The Boulder Bach Festival will reprise its highly successful 2014 partnership with 3rd Law Dance/Theater with a new work that combines the music of J.S. Bach with iconoclastic 20th-century American composer John Cage.
The performance, “Bach UnCaged,” is part of the festival’s “Compass Series,” which aims to present Bach’s music in new and unexpected contexts.
The performances will feature pieces for solo strings by Bach, played by Boulder Bach Festival music director Zachary Carrettin on electric violin; interludes drawn from the sonatas for prepared piano by Cage, played by the festival’s executive director, Marcia Schirmer; and dance by 3rd Law Dance/Theater and choreographer Katie Elliott.
After last year’s sold-out “Obstinate Pearl,” combining Bach and modern dance, Carrettin and Schirmer got together with Elliott and her co-director at 3rd Law, Jim LaVita, to discuss what they could do next.
“We had dinners together and collectively came up with this idea, based on some of our own experiences,” Carrettin explains.
It was those experiences that suggested the unlikely combination of Bach and Cage as the basis for the new work. Schirmer once worked personally with Cage on his music for prepared piano and the intricacies of “preparing” a piano by placing nuts, bolts, rubber wedges and other objects on the piano strings. This creates different tone qualities for different notes, or even individual strings on the same note.
For his part, Carrettin has a family connection to Cage: his mother studied with Cage and the dancer/choreographer Merce Cunningham, Cage’s lifelong artistic and personal partner.
As dancers, Schirmer and LaVita are familiar with Cunningham’s work and his eccentric way of working with Cage. As an outgrowth of their fascination with creativity born of chance, each prepared their own work — Cage the music, Cunningham the dance — separately and only put them together for the performances. As a result, the music and dance merely “coexisted,” as they said, in the same time and space.
LaVita and Elliot have their own way of working, very different from Cage and Cunningham. Far from being random, their approach occupies a highly collaborative middle ground between a pre-conceived dance and spontaneous improvisation to the music.
“Some choreographers come in with the notebook and all the moves are planned out, and then they ask the dancers to do these moves,” LaVita explains. “Our dances are built up through the rehearsal process.
“We come in with ideas and we make phrases and ask the dancers to expand the phrases to create the movements that actually appear on the dance floor. We have a recording of the music, we listen to the music, and we use phrases and improvisatory techniques to create a dance piece. So [the dance] does reflect the music in our case.”
At the same time, Carrettin says his playing will reflect the dancers.
“I’m watching [the] dancers with the eye of an eagle,” he says, “responding to them, sometimes changing my phrasing right then and there, based on what’s happening with a leg, or an arm or a torso.”
The music for “Bach UnCaged” will comprise a series of solo movements by Bach, from both the solo sonatas for violin and the solo suites for cello. Between the Bach movements, Schirmer will play individual sonatas for prepared piano by Cage. The separate pieces will be preceded and linked together by improvised passages by Carrettin — some using the notes C-A-G-E.
Only at the end will the music of Bach and Cage sound together.
“In the very last piece, the material from the prelude that opened the program will return, in fragments, as Marcia plays a Cage sonata,” Carrettin says. “The idea is to have fragments appear and disappear of the Bach that we remember from an hour ago when the show began.”
Cage, a composer who sometimes constructed pieces by chance and who is best known for four minutes and 33 seconds of silence, seems an odd musical bedfellow for Bach, a composer of monumental, elegantly constructed masterpieces. But beyond their shared fascination with numbers, Carrettin sees a deeper connection.
“We’re talking about philosophers who are intensely spiritual,” he says, “Cage in [his] Zen expressions, the notion of transcendence, examining silence and nothingness; and Bach, with the mystical, passionate longing to be one with the beyond.
“For me that’s the greatest commonality between these two composers.”
Carrettin says he believes the two composers’ shared mysticism, and the collaborative interchange between music and dance are creating a larger whole.
“This is a show in which music and movement vocabulary have a unified message throughout the entire hour,” he says. “I hope [that message] inspires reflection and offers a sense of space and time that is expanded.”
ON THE BILL:
“Bach UnCaged: Music of J.S. Bach and John Cage.” Boulder Bach Festival and 3rd Law Dance/Theater 7p.m. Friday and Saturday, March 27 and 28. Dairy Center for the Arts, 2590 Walnut St., Boulder. 303-444-7328.