Paul Schuette, a grad student in composition at UC’s College-Conservatory of Music, assembled a cast of almost two dozen fellow music students to perform Music for Newspapers and Radios (Media Bridges, 100 Race St.), his nonlinear, multimedia program of performance, video, projection, spoken word and broadcast sounds.
Schuette built the entire program around one important work: famous 20th-century avant-garde composer John Cage’s 1956 “Radio Music,” an eight-part composition played entirely on radios, whose “players” tune the transmitters and incorporate whatever hits the airwaves into the performance. Cage’s work is one of five compositions in the program that weave in and out of each other.
The performers — radio tuners, a string quartet, a group with a guitar, electric piano, small drum kit and a sine tone generator and newspaper readers — overwhelm the stage and spill into the audience. This placement is out of necessity in the Media Bridges space, but Schuette uses the inconvenience of too-many-performers-not-enough-stage to his advantage by dispersing Cage’s composition throughout the theater.
Unfortunately, in the small Media Bridges black box, the performers naturally outnumber the audience, making an already non-narrative and non-melodic work seem self-indulgent. But this is Fringe, and therefore we gleefully indulge indulgences.
“Tomorrow?” is Schuette’s own 2003 composition, an inherently contemporary and localized composition, similar to “Radio Music.” Four newspaper readers pace the stage and the awkward diagonal “aisle” of the space, reading aloud and in unison separate sections from a newspaper printed on the day and in the city of the performance, imbuing it with transience and attaching it to geography.
A string quartet plays Schuette’s 2005 composition, “… no news is good news,” a piece in graphic notation spliced onto a week’s worth of New York Times front pages from April 2005. The pages and notations are projected on a screen, whose unfortunate position far offstage divides the audience’s attention.
Still, it is interesting to “read” the music as Schuette has sketched it. The musicians have great flexibility in interpretation, and each adds his or her own flourishes and idiosyncrasies. As they play, each shouts out select words (“Republicans!” “Iraq!” “North Korea!” “Attacks!”) from the Times pages, reminding the listener how closely connected the piece is to newsworthiness. The shouting and the dissonance of the music make the words feel incendiary, like sparks flying up from a roaring blaze.
In “Media Counterpart,” Schuette turns his focus to a catastrophic near future or perhaps a nostalgia for the imagined apocalypses of the nuclear arms race era. A guitarist uses an electronic bow and another musician plays a sine tone generator and incorporates radio static in this eerie, abstract electronic composition, calling to my mind abandoned landscapes dotted with destruction, desolation and war machines.
In Cage’s “Radio Music,” the listener strains and struggles to identify meaning among the hisses, cracks and whistles, experiencing the tiny victories and defeats of grasping at some elusive communiqué before it dissolves again into the fuzzy signal interference between stations.
What ties Schuette’s and Cage’s pieces together is the pull and push of white noise and discernable meaning. This pattern — content and static, content and static — provides both the structure of the program and defines the experience for the audience.
Content broken and scattered among abstraction makes the audience feel uneasy and anxious during the 60 minutes. This will not be an easy hour spent for the Fringe-goer seeking the quirky narrative storytelling characteristic of many Fringe shows. But Schuette’s work grants an attentive, open-minded audience member the time, space and freedom to loosen the imagination while paying close attention to the anxiety that is the personal toll of our geopolitical discord.