HOOKED ON CLASSICS ‌ Making It New 

A Spoleto maverick keeps classical music weird — and fun

I first met composer John Kennedy 10 years ago, during the 1997 Spoleto Festival. He sat next to me at Fast and French, as these things always seem to play out, and over croq' monsieurs we talked about his contemporary music series for Spoleto, Music in Time, and its pending screening of John Cage's full-length movie, One11, accompanied by the full Spoleto Festival Orchestra playing Cage's 103.

The film has just been released on DVD, with that '97 SFO performance serving as the soundtrack, and it was named DVD of the month by Gramophone magazine.

The 1997 performance at the Sottile was fascinating, although probably more so for me because I was 24 years old and was covering it. Ninety-three minutes of black-and-white shadows moving across a screen, to the tune of random atonal, heavy music. Fantasia it was not.

People left, group by group, like an icicle dripping — well over half the audience. I had fun catching them in the lobby and asking them what they thought. After the concert, most of the usually perky young musicians were too drained to talk. One of them compared the work, written the year Cage died, to Mozart's writing his own Requiem.

Back at the newsroom I talked to the late critic Bob Jones, who'd sat through the whole thing, spending a fair amount of time with his head tilted back, looking up at the stars in the Sottile's blue dome. He told me he wished he'd had a joint.

The best part of the night came five minutes into the movie, when it was revealed that the film had been loaded backwards and had to be restarted. It's always reminded me of that scene in This is Spinal Tap when Nigel, while using a violin as a bow on his guitar, stops to tune the violin.

Kennedy wasn't bothered by the people leaving; he told me at the time it was what Cage would have wanted, folks coming and going, talking about the piece, for better or worse. And besides, when you've made a career of writing or presenting music for flip-flops, bottles of beer, gunshots, a trombone submerged in a tub of water, or a giant door, to name a few, you're not looking for the same old ho-hum standing O's.

But I had to ask: does he catch a lot of flack, get labeled as gimmicky?

"I don't think it is a drawback," Kennedy says, of the new vocabulary of modern composition. "I think people are actually delighted and open to the fact that music-making sometimes has idiosyncrasies that they don't normally expect to see in a concert environment." Laughing, he adds, "I think by the same token, when I put on concerts for just a chamber orchestra or ensemble, people seem disappointed."

He was speaking last week from his home in Santa Fe, just before heading here for a grueling pre-Festival rehearsal schedule. He's conducting the premiere of Pascal Dusapin's Faustus, the Last Night, for a 72-piece orchestra, as well as directing five Music in Time performances, one of which recalls Margaret Leng Tan's toy piano concerts from 1997. The Bowed Piano Ensemble may also reinvent the instrument in a way that's (wait for it...) not to be missed ­— as we pundits love to say, come Spoleto time.

With that same must-see contemporary art buzz, Kennedy likens the Bowed Piano Ensemble to the Pilobolus Dance Company, the shadow dancers who worked the Oscars this year. Led by composer Stephen Scott, 10 bodies gather around a single piano and perform his music on the strings inside the piano's guts.

"They use a lot of fishing line," Kennedy says. "It's the most beautiful sound, like the sound of bowing a harp. The pieces have to be incredibly choreographed and memorized, because the performers have to move around."

No joint required.


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