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Meditation key to performing ‘Two2’

Stewart Oksenhorn
Mark Fox/The Aspen Times
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The piece of music Laurel Karlik Sheehan is set to perform in Huddersfield, England, isn’t new to her. The Carbondale pianist has played John Cage’s work for two pianos, “Two2” – pronounced “two two” – some dozen times, including the Canadian premiere in 1989.Still, Sheehan doesn’t know exactly how the upcoming performance, Feb. 4 at the Hung Up on the Number 64 conference, will go. Cage purposely left much of “Two2” to chance.

Perhaps the quintessential composer of the mid-20th century avant-garde, Cage wrote out specific notes for the piece. But, Sheehan noted, “When the notes are played is up to the musicians.” Sheehan, who regularly performs the piece with Rob Haskins, a Cage scholar at the University of New Hampshire, added that the composer’s instructions include putting the two pianos crook-to-crook, with one piano lid open and the other lid removed entirely, to heighten the sonic effect the instruments have on each other.Sheehan has performed music by less experimental composers; in fact, she has been studying with an instructor in Boulder so she can play a more standard repertoire. But she has chosen to emphasize Cage because the effect of playing Cage’s music is not like playing Beethoven or Chopin.”You must be transformed by John Cage, because you can’t play him without being contemplative and Zen-like,” Sheehan said. “That’s why he’s worth playing and why his music will continue to have life.”As long as Sheehan and musicians with a similar view on art are around, Cage’s music will be performed. All of Sheehan’s performances of “Two2” have been at John Cage festivals, like the upcoming conference in England. She played at the I Have Nothing to Say and I’m Saying It conference in October 2003 in New Brunswick, and at Cage gatherings in New Hampshire and Rochester, N.Y. – all places where Cage worked during his life. The one-day Huddersfield conference features mostly talks about the composer and his art and concludes with two performances: “Two2” and the Freeman Etudes.

The element of chance in “Two2″ extends beyond the playing of the pianists. Cage, after becoming a student of Zen Buddhism in the late ’40s, composed the piece, as he did much of his music at the time, by throwing the I Ching, an ancient Chinese technique of divination. The notes were based on the symbols that came up.”So there are aspects to this composition that are strict, and aspects that are chance,” said Sheehan, who four years ago created ClassiKids, a program of classical and American folk music for children 6 months to sixth grade. “There’s the freedom of the score, and the Bible of these notes. It is possible to play it perfectly, and yet each time play it differently.”Sheehan has found much to appreciate about Cage apart from the element of chance. Cage was not just a composer but also a poet, artist and writer. A member of the New York avant-garde through the second half of the 20th century, Cage worked closely with artists from other disciplines, notably visual artist Robert Rauschenberg and choreographer Merce Cunningham. Using prepared piano – piano modified with attached pieces to alter the sound – and extraordinary composition techniques, Cage offered “a new angle on how to think about what serious music is,” Sheehan said.

But what seems to attract Sheehan most to Cage is his approach to silence and stillness. Cage became noted – and notorious – for the 1952 piece “4’33”,” which had the pianist lift the lid of a piano, then sit there not playing it for four minutes, 33 seconds.”You can’t be involved with a Cage performance and not be drawn in on the meditative level,” Sheehan said. “The audience gets something out of it that is not exhilarating. It’s quiet.””Two2” offers plenty of time to be meditative. The piece extends to an hour and 20 minutes. “It’s not about rhythm or melody or harmony,” said Sheehan, who has recorded the piece but has not seen it released yet. “It’s about the dissipation of sound and vibration.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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