Percussion Group Cincinnati’s Long Relationship With John Cage




Like arts institutions all over the world, University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music is celebrating this year’s John Cage Centennial. A concert featuring work of the visionary 20th century American composer occurs at 8 p.m. Thursday, with the CCM Philharmonia joining Percussion Group Cincinnati for American Voices XV – Celebrating John Cage at 100.

CCM’s concert is special for Cage enthusiasts. Percussion Group Cincinnati — a CCM ensemble-in-residence for 30-plus years — not only knew Cage (who died in 1992 at age 79), but he wrote the piece they will perform Thursday, “Music for Three,” just for them back in 1984. The piece is written for three percussionists and 150 (!) instruments of their choice. 

The trio — faculty members Allen Otte, James Culley and Russell Burge — will play the piece simultaneously with the Philharmonia’s interpretation of an orchestral piece, “Renga,” that Cage wrote for the U.S. Bicentennial. “Renga” is highly unusual; its score is a series of drawings by Henry David Thoreau, which orchestra members are free to interpret as the conductor monitors time. CCM faculty members will join students for its performance.

Cage fearlessly explored how any sound could make for beautiful “music.” This included silence — Cage’s most famous composition, “4.33,” connotes the duration of minutes and seconds during which an orchestra or musician makes no sounds. 

With its 150 percussion instruments, “Music for Three” would seem a kind of anti-“4.33.” Yet it is not chaotic. 

“In his crazy-sense-of-humor Zen way, each of us has 50 instruments and some get played heavily, but a couple don’t get played at all,” Otte says. “So do we really need to bring them out? I think the answer is ‘Yes.’

“The music itself is as soft as possible, as loud as possible, as fast, slow, virtuosic and simple as possible — all that happens unpredictably in this half hour (of music),” Otte continues.

“So I thought we should have the most beautiful expensive Japanese gong, the most common orchestral snare drum and we should have pieces of junk. I’ve had a bicycle wheel and a paint can sitting right next to the gong, or something the workmen left laying in my yard the last time they were out there.”


Cincinnati has long been a hotbed of support for Cage’s progressive artistic ideas. He served as an artist-in-residence at CCM in 1968 and at that time met the gallerist Carl Solway, who encouraged him to make visual art. A CCM faculty member, Jeanne Kirstein, became known as one of the nation’s top performers of Cage’s prepared-piano and piano compositions. And a UC philosophy professor, Van Meter Ames, had extensive correspondence with Cage on Zen.

Percussion Group Cincinnati’s members came to CCM in 1979 through contacts with the LaSalle (String) Quartet, an ensemble-in-residence whose wide repertoire included an early recording of Cage’s 1950 “String Quartet in Four Parts.” Through LaSalle’s connections, Percussion Group Cincinnati began playing overseas festivals. In the early 1980s, they played one in Cologne where Cage was the guest composer. So they prepared some Cage compositions and got to know him.  

“One year later, he had another similar week in Italy and called up and said, ‘That was fun, let’s do this again,’ ” Otte says. That is where “Music for Three” came about. 

“It was in his little hotel room, where he invited me for dinner and lunch,” Otte recalls. “He would travel with a wicker picnic basket full of his own organic peanut butter and bread he made himself. It was heavy and wet as a meatloaf. He was talking with such enthusiasm about this new idea. He had just made a new piece with a computer and there was one percussion part and it was going to be for 50 different instruments. Every percussion player could choose his own.”


Percussion Group Cincinnati with John Cage (far left) in Witten, Germany, 1983
(Photo:Courtesy Allen Otte)


Back in Cincinnati, another composer backed out of writing a concerto for PGC for an upcoming festival. So Otte called Cage and asked if he could alter his idea and come up with three percussion parts for 150 instruments. Cage agreed. “Music for Three” was born and Cage also agreed an orchestra could play “Renga” at the same time. 

“We played it in Ann Arbor and he came out for the premiere,” Otte says. “It’s a half hour of music, it’s hard, it’s unusual. We’ve played the percussion parts separately by ourselves a number of times, but this is only the second time we’ve ever actually done it with an orchestra.”


