This could be a tough nut to crack for someone. In a nutshell (pun intended), 128 minutes of intertwined splinters of John Cage’s wide-ranging output, in parallel with the real-time action of renowned pianists Reinhold Friedl and Miroslav Beinhauer interpreting selected pages from the composer’s book. Unless a wannabe critic recurs to filling the allotted space with rehashed biographies, paraphrases of the press release, and impossible summaries of the booklet’s content, an ineffable record such as Chess Show depicts that reviewer’s dread. Here, therefore, is a splendid copy and paste of the introductory notes (written for the 2017 edition of the Ostrava Days festival) to this multimedia project, for the improvement of your preliminary comprehension. Perhaps.
“The 64-minute piece uses fragments of Cage’s works as sound material, randomly re-arranged and combined. Simultaneously with Chess Show, Reinhold Friedl will perform Cage‘s Song Books. In the manner of quodlibet, Chess Show’s strict structure will be confronted with an unpredictable selection of other works: various piano parts from Number Pieces, jumbled takes on selection from Song Books, maybe even Suite for Toy Piano and Satie’s Vexations. Chess Show also features a visual component: the two elements, music and visuals, are mutually independent, only sharing a 64-minute timeline divided into sixteen four-minute sections; the overall duration corresponds to the chessboard’s 64 squares and the I Ching’s 64 hexagrams. In individual sections, the music and sound samples, as well as their durations, beginnings, and ends, are determined by chance operations following the I Ching’s guidelines. Important operations were conducted using yarrow stalks, while other parameters, including time brackets, use a random number generator. The visual component of Chess Show is based on a transcript of a 1970 game between chess masters Robert Fischer and Vasily Smyslov (Bird’s Opening). We see a commonplace black-and-white chessboard, under which, instead of chessmen, there is a layer of 22 black-and-white photographs with John Cage motifs. Individual moves activate different squares to show the pictorial layers underneath, rather than chess pieces. The sequence of moves is partially randomized. Apart from temporal correspondence, the visual component is independent of the soundtrack. In 64 minutes, 128 pictures emerge for varying amounts of time (determined by randomly generated time brackets), reflecting the different amounts of deliberation required for individual chess moves. In the course of the game, initially clear-cut visual modifications corresponding to individual moves gradually give way to recurring glitches and full-scale changes.”
All clear? Great. Do you think this prepares you for what you’re going to hear? Not exactly. However, at home, the sixteen parts (eight for each version, one live and the other recorded in a studio) can be listened to consecutively, or in shuffle mode. In this challenging work, structural geometries may be clearly defined and in some ways modular, yet the overall content sounds more like a refined orchestral translation of primordial magma. Nonetheless, several (vague) points of reference popped up during the listening sessions: by memory, Zeitkratzer (of course), Hermann Nitsch, Fred Frith with Ensemble Modern (Traffic Continues remains an outstanding album to this day).
While echoes of Cage’s compositional originality and conceptual influence are naturally tangible, and not just because one reads the subtitle and the liners before spinning the discs, we must contend with the implementation of a multifarious audio picture which is full of unresolved conflicts, polythematic overlays, theatrical overtones, and relatively submerged references. For all of the above, Opening Performance Orchestra, a contemporary music ensemble from the Czech Republic previously met by this writer in the excellent Merzopo (Sub Rosa), represents the ideal trait d’union between the need for complete control over the electroacoustic fabric and the ability to engage the audience without letting it get swept up in the eddies of complex sonic currents.
Given my ever-growing severity, both CDs had to be carefully scrutinized in their entirety via headphones. In view of how disconcerting the music is, this is no simple task. The attention has to be scattered at various levels of detail and progression, since you’re systematically exposed to assorted types of information overload. This could cause nervous weariness for minds that are inexperienced in this kind of notion. Ordinary audiences have never been particularly adept at controlling event-filled simultaneity, especially that characterized by varied degrees of discord; rest assured that this will not be the exception that proves the rule. The Eno-esque trick of having everything run in the background at moderate-to-low volume, mixing it with environmental reverberations and domestic presences, might be functional for persons who can’t digest the difficulties, but still want to play “cool intellectual” with friends who are even more ignorant than they are. Yours truly also attempted the latter method, almost for fun; the results were surprisingly remarkable, in that strange frequencies, unexpected rhythmic figurations, and intriguing (if oddly blended) colors did emerge. Extreme focus remains a requirement, though, if getting to the core of the issue is the intention.
Despite not being an ardent Cage fanatic, I nevertheless find myself strongly recommending Chess Show, albeit a little late. Sometimes its material veers toward inharmonic bliss, whereas elsewhere it elicits a certain discomfort, occasionally bordering on anguish. As is common knowledge, sound captures the true essence of life, frequently foretelling – often in brutal fashion – what lies ahead. We have been preparing ourselves quite scrupulously, down here.