Garth Treasures “Silence” and Absurdity in Music

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The evening of Jan. 19 marked a posthumous musical celebration of the milestone birthdays of two renowned pianists. St. Mary’s music faculty member and pianist Eliza Garth hosted a recital in St. Mary’s Hall to honor the lives and works of Claude Debussy and John Cage; in 2012, Debussy would have been 150 and Cage would have turned 100.

The recital, billed as “Let Us Begin with a Moment of Silence,” began with the presentation of a video clip of the elderly Cage, a twentieth century American pianist, explaining his philosophy behind music. “When I talk about music,” he said, “I talk about sound that doesn’t mean anything more than what it is. I love sounds just as they are, and I have no need for them to be anything more psychologically. I don’t want sounds to pretend to be a bucket, or be president, or be in love with another sound. I just want it to be a sound.”

After the clip, Garth described the influence that Debussy and his friend Erik Satie, both French pianists, had on each other. “Debussy wrote ‘Claire de lune,’ the first arabesque. What could be more romantic? And Satie got the ball rolling on many innovations,” said Garth.

Henry Cowell, an American pianist and Cage’s mentor, was as inspired by the works of Debussy and Satie as his pupil. The recital sampled works from each of the four pianists who were instrumental in creating the music of the twentieth century.

“Cage’s music sometimes stepped into Dada or the theater of the absurd,” said Garth. “He experimented with the nature of music and silence, and believed that music did not have emotion, but that the person listening to music had an emotion that he would project on to the music.”

Garth also explained Cage’s fascination of the relationship between sound and silence: “Silence is only a concept to Cage; he believed that there is always sound, but it ends in our heads when we turn our attention elsewhere.”

The first two works of the recital were Cage’s “In a Landscape” and two pieces from Debussy’s “Preludes, Book I.” Cage’s piece provided a fuzzy, dreamy, opening that grew into a more impassioned tone in Debussy that peacefully settled down by the end.

The “Moment of Silence” for Cage came when Garth played his famously absurdist work, “4’33’’,” so called because it is four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence, exemplifying the importance of silence as a non-entity to Cage’s works. No music is played for its entirety. Garth sat at the piano with her hands on her lap, smiling as if enjoying nothing but the quiet sounds of the audience. At intervals, she would gently and reverently uncover and cover the keys, and then pause in between with her hands idle. At other points during the piece, Garth would touch the page of music lovingly as it lay on the piano stand. When the piece was over, Garth bowed to hearty applause.

Cage’s eccentric style was also evident in the next piece, “Suite for Toy Piano,” in which a small toy piano and a small chair was brought to the stage. The incongruous image of the adult Garth sitting at the tiny piano showed that music could be made in the most unconventional places. Garth played the tinkling, chiming piece that gave off an air of maturity in spite of the sounds of the childish toy piano.

Two pieces from Henry Cowell, “Swaying” and “Tides of Maunaunan,” continued the unexpected musical features of the night by making heavy use of the throbbing low notes of the piano to create a feeling of the strong tides of the sea.

Garth then played Satie’s “Les Trois Valses,” a piece whose full title in English means “Three Distinguished Waltzes of a Jaded Dandy,” which was as jaunty and spirited as the title suggests. For the final piece of the night, Garth was joined by Music Department Chair David Froom to play Debussy’s “ Six Épigraphes Antiques,” a lengthy but beautiful masterpiece whose melodies can only be enjoyed by using four hands on one piano.

Sophomore Ben VanNest said “I came out of the concert viewing music slightly differently, namely from songs like Cage’s ever-famous ‘4’ 33’’’ and Erik Satie’s ‘Three Distinguished Waltzes of a Jaded Dandy.’ I also never legitimately considered spending money on a toy piano. This is a strange feeling for me.”

Sam Dodd, a sophomore, also enjoyed the recital: “Hearing Brian Ganz play is a once in a lifetime chance, however, at St. Mary’s we are so spoiled, but his specialty is in composers of the romantic period, namely Chopin. Hearing the Twentieth Century represented, however weird the style may be, is a welcome event, and I would choose very few people above Eliza Garth to do so.”

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