No Stone Unturned: Director of “Crossfire Hurricane” on His Choices

Stones Unturned: ‘Crossfire Hurricane’ Documents the Danger and Daring of Rock’s Most Durable Band
By Steven Rosen
Documentary Magazine (
November,  2012, Online issue
We’re not even five minutes into Crossfire Hurricane, the new documentary about the Rolling Stones’ long career as rock ‘n’ roll icons, when there’s a scene that makes us say, “Whoa! This movie is not going to hold back.”

It occurs between the key opening credits-the name of the director and the title of the film. In grainy black-and-white footage taken in the early 1970s, we’re taken into a Stones dressing room. Mick Jagger raises a knife blade to his nostrils and satisfyingly inhales whatever was on it. Crossfire Hurricane, which premieres November 15 on HBO and will be released on DVD in 2013, clearly is not going to be an airbrushed, polite celebration of Rock and Roll Hall of Famers.

This revelatory moment comes before we even know how the roughly two-hour film will be structured or what about the Stones’ long career-the band is celebrating its 50th anniversary-will be stressed. Very quickly, the film’s director, Brett Morgen (The Kid Stays in the PictureChicago 10), boldly states that this movie will not protect its respected-elder subjects from the transgressions of their wild youth (and middle age).

The snorting-cocaine shot comes from outtakes from Cocksucker Blues, Robert Frank’s film about the Stones’ 1972 US tour. That shows the lengths Morgen went to find his material. Frank’s film was never officially released because even the Stones found it too controversial (copious amounts of sex and drugs to go with the rock ‘n’ roll); a court order, which still stands today, allows the film to be shown only when Frank himself is physically present, and the film cannot be screened more than once in a given year. “There aren’t even shots of Mick doing blow in Cocksucker,” Morgen says, during a telephone interview. “It was a very conscious decision, made before I started to make the film, that somewhere in the first five minutes there needs to be some indicator, some signifier, that we were going behind the curtain. It was important for me to create a covenant with the audience at the very beginning that the film was going to be an uncensored, unfiltered approach to the Stones.”

Since Crossfire Hurricane-the title comes from the lyrics for “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”-is a film initiated by the Stones and produced by Jagger (with three other Stones-Keith Richards, Charlie Watts and Ron Wood-serving as executive producers), that covenant was, Morgen concedes, “smoke and mirrors. I was constantly saying, ‘I need a shot of you guys doing drugs in the first five minutes of the film because it will allow the audience to feel we are seeing things we’re not supposed to see.'” The Stones agreed, but gave him a quota: “I believe I was given one for that first sequence,” Morgen recalls.

Courtesy of Rolling Stones/HBO

Morgen’s film unfolds like an incantatory tone poem, a wall of sound and vision that has the same rough-edged emotional high and thrilling, scary, chaos-flirting sensuality that drove the Stones’ greatest songs from their greatest period-the late 1960s’ creative outburst that produced “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” “Street Fighting Man,” “Sympathy for the Devil,” “Gimme Shelter,” “Let It Bleed” and more.

Crossfire Hurricane constantly features Stones music, much of it previously unreleased versions of the classics. But the songs are rarely formal, complete “performances.” They are finessed into what is overall a subjectively edited, tour-de-force showcase for photomontage.

There is an overall narrative thrust, a journey from the Stones’ early days as the grungy, bluesy, sexually nasty alternative to the cuter Beatles (an image created by Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham) to their triumph as arena-ready, crowd-friendly superstars of the late 1970s. “It’s about guys who get cast to play these roles as antiheroes, and they’re sort of playing it as a joke until they get busted for drugs in 1967 and it’s no longer funny,” Morgen explains. “Then they become the characters they were playing, and these characters almost devour them and kill them. Ultimately they work through it and come out the other side, and that’s where my film ends.

“It’s very much in the spirit of Joseph Campbell,” Morgen continues. “To have these five guys plucked from obscurity, thrown into the fire, tested in every which way and emerge as immortals, legends.” (Of course, one of them-founder Brian Jones-didn’t survive. He died of a drug overdose in 1969, after having been fired from the band.)

