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10 February 2010

The John Cage Prepared Piano Project

One of the very real pleasures of running the John Cage Trust is learning early on about interesting, under-the-radar projects going on around the world involving John Cage's work. This one was brought to my attention late last year by its producer, Ju-Ping Song.

Ms. Song is a pianist at the Pennsylvania Academy of Music in Lancaster. In August 2008 she was charged with creating a new music department, and to "...come up with a first project that would bring new sounds to [students'] ears without alienating them. The works to be performed needed to be interesting enough without being too stylistically or technically difficult. And the end result -- the performance -- had to make a statement, not be just another student recital.

"The Academy is responsible for more than 300 pre-college level students, and as her first project, Ms. Song prepared 16 children aged 6 to 18, along with two adults, for a tag-team performance of Cage's Sonatas & Interludes for Prepared Piano.

This was reportedly the children's first exposure to Cage's music. They learned first about preparing a piano, Ms. Song recounts, along the way being exposed to a kind of music that does not necessarily have a classical tonal center or regular meters. While skeptical at first, the participants were soon won over, and ended up revealing themselves to be children with "open minds and dedicated hearts".

The John Cage Prepared Piano Project was testing ground for a New Sounds Concert Series at Penn Academy, its mission "to create and nurture a need for contemporary art music in our daily lives." With its success came the formation of two new ensembles, both with flexible instrumentation, and a three-concert series planned for this coming spring. The second, performed by NakedEye Ensemble (faculty-based), slated for March 26, will include works by David Lang, Kengo Tokusashi, Luciano Berio, Louis Andriessen, and Kim Helweg. On April 18, the third concert will feature Barefoot Ensemble (student-based) in its first-ever concert of works by Charles Ives, Frederic Rzewski, Peter Hatch, Steve Reich, and John Pamintuan, this last a New Sounds commission for children's choir and ensemble.

But the first concert of the Series, scheduled for February 26, will be given by none other than Ju-Ping Song herself, Founder-Director of the Series, performing works by Cage, Stephen Montague, George Crumb, Peter Hatch, and Rzewski. In addition to her work at the Penn Academy, Ms. Song is a founding member of FLAMEnsemble, an eclectic and flexible group that organizes and performs in a yearly contemporary music festival in Florence. This year FLAMEnsemble's "Musica Esposta" at the Museo Nazionale del Bargello plans to include a non-stop "John Cage Day" on June 24, which, at last count, will feature nearly 50 works!

In addition to its regular concert series, future projects at the Academy include a biannual "Composer Portrait Series", commencing Spring 2010 with a live performance of Philip Glass's music to accompany a rare screening of Godfrey Reggio's complete "Qatsi Trilogy": Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi, and Nagoyqatsi. In the Spring of 2012, we'll feast upon an ambitious three-day John Cage Centennial Festival, featuring not only Cage's music, but also writings, artworks, and films.

Laura Kuhn