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Cage: Europera 5

John Cage

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John Cage called his late-career stage works “circuses,” and an apt term it was. This most impish of provocateurs spent his autumn years layering found music, speech, and ambient sound into epics of ear-teasing randomness. Roaratorio—written (as was his custom) independently of Merce Cunningham’s choreography and shake-and-baked into life at the first performance—tosses the sounds of Irish meadows and mainstreets, folk bands, conversation bites, and Cage’s own incantatory reading of Finnegans Wake into one sonic stewpot. The atmosphere created is indescribably vivid—try it through headphones and you might actually leave your body. His grand and giddy Europeras 1 & 2 played like a night at the opera asylum, with dozens of singers and pit musicians performing whatever music came into their heads or came up on computer screens while sets and lights shifted to numerical sequences drawn from astronomical charts and a toy zeppelin buzzed around the theater, oblivious to the mayhem. Less Wagnerian in its aspirations, and scored for two singers, piano (playing unrelated opera transcriptions), Victrola, and randomly tuned radio and ambient-sound tape, Europera 5 neatly demolishes all notions of the well-made chamber opera. Check your theory-and-harmony textbooks at the door.