Canadian experimental-music soprano Helen Pridmore and friends will perform John Cage’s “Variations II” and Earle Brown’s “December 1952” at the Chapel Performance Space at the Good Shepherd Center.
In his 1957 lecture “Experimental Music,” American avant-garde composer John Cage called music “an affirmation of life. Not an attempt to bring order out of chaos, nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply a way of waking up to the very life we’re living.”
What Cage meant is that just as you can sit outside and stare into space with no purposeful focus, gazing meditatively at all the people, birds, buses flowing by, so too, can you hear, without trying, a broad sweep of surrounding sounds. If we listen openly without judging what we hear, the world’s fleeting, aggregate sounds become protean music in space and time.
An excellent example will take place Thursday, Jan. 18, when Canadian experimental-music soprano Helen Pridmore performs Cage’s 1961 “Variations II” at the Chapel Performance Space at the Good Shepherd Center. Pridmore will be joined in her spontaneous vocal interpretation of Cage’s nontraditional, graphic score by two mesmerizing, Seattle-based virtuosos: cellist Lori Goldston and guitarist Mark Hilliard Wilson
Helen Pridmore and Friends
8 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 18 at Chapel Performance Space at the Good Shepherd Center, 4649 Sunnyside Avenue North, Seattle.; $5-$15 donation at the door (www.waywardmusic.org)
“’Variations II’ is what we call an ‘instruction score,’” says Pridmore from her home in Regina, Saskatchewan. “Instead of writing down notes, Cage gave directions as to how to create your own piece of music. Each performer is guided by the instructions and comes up with [his or her] own music to perform. Then everyone performs their parts together.”
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If this suggests utter chaos, it’s really more about an unorthodox composition sparking the music of chance. The combination of sounds in any given performance is always unique, because “Variations II” is written for any number and type of instruments and/or ordinary, noisy objects.
It will be fascinating — possibly powerful and moving — to hear what emerges from the joining of separate musical trajectories from an agile, expressive voice, cello and guitar.
“My experience in performing this kind of music is that it is amazing how everything comes together,” Pridmore says. “You’d think it’s just going to sound like a big mess, but interesting occurrences happen between the performers. Beautiful chords emerge, beautiful colors and textures, and you never know what’s going to become of it all.”
Included in the program is Earle Brown’s “December 1952,” also written for one or more instruments, media sounds or other sources in any configuration.
Brown’s published score for “December 1952” is even more radical than “Variations II.” As with Cage, Brown offers no written, conventional music notes. The score, instead, is a curious image that looks like mathematical code.
“Brown’s intention is that the score be something like a mobile,” Pridmore says. “You’re supposed to imagine squares, rectangles and lines in 3-D and in motion. Some of them might seem like they’re far away and some might seem closer. That gives the performers guidelines they are free to interpret.”
The second half of the concert will find Pridmore, Goldston and Wilson joined by accordionist Kyle Hanson for a session of improvisation.
Pridmore, 55, will be in Victoria, B.C., five nights before the Chapel Performance concert, starring in the world premiere of a new chamber opera, “Undivine Comedy,” by Michael Finnissy, a British composer who has often written for her.
Born in Newcastle, England, Pridmore grew up in Saskatoon with an interest in music. She ultimately earned her doctorate at the prestigious Eastman School of Music. There, she discovered “new” scored, experimental and improvised music, along with what she calls “extended vocal techniques,” taking her classically-trained voice into new territory.
“I’m very interested in exploring beauty,” she says. “We have a notion of what a beautiful voice sounds like. I question that. What about all the sounds we can make with our voices? Why do we call grunts and yelling ugly? Maybe there’s beauty in that as well.”
Pridmore is an associate professor of music at the University of Regina, where she teaches vocal performance and new music. She says she nudges her voice students to try experimenting with different sounds.
“They’re typically quite hesitant. Some jump in fairly quickly and some don’t.’”
Pridmore has released two adventurous CDs: the electroacoustic “Janet” (which won Canadian honor the East Coast Music Award for Best Classical Recording in 2013), and the often mystical “ … Between the Shore and the Ships … The Grand-Pré Recording,” a collaboration with clarinetist Wesley Ferreria.
What is life like for a singer of experimental music?
“Quite often people are predisposed to not like it,” says Pridmore. “But often when people come to a concert and hear new music, they come away saying ‘well, that was weird, but I liked it.’ So that’s very pleasing.”