a roster of dance, movement and multimedia performers. Of course all inspired by Cage's compositional and aesthetic notions of chance and indeterminacy in creating music, and aural and visual art. A delightful component that actually was a happening, without falling into wankyness.

The real magic, however, was in Salle Pierre-Mercure. Artistic director Veronique Lacroix had the splendid idea of inviting Quebec composers to honour Cage in an evening where their works were juxtaposed against his and, at times, superimposed on them.

The concert began with a winningly lyrical quartet, Quatuor à cordes II,by Jean Lesage performed by the Quatuor Bozzini and commissioned for the occasion by the ECM. Composed in six movements taking C, A, G, and E as its musical frame and corresponding numerical transpositions as its rhythmic structure, the piece was a fitting tribute to Cage's sense of tonal colour and his preoccupation with rhythmic shifts.

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Next up was Cage's Bach-like suite Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano. There are 19 sections to the piece, all relatively short and self-contained. Their tones and moods shift sometimes seamlessly, sometimes abruptly. Here the prepared piano apes the colour of a gamelan and Cage exploits its percussive qualities. The pianist Brigitte Poulin was mesmerizing. She gave an extraordinarily intelligent and exquisitely balanced reading of this complex, meditative piece.

After the first intermission, 15 musicians of the ECM took to the stage, along with pianist Marc Couroux and composer Christopher Butterfield for the simultaneous performance of four works. L'heure de s'enivrer,by 27-year old Alain Beauchesne was commissioned for the occasion. It was performed at the same time as Cage's Concert for Piano and Orchestra in a version for piano solo, Cage's Fontana Mix,arranged by electro-acoustic composer Yves Daoust and excerpts of Cage's text Indeterminacy,read sublimely by Christopher Butterfield.

A more Cage-ian tribute would be hard to imagine. The arrangement of the elements of this concert were chosen by a random process so beloved by Cage; in fact, Cage's notes for the Concert for Piano and Orchestra call for the playing of another piece, any other piece. Beauchesne's work allowed the ECM to play full throttle and then come to a dead halt, allowing noise and silence to enter a dialogue punctuated by the piano, electronic treatment of the sounds produced on stage and the audible and almost inaudible haiku-like anecdotes, all under 90 seconds, that make up Cage's text for Indeterminacy. Now you might be asking what makes the theory of indeterminacy different from improvisation? It's that the rules are different, rather than playing off each other, the performers are given a set of constraints that they must follow and end up performing independently of each other in the truest sense, while conforming to a set of guidelines that make use of mathematical ideas of random selection. The audience roared its pleasure at the end of the performance.

The final pieces were played back-to-back without interruption. They were André Villeneuve's Harmonia-Geometria-Nostalgia,again a new commission, and Cage's Fourteen for bowed piano and ensemble.

Villeneuve, who is 45, teaches composition at UQAM (The University of Quebec at Montreal). He decided to explore Cage through a lightly balanced piece scored for six strings, seven winds and percussion. The first part of the work has the string ensemble performing alone. They are later joined by the winds for a work that swirls gently, rolling up and down like waves on a gentle sea. At times he sets up a really lovely exchange between strings and winds. Would that the concert had ended there. Cage's Fourteen was perhaps too much of a cerebral paradox to engage the audience in as the concert neared the four-hour mark. The drop of water that fractures the calm surface of a still pond.

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