Calling John Cage a “polarizing figure” probably accounts to an understatement. If you don’t know what I mean, sit through a performance of 4’33” and wait for someone to burst out laughing or leave the room altogether. Yet, in all the strangeness of a group of performers sitting in complete silence for  four and a half minutes and then receiving a round of warm applause, there is a sense of psychological virtuosity. You can always tell with Cage that there is something ostensibly more there than just the novelty of the performance.

The Miller Theater continued its 24th season with a celebration of Cage’s 100th birthday, juxtaposing excerpts of the composer’s perpetually jarring compositions and Pierre Boulez’s hectic percussive serialism. The result is a dynamic tension between Cage’s careful, zen-like exploration of sonic texture and chance in music and Boulez’s riotously atonal works. Combined, the performance seemed to span the first 50 years of modernist composition, leaving the listener a little frazzled but nonetheless, emotionally engaged (or just a little annoyed).

The performance culminated with performances of two of Cage’s most famous and controversial “pieces”, Radio Music and 4’33″. The former, an exploration of the textures and dynamics inherent to radio and its output, combined static, baseball reportage, and the undebatable masterpiece “Payphone”, featuring the presumptive heir to Cage’s legacy, Wiz Khalifa. The performance involved a conductor adjusting six radio’s frequencies simultaneously, to create a cacaphony of static and isolated voices. 4’33”, perhaps as far from cacaphony as one can get, played out as expected; silence, interspersed with the coughing of octogenarians and giggling of freshman MusicHum students.

The performers, all members of ICE (International Contemporary Ensemble), were led by conductor Steven Schick, who was less a conventional composer than an isolated actor; there were moments that looked like something in between Tai-Chi and someone playing Super Smash Bros. Brawl. Nonetheless, he was riveting, along with vocalist Jessica Aszodi, who gave at once a comical and disturbing rendition of Boulez’s Le marteau sans maître, intentionally imitating gutteral and animal-sounds, interspersed with cackling and squeals of evil intent.

Contemporary music is often the butt of modern-art jokes. It probably does not help when things like melody and harmony are too “old-fashioned” to be incorporated. But the performance of John Cage’s works led to a slight feeling of enlightenment (or maybe just hunger, the show started at 8). But, in the words of the composer himself, “I don’t know why people are frightened of new ideas. I’m frightened of the old ones.”

Sound of silence via Wikimedia Commons