SLSO Music Director David Robertson Talks US Premiere of John Cage's 'Thirty Pieces for Five Orchestras' at Pulitzer

By Christopher Reilly
In Culture

American avant-garde composer John Cage once said, “everything we do is music.” To practice what he preached, he continually experimented with the nature of sound—or absence thereof—and even devised new systems of musical notation to correctly convey his compositions. In his 1952 composition 4’33”, the orchestra takes their place and then does nothing for four minutes and 33 seconds. The work is not about silence, but the ambient “music” created by a large group of people inhabiting a particular space. On Wednesday, Jan. 22, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra will present the United States premiere of Cage’s, “Thirty Pieces for Five Orchestras,” as part of The Pulitzer’s Reset program.

David Robertson Photo by Dan Dreyfus Courtesy St. Louis Symphony Orchestra

David Robertson
Photo by Dan Dreyfus
Courtesy St. Louis Symphony Orchestra

“Thirty Pieces for Five Orchestras” will feature the full complement of 82 SLSO musicians at once—a first at the Pulitzer—split into five groups and placed in five different areas of the museum while the audience sits in the main gallery surrounded by the musicians. David Robertson, music director of the SLSO, is no stranger to the work, having been one of five conductors for both the German and Italian premieres. The other conductors joining Robertson in conducting the U.S. premiere are Steven Jarvi, Rei Hotoda, Jerry Hou, and Lee Mills.

David Robertson Photo by Dan Dreyfus Courtesy St. Louis Symphony Orchestra

David Robertson
Photo by Dan Dreyfus
Courtesy St. Louis Symphony Orchestra

The Pulitzer’s Reset program features a variety of performances, art and participatory programs normally not associated with a museum experience, like nail art, a drag show, hip-hop contest and lecture and more. The John Cage evening also features violist Brett Dean performing his own composition, “Sketches for Siegbert” (2011).

ALIVE caught up with Robertson and talked about the upcoming performance and what Cage was actually getting at.

ALIVE: Cage’s work being performed inside The Pulitzer makes perfect sense just of itself, but are are there personal reasons that led you to choosing these works in particular?

David Robertson: Well, there are. I was involved with John Cage for the German premiere of the piece as well as for the Italian premiere. This was back in the 1980s. I was just one of five conductors because the piece required that. There are five orchestras, and the nice thing about it is the five orchestras can be spread out in different places. In Reset at the Pulitzer, we are able to use spaces of the building that we normally wouldn’t be able to use, just because there aren’t any art exhibits, so the actual exhibit is the building itself. What we’re planning on doing is using Cage’s piece as a way for the audience to actually hear the building.

ALIVE: How would you explain Cage’s work to someone who decides they don’t like that type of music?

DR: I think the thing that Cage was really about—I love the phrase that he said—he said music is continuous, only listening is intermittent. So I think what Cage was after was—among many things—he was after developing our abilities to really listen to the world around us and to not be so quick with judgment calls about what is beautiful and what is not, and what is appropriate and what is not. So in “Thirty Pieces for Five Orchestras,” what I like is that all of the sounds are really traditional ones that you have heard from an orchestra over hundreds of years. But they are somehow freed from the constraints that one normally has of a narrative telling a story. This is the melody, this is the harmony, and it’s as though you really kind of experience music on an elemental level.

ALIVE: How does playing in a compact, enclosed space like the Pulitzer alter the way you conduct the orchestra and the way the musicians perform?

DR: All musicians react principally to sound. So the visual things you’re reacting to when you’re conducting are not as important as the sound you have. So when you’re playing in the Pulitzer, it really is like chamber music. You’re listening to the orchestra and the conductor is really there, with his gestures, only to make it easier for everybody to do everything at exactly the same time. But the way in which the musicians form and manage the sound in time is all done by listening.

ALIVE: What can the audience expect to experience at the performance? It will be quite different from the Powell Hall experience.

DR: Some of the orchestra is not going to be seen by the public because of where they’ll be placed in the building. I think what that does is it takes away the visual sense of preparation. When you see a person put a trombone up you are expecting a trombone sound. Whereas in the middle of the Cage piece, all of a sudden the sounds come at you as if by magic, without any preparation. It’s the closest that one gets to the way that we listen when the lights are off, and everyone knows that that’s a very different experience of hearing things than when we have lights on. I think nature gave us ears partly because we’re diurnal creatures, and if we wake up in the middle of the night and can’t see anything, our sense of smell and our sense of hearing really help us to survive. Those things are no longer such a problem in modern life, but the ability to hear really with precision and perception is still there when the lights are off.

ALIVE: There are two performances in the same evening?

DR: We’ll perform the piece two times and we’ll move the orchestra around for the second performance. The piece is never really exactly the same way twice, although it’s very tightly organized. So it’s like musical sculpture. I think it should be a really, really good experience.

“Thirty Pieces for Five Orchestras,” Jan. 22, 7:30 p.m. $20. Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, 3716 Washington Ave. For tickets and information call (314) 534-1700, or visit the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra website.

Follow Christopher Reilly on Twitter @ChristoReilly

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