The Southern Oregon University Percussion Ensemble will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of composer John Cage. - Photo courtesy of Greg Eliason

Experimental percussion

Southern Oregon University's percussion ensembles celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birthday of John Cage with a concert that showcases the composer's nontraditional methods and instruments.

The nine-member SOU Percussion Ensemble, the SOU percussion group Compás and the SOU Percussion Quartet, recently named SOUP Quitchen, will perform at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 27, at the Music Recital Hall on the SOU campus, 1250 Siskiyou Blvd., Ashland.

"He (Cage) was one of the earliest composers for percussion ensembles in the western tradition," says Terry Longshore, director of percussion studies at SOU. "He also expanded the idea of what percussion is, what musical instruments are and what music is, and he moved everything to the theatrical."

The various ensembles will present several of Cage's innovative compositions, beginning with the oldest piece on the program, "First Construction (in Metal)" (1939), which features only metal instruments, including glockenspiel, gongs, Turkish and Chinese cymbals, thunder sheets and a car brake drum.

A later piece, "But What About the Noise of Crumpling Paper" (1985), allows the performers to choose their own instruments within Cage's criteria that each musician play two instruments made from different materials and one instrument that imitates nature, such as water.

Longshore says this very organic piece leaves a lot to chance, and symbols on the sheet music are open to individual interpretation.

Two other works, "Credo in US" and "Radio Music," utilize radios tuned to various frequencies.

"The radio is on equal par with the other instruments," Longshore says.

"Radio Music" features eight performers "playing" radios.

Longshore will perform solo in "Child of Tree." The eight-minute piece features "10 instruments, all of which have to be of plant material and include an amplified cactus," he says.

Cage composed this piece using I Ching, a Chinese method based on chance, to determine the structure and instrumentation.

"It's very difficult because, first of all, you have to play instruments that are foreign and make interesting musical ideas with those instruments and come up with a structure based on a chance operation," Longshore says.

"There's as much or more responsibility on the performer as there was on the composer."

The concert also will include Cage's "Living Room Music," played with household items such as scissors, soda cans, a TV set, martini glasses, etc; "Amores," which features a "prepared piano" with screws, bolts and rubber attached to the strings; and "Third Construction," which has "rhythmic energy and drive and the sounds of popular music that came much later," Longshore says.

The show will conclude with Cage's most controversial piece, "4'33"." For four minutes and 33 seconds, musicians will stand on stage not playing. The music is actually the sound of the environment, proving Cage's point that "silence does not exist."

Admission to the show costs $5 and is free for students. Call 541-552-6348 or see www.sou.edu/performingarts.

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