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.