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After Cage, a new type of musical silence

No two composers have made so much of silence as John Cage and Matthias Pintscher - though separated by decades and arriving at the absence of sound from different philosophical hemispheres.

No two composers have made so much of silence as John Cage and Matthias Pintscher - though separated by decades and arriving at the absence of sound from different philosophical hemispheres.

The latest chapter of the Cage: Beyond Silence festival, celebrating the centennial of the composer who institutionalized silence as an expressive entity, was cheek-by-jowl with Curtis 20/21, the Curtis Institute's modern-music group.

The Curtis guest conductor was the 41-year-old Pintscher, a frequent visitor here who takes German modernism into ever more subtle terrains. The student performers also had extensive coaching from modern-music specialists eighth blackbird, the ensemble in residence.

The composers' respective silences can't be heard the same way. Cage's music grows out of it. Silence is the bedrock. With Pintscher, sound leads to silence, sometimes as a logical outgrowth of a musical idea. Cage's silence requires fundamental nonintellectual acceptance - along with whatever breaks the silence. With Pintscher, you're contemplating what the silence means.

The main Pintscher piece on the Curtis program Sunday at Gould Rehearsal Hall was the 2006 Verzeichnete Spur for chamber orchestra and double bass soloist (of sorts) that used subtle electronic effects suggesting echoes of echoes. It was introduced as a piece that explores "the line between this life and beyond." Sometimes, you had the illusion of silence even though there was an undercurrent of sound that might be called an electronic wake.

Much of the rest of the sounds were muted. Percussion instruments were lightly brushed with bows. You heard a gesture suggesting the ominous flapping of giant wings (which seems to be Pintscher's signature). By no means was the piece entirely dreamy: The savvy bassist Nathaniel West had a hugely eventful cadenza, made even more so by a good deal of electronic refraction.

The other Pintscher piece was a solo piano work, on a clear day, suggesting the contemplative Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu with a needed editor. Andrew Hsu played it like Debussy. The biggest work on the program was the ultradense Schoenberg Chamber Symphony No.1. Often, it can sound like Brahms in a trash compactor. Given the fluid sensibility of Pintscher's own works, it's no surprise that Schoenberg's music flowed with overlapping, simultaneous ideas.

The wildest card on the program was Arpège by Italian composer Franco Donatoni (1927-2000), whose name is heard much more than his music. The piece was a series of musical modules, each with a combustible manner and contrasting sound worlds. But what could've sounded like avant-garde channel surfing all seemed to belong together, particularly in Sunday's well-considered performance.

The Cage concert Friday at the Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral had selections from Cage's Song Books played by the BSC, a contemporary music group formed by Bhob Rainey. Since Cage songs often leave so many fundamental decisions to the performers, The BSC played them simultaneously with Cage's Variations III and Christian Woolff's Edges. It's possible, then, that the concert was more about BSC than the composers (who would probably approve).

The charm of the 90-minute performance was the group's attachment to warm, retro sounds that middle-aged Cage would have known, such as the Theremin and electronic tracks with quaint radio static, all meditatively folded together with lots of atmospherically breathy effects by trumpeter Greg Kelley and Rainey on soprano saxophone.

I felt perfectly at home in this sound environment, and wondered afterward if the concert could be called "authentic instrument Cage." Probably not. Rainey's group began in Boston, a town with a strong antiquarian streak, where people like to build their own electronic instruments. And theirs just came out this way.