13 February 02004

Review of John Cage weekend

Here's a review of the John Cage Uncaged weekend festival that I wrote a few weeks ago.

In hindsight perhaps it was inevitable that the most successful parts of the BBC Symphony Orchestra's long weekend dedicated to John Cage would be the music that was made in the intervals between the headline concerts. Cage and orchestras struggled with each other during his lifetime, and he found more receptive performers outside concert hall traditions, working with dancers and percussion ensembles, or producing his 'circuses' and 'happenings.' Though this pattern persists, the gradual, cautious and halting assimilation of the orchestra into Cage's project — or vice-versa? — shows that his impact is far from being played out or a spent force.

The shortest, largest performances were the two Musicircus ensemble pieces that saw over 300 performers in groups from one to fifty people playing simultaneously throughout the many nooks and crannies of the Barbican foyers. Gavin Bryars’ stand-up bass faced John-Paul Jones’ electric twelve-string instrument; BBC singers volleyed from the circle bar, while down in the cloakroom an attendant sang and played a typewriter, alongside a dinner party table where the guests explored the percussive potential of their utensils. There was something for everyone, and everyone was smiling. Smiling with simple joy, rather than the more gauche self-conscious titters provoked when soprano Loré Lixenberg blew a raspberry or started up a vacuum cleaner in the evening's concert in the Main Hall.

As Laurie Anderson said in one of the films screened during the weekend, I have nothing to say and I am saying it, Cage’s insight was not so concerned with originality as with tuning your sensitivity to the wonders you can experience in the world around you.

I’ve often passed the Barbican’s conservatory and wondered if, how and why anyone might spend time there. For eighteen hours it hosted one of the surprise hits of the weekend with a performance of Satie’s Vexations: a single page of music repeated 840 times. People visited repeatedly between concerts, and on the way to the film screenings, their attention drawn, as they wandered among tropical plants, to how these few phrases were never the same twice, revealing new spaces and potential each time. Returning the morning after the night before, with the opening bass line still imprinted on my mind’s ear, the new sound of birdsong rendered the music in a different relief. Stripped of the conventions of stage and theatre seating, we learnt from watching each other’s explorations of new ways to hear; we learnt to (un)focus.

The orchestral performances of Cage's music were less immediately striking. Because they shared the same basic language as the pieces by other composers (Varèse, Ruggles, Cowell), you have to work harder to determine their individual character. And because Cage has chosen the path of composing 'music with no intention' there is no signature personality to read off from the composition. This was, after all, the 'crossroads' that Cage described himself standing at — in Peter Greenaway's film profile — after his experience of hearing his blood circulation and nervous system at work in the anechoic chamber: he could follow the herd in composing intended sounds, or he could explore the orthogonal dimension of no intention.

So there were was more tension, more at stake, when the BBC Symphony Orchestra took on Cage. They deserve credit for this alone. In the discussion between Christopher Cook, Stephen Montague, Laura Kuhn and YY, much was made of the fact that at least one member of the orchestra had been seen to giggle during the performance. Should this be read as a giggle with Cage, at Cage or against Cage? Did it matter? Should such mirth be ignored or encouraged? These evangelists for the composer’s legacy could not agree among themselves. I suspect the rest of us would not agree whether this is evidence of the continuing challenge of Cage or the inconsequential angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin nature of any attempt to unpick the logic of the creative act.

Any extended retrospective inevitably invites reflections on the legacy of the individual at the centre. Cage played many roles for many people: inventor and innovator; teacher; and composer. In discussion on the first evening, Gavin Bryars observed that many people knew about Cage's ideas before they knew the music. Some of Cage's autobiographical accounts reinforce the idea of invention being born out of necessity. He concentrated on percussion works early in his career firstly because his tutelage with Schoenberg had convinced him he had no talent for harmony; and secondly because percussion instruments were cheaper and more readily available for a composer with no access to money or orchestras. He invented the prepared piano as a solution to the problem of providing dance music in a very small venue that only had a piano that was built in to the seating. Cage’s sensibility had at its centre a concern with exploring new possibilities. Thus he wrote, "My favorite music is the music I haven't yet heard. I don't hear the music I write. I write in order to hear the music I haven't yet heard" (from the Autobiographical Statement).

The three films screened illustrated how Cage situated his own contribution alongside great evangelists of the future and of innovation such as Marshall McLuhan and Buckminster Fuller, as well as being a fellow traveller with Marcel Duchamp, rethinking the relationship between art, life and the world. Subsequent generations have found it convenient and self-affirming to scoff at the naivety of the bold, simple ideas of the likes of Fuller. But we’re kidding ourselves if we think we have dealt fully with the challenges and aspirations they articulated.

Gavin Bryars, who studied with Cage in the 1960s, explained that studying with Cage was not like any conventional idea of tuition: it meant spending time in his company and absorbing his values. Didacticism was alien to Cage, and he sought to remain on the same level as the performers, artists and students around him – often open to new ideas from any direction. No one who spent any time with John Cage, said Bryars, ever ended up sounding like him. His 4'33" cleared the slate, and gave you the freedom to be yourself.

Cage's ideas and innovations are still more widely known than his music. The BBC's weekend helped modestly to balance things out: it brought the dada humour of Cage’s early percussion pieces, the pre-ambient stillness-in-motion of the string quartets, and the abiding challenge of the orchestral works to full houses of (re)fresh(ed) ears.

Posted by David Jennings in section(s) Cultural Calendar, Reviews on 13 February 02004 | TrackBack

Here are some other reviews from The Independent and Live Art Review.

Posted by: David Jennings on 4 October 02004 at 10:16 PM
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