The archival video clips of interviews, some quite droll and funny, do pertain to that narrative, but they are also part of the overall whirling, enveloping soundscape. More critical are the contemporaneous interviews done individually with the Stones-Jagger, guitarist/co-songwriter Keith Richards, Bill Wyman (bassist from 1962-1993), drummer Charlie Watts, guitarist Mick Taylor ((1969-1975) and Ron Wood (guitarist since 1975). But they are heard rather than seen, and not identified when they speak. It isn’t always clear who is saying what, beyond Jagger’s and Richards’ recognizable voices.

“I wanted the interviews to be as informal and intimate as possible, which is why no cameras are in the room,” Morgen says. “Although it may not come out like this in the film, they were very much like therapy sessions. We did 80 hours of interviews, a substantial amount for a band like the Stones to sit through. Some of the most interesting stuff had to be left on the editing-room floor.”

The Stones had final cut on the film. “It was OK for me because I knew if they didn’t, they would really clam up when I did the interviews,” Morgen explains. “I had my best hope of getting some fresh insights in letting them have final cut so they could talk freely. I learned that years ago, when I worked for Barbara Kopple and she did a film on Woody Allen, Wild Man Blues, on which Woody had final cut. [Wild Man Blues documents Allen’s jazz-band tour of Europe, while affording glimpses into his then-new relationship with Soon-Yi Previn, which had been considered scandalous in some quarters when first revealed.] As a result, Barbara was able to shoot everything that happened. What Woody ended up objecting to wasn’t any intimate moment with Soon-Yi, it was how he played clarinet in one scene. It was things that were very mild.”

Morgen and his crew-including editors Conor O’Neill and Stuart Levy and sound designer  Cameron Frankley-shaped Crossfire Hurricane by first choosing the new interview extracts he wanted. But they had already gone through the Stones’ archives to see what kind of footage was available, especially looking for outtakes and never-before-seen material. For example, Morgen matches outtakes from David and Albert  Maysles’ Gimme Shelter, a vérité-style look at the Stones’ 1969 US tour, with the Stones’ reflective comments to show the band as frightened victims of the Hell’s Angels violence at the infamous 1969 outdoor concert in Altamont. It’s a revisionist take.

“Altamont in Crossfire Hurricane is played very differently from Altamont inGimme Shelter,” Morgen maintains. “What we wanted to achieve with this is a whole film done through the Stones’ point-of-view. It was as horrific for them as anyone else. It was one of the few times in Mick Jagger’s career he wasn’t able to control a crowd with his taunting or his dancing. All his tools were ineffective.”

Surprisingly, for a band celebrating its 50th anniversary, Crossfire Hurricanecovers virtually no territory after the 1978 Some Girls album (and after Richards in the late 1970s avoided a lengthy Canadian jail term for heroin possession). It was a time, Jagger comments in the film, when the Stones were “transitioning into something not so dangerous,” where big crowds turned out to have fun, rather than live on the cutting edge.

That seemed to Morgen a good place to end. “I only had two hours and I felt my story came to a logical conclusion when the band had become royalty,” he says. “Not that the next phase of story isn’t interesting, but my story had concluded.”

Photo: Rankin/Courtesy of HBO

Steven Rosen is a freelance Cincinnati-based arts writer, and a former Denver Post movie critic. His stories are posted at

Review: Rodriguez Live in Columbus

(From www/,  11-9-12)

(Currently riding a crest of newfound attention thanks to the recently released documentary film about his unlikely career, the Sugar Man himself arrived at Columbus’ Wexner Center for the Arts on November 1 – and he was out to mix a little mischief into his music.)

Text & Photo by Steven Rosen

At age 70, Sixto Rodriguez has become an American folk hero. The two politically trenchant folk-rock-blues albums that the Detroit singer-guitarist put out in 1970 and 1971, overlooked in their time and long out of print, are now reissued and healthy sellers. The documentary Searching for Sugar Man, chronicling how he became popular in South Africa without ever knowing it, has been a surprise hit and is favored for an Academy Award nomination. And CBS 60 Minutes even profiled him.

