On August 5 and 6 the JACK Quartet was back in action: this time at the Whitney Museum of American Art for two events presented in conjunction with Calder: Hypermobility, a current show that includes graceful and whimsical sculptures and mobiles customary of Alexander Calder’s practice, as well as motorized sculptures displayed less frequently, and almost never activated. A major draw of this popular exhibition is the chance to see (and hear) these things in motion, which happens on a regular schedule.
The idea to embed a performance of a John Cage work within a Calder show — part of a wholly admirable multimedia initiative that already had featured a Jim O’Rourke-curated Spotify playlist and live performances by Christian Marclay — is a sound idea, no pun intended. Cage befriended numerous visual artists and was influenced by their work; the same held true in reverse for Calder. Cage actually provided music for a short documentary about Calder, using as a sound source various mobiles colliding in Calder’s studio, taped in 1950.
Even the idea to have the JACK Quartet play Cage’s 30 Pieces for String Quartet (1983), a relatively late work written for the Kronos Quartet (and authoritatively recorded by Quatuor Bozzini in 2015), made sense. The work comprises four independent solo parts, each playing time-bracketed packets of music in three general modes (“tonal, chromatic, and microtonal”) but otherwise acting individually, producing an effect not unlike a mobile’s combination of free movement within basic constraints of gravity, velocity, and direction.
What I saw on August 5, though, struck me as a well-intentioned mistake. The JACK players would disperse themselves throughout the small show three times that afternoon, at 4:30, 5:30, and 6:30pm. That these performances happened during regular viewing hours — on a summer Saturday, no less — and essentially with no fanfare meant that the quartet’s exertions amounted to no more than ambient noise for shouting over within the cramped confines of a destination show. Some might view this as faithful to a Cagean ethos, but what I experienced (during the 4:30 rendition) struck me more as a misreading of “chance operations” as “anything goes” — an interpretation that does no justice to the music, the musicians, or ultimately to Cage.
On August 6, the JACK musicians scattered again throughout the Calder show — only this time they were playing after hours for a ticketed audience and no one else. Some people sat stone still in rapt contemplation; some wandered from place to place, watching the mobiles move and listening to perspectives shift. (Some snapped photos; you assumed these were less likely to be selfies than yesterday’s batch.)
This time, the music made its points resoundingly: an argument not for elitist restriction, but for care and consideration in mounting an event suited to all the artists involved. The Cage piece completed, the audience trooped down to the museum’s spartan yet comfortable third-floor Susan and John Hess Family Theater for the remainder of the program.
Here, paradoxically, was the weekend’s first opportunity to hear music by Earle Brown, whose String Quartet (1965) beguiled with its mix of notated (“mobile”) and improvised (“graphic”) elements. The same held true for a supremely confident account of Morton Feldman’s Structures (1951), a fully notated transitional work that recalls Webern’s crystalline delicacy and precision, while also anticipating the looping repetitions of electronic music — and the similar gestures to come in Feldman’s own subsequent epic-length quartets.
JACK completed its program with Richter Textures (2011), a striking, imaginative multi-movement work written by Pittsburgh-based composer-pianist Amy Williams in response to the art of Gerhard Richter. The performance was remarkable, the music imaginative and assured in its evocation of Richter’s own broad range of styles and techniques. Here, though, was one instance that felt like a missed opportunity: Since Williams runs her seven movements together without pause, it’s hard to envision through sound alone precisely which qualities she means to evoke in the brief time allotted to each movement. In navigating this “exhibition without any pictures” I found myself wishing, again and again, that we might see the paintings themselves projected on the vast blank wall behind the quartet.
Yes, I know, presumably there are rights issues involved… but if any institution is equipped to address them, you’d think it might be one like the Whitney. It’s not that the extra dimension would have increased my appreciation of Williams’s piece, per se, but it surely would have facilitated a richer, fuller appreciation for both the sources she meant to evoke and the means by which she set out to do so.