The Walker's Music For Merce is a study in restraint and abstraction

The Music for Merce performers

The Music for Merce performers Photo by Gene Pittman

The introduction to the Walker Art Center’s Merce Cunningham retrospective Common Time asks, “Can silence be music? Can stillness be dance?”

Throughout the two-hour Music for Merce performance Thursday, musicians from three generations tested the parameters of that philosophical debate with works that paid homage to the innovative legacy of the choreographer and his partner John Cage. Their radical sonic expressions explored the space surrounding the music that Cage was known for, while suggesting the movements of the dancers, who even in their absence were felt fluttering within the abstract leaps and bounds of the material. And it all took place in front of a massive backdrop of Cage’s Global Village.

The list of artists participating was impressive and formidable: event curator John King; longtime Cunningham/Cage collaborators Christian Wolff, David Behrman, Joan La Barbara, and Fast Forward; and Philip Selway and Quinta representing a new wave of musicians who apply the principles of Cunningham and Cage’s work to their own modern sound.

The two sets of music offered nothing resembling conventional “songs.” These were all definitely (and defiantly) pieces that fitfully stood alongside the art that fills the Walker galleries. Wolff, King, and Behrman were joined by George Lewis on trombone for Wolff’s minimalist 1994 work, “Or 4 People,” an idiosyncratic introduction to the night’s experimental tone. Lewis’ muted trombone was a cleansing breeze amongst his collaborators’ abstract tone experiments.

La Barbara’s solo work, “Solitary Journeys of the Mind,” conjured the primal hum of an entire new universe created solely with her vocal techniques. Her piece transformed from a hopeful sacred chant to the emotional chaos of birth and death, with fluctuating vocal tones and unconventional vocabulary morphing to express love and loss without saying an actual word.

Ikue Mori and King joined Philip Selway and Quinta during a glorious set of three pieces: “Yaasholl,” “One Note Arpeggio,” and “Of Course I Do.” Selway and Mori played a xylosynth, which featured sets of samples that augmented Quinta’s keys. The first piece sounded like an unsteady ascent into heaven, with your entry to the kingdom not entirely guaranteed. Hints of Radiohead were layered within the discordant electronic finish, which suggested a stark denial during the last judgment. The following plaintive number, featuring Selway on grand piano and Quinta playing a saw, illuminated the subject’s banishment back to earth to try and live a better life, and the gorgeous closing movement, with King joining in on guitar, evoked a grand entry through the pearly gates at long last, with the closing notes ringing out hopefully within the intimate theater.

John Cage’s “Fontana Mix,” “Aria,” and “Indeterminancy” were all played simultaneously, with Fast Forward delivering Cage’s comical spoken word amid the sonic flourish that Behrman, La Barbara, and Mori conjured. A random woodwind unexpectedly fell off the table, only adding to the indeterminate music of chance that Cage and Cunningham based their life’s work on. The spoken word portion brought an element of realism back into the work, giving listeners something recognizable and familiar to grasp onto. Cage’s words about their club having “only one rule: no silliness” and how leaving Holland backwards allowed Cage and Cunningham to smuggle extra cartons of cigarettes through customs ended the first set with humor and candor.

To start the second set, King explored selections of David Tudor, testing the theater’s surround sound with electronic dissonance that suggested an arrival to an unfamiliar planet inhabited by a mad swarm of electrified birds, then evolved into a fitful theme of an unorthodox video game, consuming the entire room in its discord. For King’s “petite ouverture en forme de mErCE CunninGHAm,” Wolff and Behrman dueted side by side on piano, with Quinta, Lewis, and King adding haunting texture to their mournful strains.

The event concluded with a full ensemble Event, a nod to Cunningham and Cage’s dedication to the beauty found in the unplanned and unexpected. The piece was a world-premiere improvisational work (as it will be again tonight, and in Chicago when the group performs there this weekend) and marked the first appearance of Zeena Parkins on harp, her celestial notes adding to the cacophony of experimental sounds. The group set their timers at the start of the piece, and began a bold improvisational journey that could (and did) lead anywhere. Fast Forward shook sticks and knives on his drum, and the sound of those items falling to the floor was part of the performance. Accidents only augmented the moment, reinforcing the belief that there’s more freedom in the unplanned, more expression in the surprise.

The Music for Merce performance was a daring exploration of free-form expression constrained not by song or structure, but only time. Common time.

Music for Merce
When: Fri., Feb. 24
Where: Walker Art Center
Tickets: $28 ($22.40 Walker members); $50 for both nights; more info here