By Jorge Casuso
September 10, 2012 -- The man standing in front of the audience of John Cage fans in Santa Monica Thursday night has an unusual request: There is no need to turn off your cell phones during the performance.
"Be aware that your cell phone will either produce sound or not," Patrick Scott, Jacranda's artistic director, tells the crowd gathered at the First Presbyterian Church Downtown.
That would be a strange request at most classical music concerts, but this centennial celebration of Los Angeles genius John Cage is no ordinary concert, which is made amply clear when the first "instrument" that is "played" on stage is a vacuum cleaner.
As the first musician vacuums the floor at the front of the stage, others come in and sit around him to read newspapers whose rustling sounds suddenly become notes over the roaring bass. Then one begins to speak.
"Once upon a time," she begins, and then repeats clusters of the words that form patterns as the others hiss, whistle, continue turning pages and tap utensils on a plate, the vacuum's roar replaced by the gentle sweeping of a broom.
One of the performers even takes a cell phone call on stage.
The performance of Living Room Music, which was composed in 1940, kicks off an evening that interweaves compositions by Cage, who lived in Santa Monica and taught music appreciation to local housewives circa 1930, with those of his friends.
There is the 1941 Sonatina for piano by iconoclastic composer Conlon Nancarrow that clearly shows why his works became so difficult to play that their sweeping arpeggios and thundering basses could only be performed by a player piano -- and pianist Mark Robson.
Robson wows the crowd with playing that seems to verge on the superhuman, as the music builds to a dervish of sounds that seem impossible to produce.
There is a player piano homage to Nancarrow by James Tenney (the mechanical sounds are no more startling than those produced Robson) and a player piano piece by Nancarrow, with the piano roll brought to the stage and ceremoniously inserted in the instrument.
And then there is Cage. The performances range from pieces for percussion ensembles that resemble a Balinese Gamelan orchestra -- only these use prepared piano and brake drums and a sheet of metal and a gong -- to a string quartet from 1949-50 that is sublimely meditative.
But the highlight of the show is Cage's most famous (some would say infamous) composition -- 4' 33" for solo piano from 1952.
Mark Robson "performs" the piece, which requires the performer to sit at the piano without playing a note, rising at the end of each of the three movements, then sitting quietly down.
While the piano is silent, the music is provided by passing cars and the flutter of a propeller plane in the distance, by the coughing of audience members and a phone ringing beyond the wall. It is even there in the attempts to be silent, as when a man quietly taking notes scratches the paper with his pen, which makes the page snap under the pressure.
"There is no such thing as silence," Cage once wrote. "Something is always happening that makes a sound.”
Cage's biggest legacy, as this so concert amply displayed, was in teaching us to listen.