Cuni's ragas celebrate Cage's birthday

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I've been following John Cage since I learned how to spell aleatory, so I was chagrined big time when I realized I'd forgotten his birthday this year. The pioneering musical rule-breaker was born on Sept. 5, 1912. I was glad to find that they've been commemorating the date worldwide for months.

Turns out one of the last of the observances was at Redcat, the innovative music venue adjacent to the Walt Disney Concert Hall, where a performance was given not long ago of the birthday boy's "Solo for Voice 58: 18 Microtonal Ragas."

It starred a lady named Amelia Cuni, from Milan, Calcutta and Berlin, who came onstage in a pink floor-length gown that had a drawing on the back of a lady with a nose ring. Cuni wore red and gold slippers, but not for long.

Before she was through, she had me down on the floor, and naturally so did John Cage. In the microtonal music for which Cage was noted, you add a bunch more notes to the staff by tuning them in between the regular ones -- in the cracks, as they say.

So it was electrifying to hear Cuni handle an interval that you thought was going to cover an ordinary three- or four-note gap, and find when she got to the top note that she was singing a totally new sound, a teeny bit lower or a teeny bit higher.

She would hit this note with the utmost confidence and integrity, as though it had always been right there. You might have said it was off-key, except that ragas have no key. Nevertheless, you enjoyed a fleeting moment of delight every few seconds all evening.

This no-key stuff was right up Cage's alley; we all remember the composer for "4'33", four minutes and 33 seconds of silence. So "Raga 5," for instance, which Cage composed with the help of the I Ching, has a single pitch on which to build a raga. This was supplied by Cuni herself in a bit of free verse called "Winter Lake," which is "rumbling, bubbling, gurgling with a deep and loud voice, its thick ice surface painfully melting." Try singing that in microtones.

For Cuni, a master of dhrupad singing (which seeks not to entertain, but to induce feelings of peace and contemplation in the listener) this was no trouble at all, so to speak.

She even added some illustrative body language, drawn from the ancient practice of kathak, a classical dance form of northern India; the name means "to tell a story."

That voice of hers was wonderful: Simple, strong and pure, not to mention sturdy, never faltering in an hour or more of singing this difficult but shall we say rewarding repertoire.

One of the stories involved taking off her crimson and red slippers and putting them on her hands while she made various graceful and not-too-graceful gestures.

Another found her stretched out artistically on her side on a little platform on the stage, exposing the enigmatic drawing on her back.

Two cooking percussionists, Federico Sanesi on tabla and Raymond Kacynski on mridangam, supported the singing and dancing with a rattling good beat, even in the odd measures favored in ragas. The tabla looks and sounds like the backing on a later Beatles record, and the mridangam is a hollow cylinder the size of a conga drum with heads on both ends. Werner Durand produced the ever changing drones from an electric keyboard of Western provenance.

Photos by Tony Gieske/Slideshow by Victor Klaus
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