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At the Barnes, George Crumb and Margaret Leng Tan and the persistence of melody

Tan performed what she calls the Three Cs: Crumb, Cage, and Cowell.

Pianist Margaret Leng Tan
Pianist Margaret Leng TanRead moreYvonne Tan

Just when you are starting to crave an actual melody — after the pianist has put on and taken off a clown nose, long into all that business of reaching into the body of the Steinway grand to strum strings — composer George Crumb gives you a tune: a snippet of the slow movement from Mozart's Clarinet Concerto.

Wednesday at the Barnes Foundation was a historic night, the audience was told more than once, and maybe it was. Crumb was in attendance for the Philadelphia premiere of his Metamorphoses, Book I, and, hearing the work along with pioneering piano pieces by John Cage and Henry Cowell, you certainly sensed the arc of history as it bent toward innovation.

What can the piano do that sounds nothing like the piano? What, all three composers asked, can be done to the piano?

Who better to find out than Margaret Leng Tan? The New York pianist has been called the high priestess of the toy piano, and she is also well-versed in the dark arts of expanding the piano's range of colors and sounds by placing, per the composer's instructions, objects on or between the strings (any household object might do — a screw, piece of rubber,  a glass).

The concert was part of the Barnes' relatively new interest in presenting new music, and the vast Annenberg Court worked well, arranged with pianos beneath a video screen projecting art. The better visual analog to this repertoire, however, lives farther out on the Parkway, where the Philadelphia Museum of Art's Duchamp collection raises many of the same questions as Cage.

Well, one main question, really: What is art?

Cage's most pointed way of framing the question came to him in the 1950s, in the way 4'33" used a silenced performer to show that art can be the accidental thing that happens when no one is playing. (Duchamp's ready-mades, real-life objects imported into art – most sensationally a urinal – came earlier.) Maybe Tan was putting us in the mind-set by making us focus on our own ambient sounds as we waited for her arrival in the half-dark?

But listen to what Cage was doing by the 1940s: Tan started the recital with Cage's The Perilous Night, setting up an evening of delicious synchronicity. With piano prepared and amplified, patterns emerged from seemingly random pitches and colors. Some piano strings sounded like gongs; other effects added up to a joyous pinball-machine indeterminacy. Somewhere in the protean repetition we might have heard the stirrings of minimalism.

Cowell, who was one of Cage's teachers, was represented by four Janus-like works. His harmonic language in Aeolian Harp, from 1923, was conservative, and all the pieces had a programmatic aspect. The tone clusters and string-strumming techniques, though, retain a progressive edge that makes the ears prick up.

At 88, Crumb has generations of composers still listening for what will come next. He is writing a Metamorphoses, Book II for pianist Marcantonio Barone. This first book, premiered at the National Gallery of Art in Washington in May, is somewhat inspired by Pictures at an Exhibition. As Tan played, the 10 works to which its movements correspond were flashed for a minute or so onto a screen before dissolving into a series of less-story-specific textural projections by Monica Duncan.

Crumb seems even now very 20th-century. His work, scored for amplified piano (strings sometimes manipulated), toy piano, percussion, and an odd vocalization or two, makes specific references to the art. We hear the spastic dart of Paul Klee's The Goldfish. Tan caws softly for Van Gogh's Wheatfield with Crows. A Jasper Johns Perilous Night elicits from Crumb a piano part sheathed in barbed-wire sound. Chagall's Clowns at Night is the piece that finds red-nose manifestation on Tan's face. But in her fingers, too, of course. Crumb underlines the electric green eyes in Klee's Black Prince with a buzzing low string.

Dalí was perfect fodder and foil for Crumb, who considers his forbears not only the 20th-century innovators, but all of music (David Bowie was a fan). Mozart is not forgotten. The great clarinet melody emerges from the menace in Dalí's The Persistence of Memory sweetly and eerily.