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John Cage’s 18 Microtonal Ragas in Berkeley

The pews were close to full at St. John’s Presbyterian Church in Berkeley, California, on Friday, November 2. The evening’s text was no liturgical standard. We’d gathered to view a performance — strike that, a thorough extrapolation (a “realization,” the program notes read) of material that composer John Cage penned almost forty years ago: 18 Microtonal Ragas.

Amelia Cuni, an Italian trained in the ancient tradition of Indian dhrupad singing and deeply informed by the avant-garde, led a group that consisted of Raymond Kaczynski and Federico Sansei, both of them percussionists, along with Werner Durand, who manned a small table of electronics.

Cuni has spent several years taking Cage’s ragas, which he’d sketched as graphic notations of microtones, and transforming them into a proper performable work. The source material, the ragas, comprise Cage’s Solo for Voice 58, but segments were also drawn from his Song Books. The result proved as theatrical as it was musical, with sung texts selected from writings by, among others, Cuni herself, Henry David Thoreau, Erik Satie, and percussionist Sansei’s father, Roberto Sansei, who was the Italian translator of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. Below is a close-up of Kaczynski’s copy of the score:

The languages reportedly included Italian, English, French and German, but Cuni’s meticulously syllabic vocal style and the Dadaist, cut-up nature of the work — not to mention how Durand subtly mixed and altered the vocals in real time — meant that little of it was necessarily comprehensible at any particular moment.

Of course, there are different types of comprehension, and what Cuni’s adaptation of Cage’s 18 Microtonal Ragas dispensed with in terms of narrative it compensated for by the precise, almost telepathic give and take between the performers. Cuni danced and moved in time with the rat-a-tat-tat of her delivery, which in turn was matched by the percussionists, whose own precise motions did double duty as musical performance and theater. Cuni, who stood and danced, at one point disappeared back stage only to reappear at the rear of the audience; at another she laid down between the two percussionists. Though the piece was 90 minutes long, with no interruption, she didn’t appear remotely tired. The same can’t be said of the entire audience.

Indian ragas are traditionally performed atop a warm drone supplied by a tambura, a kind of deeply resonant lute. In its place, Durand used prerecorded drones that he had reportedly made by recording a drill inside a PVC pipe. In an opening statement, Charles Amirkhanian, founder of Other Minds, the organization presenting the concert, mentioned that Durand had at one point driven a car 100 miles an hour to get a pitch used toward the end of the work — how exactly that was accomplished, and whether it involved the drill, wasn’t clear, but aside from one purposeful burst of bright white noise, the impact of Durand’s drones was very much in the tambura tradition: providing a foundation, a sensitive context. Below is an image of his setup, with Kaczynski’s drum kit in the background:

We heard a whir like a hairdryer, a sitar sample, a high sine wave. Occasionally the sounds were almost jarringly representative, as when Cuni was heard to say “large hawk” just as a bird call entered the room by way of the speakers.

As the final raga came to a close, a familiar rattling echoed in the room. Kaczynski was rolling dice in his cupped hands, a nod to Cage’s famed chance operations.

More info on Amelia Cuni at ameliacuni.de. The event was presented by Other Minds in partnership with Goethe-Institut San Francisco and the Italian Cultural Institute of San Francisco. An album of the work was recently released by Other Minds (otherminds.org).

By Marc Weidenbaum

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  • Marc Weidenbaum founded the website Disquiet.com in 1996 at the intersection of sound, art, and technology, and since 2012 has moderated the Disquiet Junto, an active online community of weekly music/sonic projects. He has written for Nature, Boing Boing, The Wire, Pitchfork, and NewMusicBox, among other periodicals. He is the author of the 33 1⁄3 book on Aphex Twin’s classic album Selected Ambient Works Volume II. Read more about his sonic consultancy, teaching, sound art, and work in film, comics, and other media

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