Ruby Andrews, “You Made a Believer Out of Me” (1969).
(2’39”, 3.6 MB, mp3)
In the second-hand bookshop in Stoke Newington Church Street on the weekend. They had a hardback copy of Lawrence Durrell’s Nunquam, a book I’m sure I haven’t seen since the days of the Third World Bookshop in Adelaide, over twenty years ago. Back then and there, a couple dozen fading copies of the thing were stacked up on top of the other stacks of books wedged between the top of the bookshelves and the ceiling on the mezzanine, and they never moved. Perhaps they were holding the ceiling up. No-one ever tried to find out.
My friends called Third World “the bookshop that couldn’t say no”. The saleable stock was slowly and inexorably being crowded out or swallowed up by accumulating substrata of unmoveable stock. Occasionally you got lucky, like when I found a signed first edition of Janette Turner Hospital’s Borderline under half a centimetre of dust. Otherwise you could just take a reassuring tour of the familiar layers of superseded Pelicans, teacher’s handbooks, Nunquams and, in pride of place at the end of the Mezzanine, all 300 volumes of the collected writings of Lenin, a massive, yellowing white elephant.
Back in Stoke Newington, I noticed another vast off-white mass on top of the shelves where Nunquam lurked. It spilled over onto the adjoining bookcase. It was the collected writings of Lenin, in 300 volumes. I’ll have to go back next week to see if they’re both still there, in eternal embrace.
I saw Nixon in China about – wow, that long ago – and really enjoyed it. I passed up the chance to see The Death of Klinghoffer at the Coloseum last week, and I’m not exactly sure why I was so reluctant to take a punt on it.
Part of it must be just that John Adams is one of those composers I like most of the time but can’t get really fired up about. I’ve heard the recording and had the same general impression most criticisms start with: dramatically inert, awkwardly self-conscious yadda yadda. The main thing that kept me away was fear. Fear of being bored. Fear that the production would seize upon some of the opera’s worst aspects to make some cringingly well-meaning but insulting gesture toward “saying something” about the Middle East or, worse still, “offering support”.
On one level I dislike the opera’s tokenism; the way Adams and Alice Goodman grab the subject matter and then, unsure of what to do with it, revert to making the people and incidents symbolic, loading them down with excess ideological baggage. What should be the conflicted consciousness of the characters in their dilemma, is replaced by the confusion of librettist and composer contemplating the dilemma, and so the characters become aloof, ridiculous and phoney.
On another level I generally can’t stand pieces that are endlessly batted around in the meeja for their “controversial” subject matter, while being artistically inoffensive.
Meanwhile, another new opera is being staged at Covent Garden. When the composer’s own promotional spiel makes it sound like a ghastly Trendy Vicar swing at “relevance”, how can one hope it to be worth a damn?
It must be about dead-on a year ago that I first saw a performance of John Cage’s vast, protean Song Books. That time it was Exaudi at King’s Place. Last night I got to experience it again, enacted by a hodge-podge of players including a bunch of old Scratch Orchestra alumni, at Cafe Oto. On the surface the approaches taken by the two groups were broadly similar, but it was through the details that the work can truly live or die.
I almost didn’t get to see it this time. I hadn’t booked a ticket and when I got there a queue was already stretching down the street and round the corner. The place was rammed: the crowded atmosphere emphasised by having punters sitting in amongst the performers in the ‘stage’ area, and other performers scattered in amongst the standing crowd. Exaudi had a similar setup of their singers stationed around the audience, moving from one spot to the next from time to time. The crowd at King’s Place, however, remained seated in the middle throughout. Besides the milling crowd at Oto, there was also the bar and pavement outside luring punters in and out for refreshment.
On both nights, the programme was set up to last an hour, in the space of which each player independently performed a chance-determined programme of solos from the Books. Exaudi played their pieces expertly – I want to say impeccably. It was a faithful, thoughtful interpretation of Cage’s music, but it felt remote and clinical. It was ‘art’, mounted and framed. With the Scratch Orchestra et al things were more chaotic, a little rougher round the edges but no less faithful in interpretation. Some players were a little too enthusiastic, swatting at tables with paper plates or menacing punters with alligator masks. Others were a little too reticent, like the couple who spent most of the time in the centre of the room, singing in unison, apparently more to themselves than to the audience.
It was precisely this diversity that made last night at Oto the more rewarding experience, as we all saw and participated in an enactment of Cage’s aesthetic and social values of the time: of diversity, abundance, coexistence, anarchy, the merging of art and life. For an hour or so everyone in the bar experienced Cage’s vision for the world in microcosm. The crowded room inevitably cramped some of the theatrical elements called for in the score, but compromises were made, punters made room as necessary. In other words, there was true, unselfconscious audience interaction and participation, without coercion.
In this atmosphere, the chance coincidences and juxtapositions took on more than just an aesthetic appeal. At one point a pretty lady in a red dress stood and repeatedly intoned Thoreau’s anarchist maxim “The best form of government is no government.” Behind her, a pianist began playing Cage’s lovely 1949 composition Dream. Soon after this was almost drowned out by insistent hammering. All three carried on unperturbed. When the hour was up, this same woman in red had just been tasked with typing out a phrase of Erik Satie’s, 38 times, on a recalcitrant manual typewriter. The audience stood around intently, and waited patiently in silence until she was finally done.
The Oto performance succeeded as art because so much more of life was able to infiltrate it. Whenever I think I understand Cage a little better, a new complication appears. I keep thinking of Morton Feldman’s challenge, “Is music an artform? Or is it just showbiz?” (For this argument, the Exaudi gig was showbiz.) Cage’s music is definitely art and yet, in this case at least, the closer it comes to life the better it works as art. Put that way, Cage sounds like an old-fashioned mimetic artist, but what he achieves is not mimicry of life, rather he recreates certain principles on which life conducts itself. What bugs me about this is: if interpretation of Cage’s work were to continue to approach ‘real life’ closer and closer, at some point it would cease to be art. If we accept Cage’s conceit that there is no distinction between life and art, life may be permitted to intrude upon a performance of Cage to the extent that it misrepresents Cage’s work. There is some undefined tipping point within Cage’s work whereupon it refutes itself.
Therefore, to be like life, Cage’s music must always remain as art, to some extent. Of course there is a distinction between art, as witnessed at Cafe Oto, and artifice.
Phil Winsor, “S.T.O.C. ‘Same Tired Old Changes’” (1982). Mark Graf, flute; Mary Beth Skaggs, clarinet; Neely Bruce, organ et. al.
(6’38”, 9.9 MB, mp3)
I’d much rather think about things than do them. Or rather, once I’ve thought of something, it seems largely redundant and pointless to go ahead and actually make it. This is why I make music, and why I make the type of music that I do: I don’t know what it will sound like until it’s done.