I had ticket number 193 in the queue for standing room that went round the corner past Imperial College, 90 minutes before the gig started. There were empty seats on the night, but the Royal Albert Hall had sold out. This is the second time this year I’ve had to queue around the block for a John Cage gig. I had tried to get to one of the performances of Europeras 1 and 2 in Germany this summer, but they sold out three months in advance.
Young Cage famously dedicated his life to beating his head against the wall of harmony. Twenty years after his death, he’s still beating his head against the wall of his reputation. Fans and detractors alike still want to make exceptions for him.
The breadth of his musical output is hard to comprehend. I’ve read one review complaining that the Prom didn’t highlight the humour and playfulness in Cage’s music. Cage is slowly shedding layers of mythology: that he’s a charlatan, that he’s a novelty act, that his ideas are more interesting than his music, that he’s a humorist, that he’ll soon be forgotten. Remnants of all of these layers still cling to him. Expecting one 3-and-a-half hour concert to summarise his entire career is an insult, as it would be for any other great composer.
The Prom’s curator credited his audience with the intelligence to appreciate different styles and periods throughout Cage’s career while sustaining a consistent mood throughout.
The tone of the evening was set by beginning with 1O1 – a large orchestra on stage playing without a conductor. It’s a late piece, not so familiar to most of the punters and somewhat unusual even compared to the rest of Cage’s output. The audience settles into the strangeness and get caught up in the almost imperceptible subtleties created by each string player bowing a different note col legno, almost inaudibly. Later, we become aware of the buzz of a bullroarer, somewhere high up in the gallery.
The use of space in the Royal Albert Hall is remarkable. It feels completely natural for so many of the pieces to be played from different parts of the space, and the Hall seems to be the ideal venue for Cage. Once again I’m glad I got the cheap ticket to stand in the arena.
I think everyone was taken by surprise at how beautiful ear for EAR (Antiphonies) is: a brief call and response between Joan La Barbara alone on stage, echoed and transformed by singers from Exaudi hidden away in the balconies. Cage usually kept his melodies modal, but here poignant little chromatic inflections appear from time to time, like an unresolved cadence.
If there’s a statement to be made anywhere in the concert, it’s when David Behrman and Takehisa Kosugi enter the arena to play Cartridge Music. Their selection of materials to amplify seems casual, their playing abrasive and abrupt. Then they move to a mixing console and perform the piece again, surrounded by four pianists playing Winter Music. Amongst the isolated, discordant clusters emanating from the pianos, Behrman and Kosugi use the score of Cartridge Music to selectively amplify and relocate around the hall various instruments in the orchestra on stage, playing Atlas eclipticalis. The effect is both disorientating and immersive, a disjointed multiplicity coalescing into a unified whole. Not on tonight’s programme: In A Landscape, Sonatas and Interludes, or 4’33”.
If Cage had genius, it was for having really great ideas and then hiding them. Christian Marclay’s piece Baggage was premiered, in which a full orchestra play on nothing but their instrument cases. The sounds are fun and it all comes across as an enjoyable wheeze. Compare this to the way Cage uses the radio in the Concerto for Prepared Piano and Chamber Orchestra, where in a few fleeting instances you’re not sure what you’ve heard. Marclay gave us an idea presented as entertainment; Cage gave us music.
There were no BBC Radio 3 announcers on stage. Good.
I was kind of starstruck by all the performers assembled for this gig, and seeing them all assembled in one place doing their thing was a big part of the thrill for the night. That the programme listed practically all of them as their first appearance at the Proms felt both condescending and damning.
Afterwards, a friend said that she felt the Concerto was almost too “classical” in its gestures and expressivity, in the context of the other pieces played on the night.
Early in the programme, Improvisation III gave us an ambient soundscape that emanated from various hidden recesses of the darkened hall. At the end of the night, Branches presented another improvisational work, with a distinctive but similarly haunting atmosphere. Both pieces are obviously composed, but it was equally evident that the musicians actions producing the sound could not have been notated. It seems that everyone agrees that the actual improvisation between Christian Wolff, Keith Rowe, Behrman and Kosugi felt a bit flat and awkward.