So he has emerged from decades of working as a laborer in Detroit to start touring the U.S. If the hushed, reverent, sold-out crowd at Columbus’ Wexner Center is any indication, he is being welcomed with the kind of awe and respect that once met rediscovered musicians like Dock Boggs or Mance Lipscomb during the great blues and folk revival of the early 1960s. He is the wise elder, returned from exile.

So how did Rodriguez – who comes across as shy and quietly self-effacing in the movie and on the 60 Minutes segment – accept this adulation? Weirdly. Here’s an example:

“Let me tell you my Mickey Mouse joke,” he said from the bare stage, holding what appeared to be, and what sounded like, an amplified acoustic guitar but had the sleek body of an electric. He then recounted how Mickey and Minnie went to a marriage counselor, who told Mickey it would be wrong to divorce her just for being dumb. “I didn’t say she was stupid,” Mickey replied in Rodriguez’s joke. “I said she was fucking Goofy.” Long laughter followed.

So much for that all that folk-hero-worship stuff. Rodriguez is out to mix in a little mischief with his music. He also has his quirks. Considering that his own music has a rockin’, talking-blues quality that shows the influence of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” or early Donovan, you might think he’d cover a song or two by his peers.

He does do covers, but they are either standards like “Just One of Those Things” and “I Only Have Eyes for You,” or jazzy, soulful oldies like Lou Rawls’ “Dead End Street” and Little Willie John’s “Fever.” (He gave John, who was from Detroit and who recorded for nearby Cincinnati’s King Records, credit as a local hero, which the Columbus audience appreciated.

Rodriguez’s resonant, slightly weathered and highly expressive voice was well-suited for these songs, as was his guitar work, and I see a Rodriguez Does Standards album in his future.

But until then, he also gave people what they came for – songs that the Sugar Manmovie has made well-known, forty years after they were recorded and promptly overlooked the first time around. (Light in the Attic, a Seattle label, did get the ball rolling first by reissuing Rodriguez’s Cold Fact and Coming From Reality in 2008-2009.)

At the Wexner, he played “Sugar Man,” “Crucify Your Mind,”  “I Wonder,” “Like Janis” and  “This Is Not a Song, It’s an Outburst: Or, the Establishment Blues” to a crowd who took the song’s worth and renown, as a concrete cold fact. Rodriguez now has a canon.

His set was short, about an hour with no encore. He did not radically change his songs or use them for improvisation, which was too bad as a stretched-out “I Wonder” would have been quite a crowd-pleaser with its Motown rhythms.

With his long black hair, hat and shades, wearing a suit over a sleeveless, V-neck black muscle shirt, he had remarkable stage presence. He removed the jacket about halfway through, revealing a physique that could make him the envy of any AARP gathering.

And he is very relaxed on stage. While he needed guidance to get up the steps onto it in the darkened room, he held the spotlight confidently. He developed an easygoing repartee fairly quickly, and some of his comments had a provocative edge and bite. For instance, he offered to tell the crowd the secret of life  (“breathe in and out”) and the mystery of life (“you never know when it will end”).

Rodriguez’s comeback fits into a larger narrative about this year’s resilience and reemergence of Detroit in American life. Bettye LaVette, although she now lives in New Jersey, has showed on Thankful N’ Thoughtful that it’s never too late for an overlooked Detroit R&B singer of the 1960s to find her audience. The documentary Detropia has been a hit, often following Sugar Man into art houses. The Tigers made the World Series. And President Obama’s rescue of the auto industry turned out to be the key issue (in Ohio) that got him – and his progressive, hopeful view of America – reelected against the reactionary Republicans.

Rodriguez fits into that narrative, yet he’s not really having it. He sees the city through his activist eyes – he once ran for mayor. He told the crowd that “only when I left Detroit did I learn people smiled.” He also decried political corruption in the city.  Someone shouted for him to run for mayor again, and he responded like he’d consider it.

He ended the show with heartfelt thanks and a “power to the people” fist. And he made his way to the merchandise booth, where his newfound fans were lined up awaiting him.

Terence Blanchard Is Creating a Jazz Opera


By Steven Rosen

From Cincinnati Enquirer, 10-30-12

Champion, a highly anticipated jazz opera about boxer Emile Griffith’s tragic life, got a well-received first “public reading” Saturday night at University of Cincinnati’s College – Conservatory of Music.

