Of all the mind-boggling ideas that exploded during the 20th century, those about music by John Cage rank among the most provocative - and encouraging.
"Until I die there will be sounds," he wrote in 1961. "And they will continue following after my death. One need not fear about the future of music."
Cage heard music everywhere and in everything. A lot of folks won't ever be able to go that far, but those who gathered at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall Monday night got a jolting reminder of his philosophy from remarkable Chinese composer Tan Dun and the New York-based Eos Orchestra.
The program, presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society, explored sounds from several perspectives, even silence. Each half of the concert juxtaposed a piece by Cage with a piece by Tan Dun.
Cage's Credo in Us was originally for piano, percussionists and randomly played radio and/or phonograph. The kinetic, written-out part of the score has tremendous power all by itself, and it was brilliantly realized by members of the Eos ensemble. Bits of baroque music that happened to be aired on a local radio station flitted in and out, an oddly satisfying counterpoint.
Credo in Us provided a strong connection to Tan Dun's engrossing Elegy: Snow in June for cello and percussion, which employs explosive, propulsive drumming not unlike the kind that drives Cage's creation.
The tone, however, is dramatically different. This 1990 work laments the deaths of innocent people. The inspiration was a 13th-centu-ry Chinese drama about a woman whose wrongful execution causes the summer snow; the composer dedicated this performance to the victims of Sept. 11.
The cello's initially fragmented, gradually more focused lines generate tension and poetry. Maya Beiser was the burgundy-toned, virtuosic soloist. The superbly coordinated percussionists employed the kind of unexpected sounds that Cage embraced - stones being hit together (this took on a sad edge toward the end), paper being slowly torn (sections of the Washington Post were put to use here, perhaps providing an extra cathartic experience for any conservatives in the hall).
On the second half of the concert came the silent part of the sonic journey, Cage's infamous 4'33" - originally a piano piece calling for the pianist to sit at the keyboard for that length of time. The "music" is intended to come from any ambient noises that occur by chance as the clock ticks away.
Tan Dun "arranged and choreographed" the piece. He mimed conducting; Beiser and the orchestra went through motions of playing. The audience sat quietly, intent on observing, so there were no ambient sounds to speak of, and Cage's revolutionary experiment passed by too uneventfully. Not to mention humorlessly.
The Crouching Tiger Concerto, derived in 2000 from Tan Dun's Oscar-winning score to the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, calls for a solo percussionist (David Cossin) and a Chinese folk instrumentalist (Ren-Yang Gao), in addition to the central cello. Beiser and her colleagues handled their assignments with great skill and expressiveness; the Eos ensemble did the same under the composer's guidance.
Cast in six movements and accompanied by a mostly abstract video by Ang Lee and James Schamus (derived from the movie), the concerto meanders a bit. But there are extraordinary passages, especially toward the close, when the orchestra intones unison notes that slither downward and the cello expounds on a poignant tune that slowly evaporates.
In the music's smooth mix of Eastern and Western idioms and sounds was another reminder of Cage, who pioneered such fusions long before "world music" became a buzz term and helped underscore music's universality in ways still reverberating.
Baltimore will get a welcome dose of Tan Dun next year, when the BSO performs his recent, riveting Concerto for Water Percussion and Orchestra on its "Symphony With a Twist" series.