Seashells have been used as musical instruments for many hundreds if not thousands of years. The Triton shell ("Triton's trumpet") serves as a trumpet in Melanesian and Polynesian culture. The Queen Conch has a flugelhorn-like effect in music of the West Indies.
The composer John Cage had a rather different idea for the humble shell. His 1976 work Inlet consists of the amplified sound of water being sloshed around in several conch shells of different sizes, some quite massive, others merely palm-sized. A tape of burning pine cones is heard in the background. At one point a performer blows into a conch shell which sounds something like a foghorn.
Musicians from the Brooklyn quartet So Percussion brought this otherworldly work to the WQXR Café recently, making ample use of our water cooler and instilling a certain Zenlike coolness in the room. Inlets was one of a handful of ecological pieces Cage wrote in the seventies, others being Child of Tree (1975), which calls for the amplification of a potted plant, and Il Treno (1978) for "prepared trains."
Cage, who was a devotee of the percussion family and dedicated his career to challenging the very notion of what music is, will be the focus of So Percussion’s concert at Zankel Hall on Monday night.
The program is part of a series of concerts the percussion group is giving around the world to mark the 100th anniversary of Cage's birth. Among the pieces it is touring is 24 x 24 by member Jason Treuting, which echoes Cage's extravagant pots-and-pans sound collages with a variety of instrumental and spoken sounds.
"If you think of Haydn as the grandfather of the string quartet, for us, we think of Cage as the grandfather of the percussion tradition," said member Adam Sliwinski on WNYC's Soundcheck. Considering his eccentric reputation, Sliwinski added: "If you're a percussionist, Cage is your old master, which is a funny word to apply to a guy like him."
Video: Amy Pearl; Sound: Edward Haber; Text: Brian Wise