Keyboard Kaleidoscope Honors John Cage

Last Saturday, while many students prepped themselves for a night of messy disasters at Foam, others donned more formal attire for a night of refined, musical entertainment. 

Pomona Faculty Member Genevieve Fenwei Lee performed on both piano and harpsichord at the Bridges Hall of Music in her recital titled, “Keyboard Kaleidoscope.” The recital featured a variety of music from periods ranging from the 18th to the 20th century. Though her performance highlighted the stylistic contrast among the different eras, Lee said that each piece exhibits an exploration of the composer’s imagination—a factor that ties her repertoire together.

The recital is the third in a series of performances honoring the centenary of 20th-century composer John Cage, a revered Pomona College dropout. He became an influential figure in music, pushing the boundaries of traditional composition and experimenting with sound, environment and audience perception. 

“Cage challenged the way we consider music and what sounds we consider music,” Lee said. 

Pomona will continue to celebrate Cage’s achievements in music throughout the semester with various events held by the Pomona music department.

Lee opened her performance on the harpsichord with a suite from the “Pièces de Clavecin” by Baroque composer François Couperin. The work is a collection of short pieces from the Baroque era that takes the listener through different styles of French dance music. Though the composition is not particularly dazzling, Lee performed admirably as she maintained steady evenness throughout the entire composition. With a nod to Lee’s theme of imagination, the pieces by Couperin explored a mixture of musical characters. One poignant movement of the piece, “La Bandoline,” represented a type of hair cream with heavy, textured playing.

TheBallade in F Minor, Op. 52″ by the Polish composer Frédéric Chopin came next in the performance. This 19th-century piece is a large-scale piano work that meanders through a musical narrative of lyricism. Here, Lee exercised her expressiveness, stretching the musical phrases in the piece’s languorous opening. Bringing a shock to the audience, Lee shifted the atmosphere to intense and frantic as the piece entered its development section. Trademark of any Chopin piece are the pyrotechnical lines that complicate the melodic line. Yet, Lee flowed through these passages with surprising ease. Ending the “Ballade,” Lee’s fingers flew across the piano, playing impressive rapid arpeggios that approached a climactic final chord. 

The next two pieces of the program were probably the most interesting. Following the virtuosity of Chopin was a piano piece called “Water Music” by Cage. The composition is a grand departure from our ideas of traditional musical performance, since most of it lacks consistent piano playing.

Instead of musical notation, the piece is written on large posters facing Lee. She arranged a pitcher of water and a radio on a stand next to her at the piano. Beginning the piece, she turned the radio on and poured herself a cup of water. Without drinking, she placed the cup back down and sat motionless at the piano, allowing the radio to continue playing. Suddenly, Lee interjected with a single chord on the piano. The piece continued with the same aleatoric randomness and, at times, Lee played the kazoo and a whistle. One of the most entertaining moments was when Lee began tossing playing cards on top of the strings of the piano; when she returned to her seat, she continued playing on the piano with unusual confidence. 

“The piece I performed was notated with exact directions, even with the live radio parts,” Lee said. “I think [Cage] also had a sense of humor.”

Lee wrapped up her program with George Crumb’s Eine Kleine Mitternachtmusik, translated as “The Little Midnight Music.” The suite contains nine movements which develop a central melody based on jazz artist Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight.” Crumb, an American 20th-century composer, also incorporated innovative musical styling in his piece, utilizing what he described as the resources of the “extended piano.” In the piece, suspended chords are sporadically interrupted by pizzicato effects, atonal glissandos and muted tones in an attempt to color the piano’s sound. At times, Lee stood up to strike the metal structure beams of the piano with a percussion beat. At the end of the piece, Lee lifted her hands off the piano and allowed her final sound to ring into nothingness, finishing the evening’s entertainment.

“Probably many in the 20th and 21st century can be considered bizarre, but sometimes that is just a first impression,” Lee said, explaining that the pieces become more familiar and less daunting when heard a second time.  

Reflecting on her performance, Lee said, “My never-ending self-critical side could also think of many things that I could have done better. It spurs me to try and do better the next time I prepare for concerts.” 

Lee added that she was disappointed in her inability to incorporate a toy piano in her performance.

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