It is scheduled to premiere in June at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. The opera company has commissioned Grammy-winning jazz composer and trumpeter Terence Blanchard for the music and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Michael Cristofer for the libretto. The “public reading” was a concert version of excerpted scenes from the full opera, followed by a Q&A with Blanchard and others.

It was the culmination of an innovative Opera Fusion: New Works workshop hosted by CCM and Cincinnati Opera and funded by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

The opera’s subject, the Virgin Island-born and New York-based Griffith, became a World Welterweight and Middleweight Champion whose most famous bout was a 1962 pummeling of Cuban-born Benny “The Kid” Paret, who fell into a coma and then died. Paret had already been hit badly in recent fights and maybe wasn’t fit to be in the ring that night. But before the bout, he had called Griffith a “maricon” – Spanish slang for being gay. (Griffith’s sexuality had been the subject of rumors.)

Several decades later, Griffith himself was severely beaten by a gang after leaving a New York gay bar. According to this opera – as Saint Louis Opera’s artistic director James Robinson explained at the performance’s start – that beating triggered the start of Griffith’s progressively worse dementia, a result of the punches received in his long boxing career.

In the opera, even as Griffith struggles with its onset, he arranges to meet Paret’s son to seek forgiveness. Griffith, who is still alive and in need of ongoing nursing care, has been quoted as saying about his life, “I kill a man and most people forgive me. However I love a man and many say this is unforgivable…”

Asked during the Q&A about why Griffith’s story appealed to him, Blanchard said, “When I won my first Grammy, I turned to my wife and gave her a kiss. When I won my (other) Grammys, I gave her a kiss. Here’s a man who won something and couldn’t share it with someone he loves. To me that’s a travesty. It’s tragic that even though we say we live in a free society, some people are not free.”

When the entire opera debuts in June with its full cast, sets, choreographed action and symphonic orchestration (plus a small on-stage jazz ensemble), one will be able to judge how it succeeds as a whole. But Saturday night’s performance of this work-in-progress indicated that the music has great potential.

Twelve seated, black-garbed CCM students performed the vocals on stage at Patricia Corbett Theater to the accompaniment of a four-piece combo with two pianists. Greg Ritchey conducted the musicians while Robinson sat to the side of the stage and came forward to explain upcoming scenes. Individual vocalists, taking assigned character roles, stood for their parts, using gestures, physical movement and facial expressions to bring life to their roles.

The jazz element was unmistakable in the use of rhythmic, syncopated piano and quietly insistent drums and bass. And the singers – especially Derrell Acon as young Emile and Melisa Bonetti as his mother – provided grave foreboding in the “pure” operatic passages and a rocking mixture of call-and-response, spiritual and even seemingly scat-style improvisation at other times. Bonetti memorably encompassed both approaches and had a stand-out aria when Emile’s mother is reunited with her adult son but not sure which of her children he is.

In the darkest scenes, when a jazzy musical lift might have been inappropriate to get across mournful solemnity, the music grew more traditionally classical. Yet even then Elena Kholodova’s sensitive piano work offered some overtones to the undertow. This worked especially well when the older, dementia-struggling Emile – sung powerfully with great melodic clarity by Cesar Mendez Silvagnoli – wondered where he had placed his shoe, asking if one might have wandered away by itself. Cristofer’s words here had a concise, heart-rending directness, like a William Carlos Williams poem.

Knowing what we know about the brain damage that boxing concussions can cause, this scene stripped away whatever sense of hero worship we might have brought to this subject. It made for a quiet, introspective finale with a lasting impact.

Judging from the enthusiastic audience response, the opera may become a champion in more ways than one. One person asked, to general overall approval, if he would have to go all the way to Saint Louis to see the full opera, wishing Cincinnati Opera would itself stage it. (Several of the CCM students will be in the Saint Louis production.)

Building that kind of early audience “buzz” seemed to be a key purpose of sharing Champion with the public at this time. “It is my deep desire and goal to make sure this has a life,” Robinson replied.

Blanchard agreed: “Our payback comes when we see these things live.”