| Kings Place: Hall Two, London
Francesco Tristano presents BachCage 2.0
|Kings Place: Hall Two, London, 90 York Way , Opp. Goods Way, London N1 9AG, United Kingdom|
Monday 28-May-12 08:00pm
Francesco Tristano presents BachCage 2.0
The differences between Johann Sebastian Bach and John Cage are obvious - or are they? Tristano organically blends Bach and Cage, blurring borders while emphasizing shared elements. Both masters are connected by a mathematically-oriented approach to composition. Tristano's selection of pieces is based on tonal convergence, on cyclical structures and polyphonic construction. He searches for spiritual common ground in both composers, which he conveys through his own compositions, stamping his mark with a fresh and unique sound. This is the London show of Tristano's bachCage album. The programme includes pieces by Bach, Cage and Tristano.
Similarities between Johann Sebastian Bach and John Cage don't exactly leap out at you. Both have an interest in numbers, it's true: Bach's music is obsessively, perhaps mathematically patterned, and Cage proportioned much of his music according to strict ratios and numerical schemes. But even this similarity is very much an abstract one: can you hear it in the pieces? No, not really. The music of Bach and Cage sounds very different, indeed. I don't consider this a problem, and love the music of both. It's just that they're not the same.
So I was extremely intrigued by pianist Francesco Tristano's bachCage 2.0 project, which promised to find some sort of common ground between these two brilliant, divergent musical forces. At Kings Place last night he presented an interlinked and conceptually driven programme of music by both Bach and Cage, bookended by an Introit and an Introit Remix by Tristano himself. A variety of electronic effects were superimposed onto his renditions of the various Cage pieces (In a Landscape, 1948; The Seasons, 1947; the Etude Australe VIII, Book I, 1974-5) and a few slight bleeps bled into his Bach too (the Partita no. 1 in B flat and Four Duets from the Clavier-Übung). But were there any real similarities? And did his own compositional contribution highlight them, or shed fresh light on either figure?
Unfortunately, the answer to both was no last night, and while the recital was beautifully presented and technically well realised, I came away as sure as ever that Bach and Cage were not the same. And the recital also didn't convince me that adding a sort of neo-techno avant-garde-DJ-style framing to works by Bach and Cage really adds anything to their music, however often you tap the frame of the piano.
Tristano's Bach playing, if taken in isolation, was mostly good, if not revolutionary in approach. The fast movements of the Partita were sprightly and melodically focused – sometimes a little at the expense of the lower parts – and the Duets were lively and conversational. I was less convinced by his handling of the Sarabande, which was on the brisk side, but that's a small complaint. The biggest problem with the Bach playing was how out of place it sounded. The Cage pieces, more heavily treated electronically, blended in to the concert's conceptual ambience – but despite some subtle echoey tinkling emerging from the speakers in the Partita's final Gigue, the Bach pieces were all rather more interludes than integrated parts of a whole.
The Cage pieces were all performed meticulously, and impressed more than his Bach. But in terms of an overall experience, the beauty of the playing was masked slightly by the electronic manipulation. It would seem from the programme notes that this was meant to constitute 'a Cageian application' of sound alteration, presumably in the same way that Cage manipulated the piano's tone by preparing it with items placed on the strings – but the slight electronic distortions of tone seemed arbitrary rather than constructive. They also masked the notes' natural decay, which is an important element in Cage's piano music. This was not an amplification of Cage, so much as a superimposition of Tristano.
The whole concert, after all, was certainly a better portrait of Tristano himself than of either Bach or Cage, as his own Introit and its remix confirmed. This music was beat-driven and conspicuously influenced by techno and trance music, while only inconspicuously influenced by the recital's two subjects. It may well be that there is more going on beneath the surface of all this than I was able to glean from listening to it – I only learnt while writing this review, for instance, that Cage's Etudes Australes were conceived as 'duets' for the pianist's two hands, a fact which links them, however arbitrarily, to the Bach pieces which preceded them. But such arcane connections, essentially inaudible, do not make for a coherently presented thesis.
While I'm all for musical plurality, I wasn't sure about the programme notes' comment about how Tristano 'refuses to accept borders and constrictions'. What's constricting about Bach and Cage being different? Just because they're both great doesn't mean there have to be similarities between them. I actually find it quite liberating that two such undoubted musical geniuses can require such completely different listening approaches. By the same token, that electronic/dance music is a different thing again doesn't actually make it any worse. Trying to pull all these things together was always a bold undertaking, and it would have been a seriously impressive accomplishment if it had worked. In the event, though, this was a well-presented evening of strange music which didn't deliver on its promises.