Branches, for amplified plant materials, was performed here by over 20 musicians scattered throughout the hall, high and low. On paper it seemed like a subdued way to end the night. As it turned out, you were surrounded by sounds of all kinds. In this interpretation the piece was somewhere between a composition and an environment, the space wholly transformed by sound alone. The sounds were quiet, transparent, and as your attention moved from one place to another you realised that the musician nearest you was making sounds that would be inaudible to anyone further away. You began to notice the smallest little noise that could travel across the hall. No-one’s attention was being directed, but everyone’s attention was focussed. In that state of attentiveness, you realised something remarkable had happened: no-one was coughing.
Listening back to the radio broadcast, it’s amazing how everything on the night seemed to go on for longer than it actually did. Usually this would be a criticism, but when experiencing it in place I wanted it all to go on longer. Each piece created its own sense of time.
I guess everyone has got a story in their head about how and why they came to hold their present aesthetic and cultural values. When Robert Hughes died last week it reminded me that my own formative experience was when I was a little kid and happened to see an early episode of The Shock of the New. I was sufficiently absorbed by it that my parents let me stay up late once each week to watch the rest of the series.
I’ve never owned a copy of the book or rewatched the series on video; in fact I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen the first episode or two. Nevertheless, I am convinced that the images and ideas from that show were imprinted in my memory, and formed the mould into which all my subsequent thinking about art have been poured.
Up until then, my understanding of art was no deeper than the popular caricature of High Culture. I wondered why every artist seemed to be dead. My folks had a Time-Life book of Great Artists I’d flip through, which had Picasso, Matisse and Chagall in it, but I couldn’t understand why their paintings were weird and kind of ugly. When Robert Hughes talked about Dada, I suddenly found a type of modern art where I “got” what they were saying about the world. It had a point which seemed clear but which couldn’t easily be put into words – and that’s how I learned what art was about.
Similar formative experiences came later in my mid-teens, but then I was on the lookout for equivalent models of modernity in music and literature. My parents had another series of books about artists which ended with Duchamp, so that became my supplement guidebook to what I’d seen on TV. In writing, I read a bit of Pound and Eliot in school and then searched out more for myself, finding Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era, which opened up an entire alternative history of twentieth-century culture. Almost by coincidence, I got hold of Guy Davenport’s essays in The Geography of the Imagination, which set out a wider set of orientation points for modern writing and beyond. In one essay he observes that “all true education is unconscious seduction.”
I was looking around for “strange” music and picked up all sorts of odds and ends. The minimalists provided the most apparent style from outside the conventional tradition, but the real educational experience came from a series of radio programmes Edward Cowie made for the ABC, called Towards New Music. Later episodes focused on particular themes or composers, including one dedicated to John Cage and like-minded artists. At that time Cage was a person I’d heard of without really knowing anything about him other than that he seemed guaranteed to be fascinating. He was, and as a bonus Cowie played a few minutes of Paragraph 7 from Cornelius Cardew’s The Great Learning.
It was the first episodes, however, that got me hooked. Cowie attempted to start from first principles, discussing the nature and purpose of sound-making with an improvising orchestra of kindergarten kids, and critiquing how we are educated and socialised into a culture of music. It probably helped that Cowie is a painter as well as composer, allowing him to see a wider range of issues than the technical debates that clutter up too many histories of music.
However much I may have loved playing music, listening to it, reading or whatever, what truly caught up my imagination was these histories, showing how and why we had come to be doing what we do now, and how much more it is possible to do.
Here’s your chance to hear all the pieces composed for the Interior Design: Music for the Bionic Ear project last year, complete with interviews with the composers. ABC Classic FM has been interviewing each of us over the past few weeks and are now uploading a series of podcasts documenting the project.
If I sound a little vague when talking, it’s because I’d stayed up into the small hours to talk with Stephen over Skype. It was interesting to talk again about the various thought processes that went into making the piece, and I think the interview brought these out rather well.