John Cage and Chance

Chamber Music PLUS returns with a tribute to an American composing innovator

Welcome back Chamber Music PLUS. We've missed you.

The creative venture of cellist Harry Clark and his pianist wife, Sandra Schuldmann, has been on hiatus for more than a year.

"We just really needed to recharge our batteries," Clark explains. "Sandra and I have been doing this for over 30 years, and for part of that time we were performing our season in two locations, Tucson and Connecticut."

The concept for Chamber Music PLUS was born in Connecticut, where both Clark and Schuldmann taught for many years. For each themed production, Clark writes a script, performed by a single actor or small cast, that weaves together the spoken word with featured musical pieces. The effect is not just musical, but theatrical as well.

This weekend they will premiere Cage @ The Cabaret, which honors composer and artist John Cage. "The show is a commemoration and celebration of this fascinating and influential American composer. Whether you like his work or not, he was such a great thinker, always asking questions about music. He was a provocateur, a maverick, perhaps, but as an artist he was constantly morphing, from creating visual art to involvement with dance, particularly associated with Merce Cunningham, his partner of 40 years.

"He had so many interests. At one time he was one of the foremost authorities in the world on mushrooms. He studied Zen Buddhism and the I Ching, and they both play important roles in his compositions. He was constantly reinventing himself throughout his life."

For that reason, Clark said it was difficult to choose what part of Cage's life to focus on. He credits Laura Kuhn, director of the John Cage Trust, with helping to define some parameters for his script. "I had a couple of meetings with her, and lots of emails. We agreed that a seminal moment for him was about the time he composed 4'33" at age 40. So the script focuses on the earlier part of his life and the influences which led him to this moment."

This piece, 4'33" premiered in 1952. It can be presented with a single performer or a group coming on stage and remaining for four minutes and 33 seconds without playing anything. Although it seemed like the piece consisted of nothing but silence, Cage, who died in 1992, intended his audience to become aware of the ambient sounds of the hall. Music, he stated in a later lecture, "was an affirmation of life, not an attempt to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply waking up to the very life we are living."

"So I've focused on how he got to that place," said Clark, who also credits Seattle writer/director Marcus Goodwin with helping to shape this new piece. "Harry's done the heavy lifting," Goodwin says. "I was able to make some suggestions."

Clark acknowledges that this show will be a bit unusual compared to the company's past shows, including being presented in the intimate Cabaret Theatre at the Temple of Music and Art. In keeping with Cage's sensibilities, "in the spirit of his questioning, the way he wrote, talked and spoke," Clark says he has crafted a "modular" script consisting of nonchronological vignettes that highlight various aspects of Cage and his work. "Ideally, these modules could be rearranged for different performances. Cage hated repetition, and he created his work with what he called 'chance operations,' literally using the I Ching or a roll of the dice. We won't do that here, but that's the idea behind my approach."

Neither Clark nor Schuldmann will be performing in this piece. Two University of Arizona doctoral students, pianist Ian Houghton and percussionist Kyle Maxwell-Doherty, will provide the music, which will include works of some of Cage's influences, like Arnold Schoenberg, with whom he studied, and Edvard Grieg, who, Clark says, was a favorite of Cage's in his younger days.

Portraying Cage is Los Angeles actor Bob Clendenin, who has worked with Chamber Music PLUS in two previous shows and professes great respect for both Clark and Schuldmann. "Both are extremely talented. I like the way Harry writes, and he's just a very gentle soul."

For Clendenin, whose résumé includes extensive credits in television and film, working with Chamber Music PLUS gives him a chance to "do stuff I would never get to do otherwise. It gets me outside my comfort zone, and I feel this is a safe place to do that."

Clendenin confesses he didn't know much about Cage when he was approached to play the character. His research has revealed that "Cage is complicated, an enigma. It's hard getting a handle on him." Clendenin watched a YouTube video of Cage appearing on the I've Got a Secret TV show in 1960. "He performed this piece using utensils, household items, a squishy duck, a kazoo. He played it absolutely straight. The panel and the audience didn't know how to read him. He had an Andy Kaufman-like quality. You ask, is there a joke? Is he in on the joke? Is there even a joke at all?"

Complementing Clendenin's Cage, Tucson actress Martie van der Voort will take on about 20 different characters, male and female. "The characters she plays ask questions, help set up scenes. It makes it more theatrical," Clark says.

Director Goodwin described in an email how he will approach his work. "There will be a feeling of the show being created 'in the moment' . . . There will be a sense of randomness, and sometimes apparent mistakes are made by the actors and musicians which aren't mistakes at all. This is all in keeping with Cage's aesthetic and his belief in chance occurrences producing art.

"I think audiences will find this show intriguing, thought-provoking, and even amusing."

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