Concerts at Bargemusic are unlike any others in town, and in these two evenings (July 11 and 18) that fact meshed neatly with works of John Cage by the FLUX Quartet (Tom Chiu and Conrad Harris, violins; Max Mandel, viola; and Felix Fan, cello). In Cage’s world, “there are always sounds to be heard,” and that was abundantly, cheerfully clear, from the faint blast of water-taxi horns, to the distant glissandi of ambulance sirens—even the barge’s toilet flushing at the back of the room. And there was a the occasional flock of tourists outside, some pausing to peer at the performers through the wall of glass behind the stage.
The String Quartet in Four Parts (1950) is an early work, tautly constructed (22 rhythmic units of 22 measures each, with an intricate internal pattern), yet all that is forgotten when absorbing its Satie-like delicacy. Parts reminded me of medieval chant—albeit interrupted by other events—and the piece grows more transparent until its fast, dance-like conclusion.
The more contemplative Solos from Concert for Piano and Orchestra (1958) unfolds more spaciously, with lone plucked notes, scrubby scratches, a hollow tap of a bow on a music stand, the soft squeak of a tuning peg adjusting (and that toilet). At one point one of Chiu’s violin strings snapped, waving like a small tail—all part of the Cagean experience.
For the Thirty Pieces for String Quartet (1983) the instructions ask the players to arrange themselves in “unplanned fashion”—in this case, not facing each other. Using the contemporary equivalent of stopwatches (i.e., smartphones) to synchronize, the result was less silence and more polyphony, with high contrasts—and flashbulbs going off outside, as tourists wandered by to photograph the waterfront and New York skyline.
On the second night, just as Conrad Harris was about to begin the brief Nocturne for Violin and Piano (1947), some unexpectedly vigorous rocking from the barge forced him to spend a few moments steadying himself with mock-alarm, before his simple, sober reading, with pianist Joseph Kubera as his slightly bemused partner. And using a special mute to produce a tinny, constricted tone, Harris gave a bit of playfulness to Cheap Imitation, Part 2 (1977) in its version for solo violin.
Violist Mandel got a star turn in the sole non-Cage offering: Morton Feldman’s The Viola in My Life 1 (1970). With five colleagues (Alex Sopp on flute, Matt Gold on percussion, plus Kubera, Chiu and Fan) Mandel gave each hushed phrase the care of an archivist in the slowly evolving score.
Two of the most striking works—at least, as realized here—were Seven (1988) and Music for Nine (1984-1987), both augmented by percussion. With the usual instrumental array as a base, Mr. Gold rushed back and forth to shake marbles in a bowl (at least one rolled down the aisle), rub ridged sticks on the barge’s wooden walls, pour water, blow a whistle, rub an inflated balloon and whirl a length of plastic tubing. In the latter piece, clarinetist Marianne Gythfeldt and singer Thomas Buckner completed the evening’s game, alert cast—all as courageous and uninhibitedly Cagean as one could want.