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S & H Concert Review

John Cage Uncaged at the Barbican, London, 16-18 January 2004 (JM)

 

 

As with every year in mid-January the BBC staged a composer portrait, this time dedicated to the American John Cage.

I went there with some apprehension for two reasons: first I found another performance of Cage’s famous silent piece 4’33 somewhat pointless. And indeed, Lawrence Foster, an otherwise fine conductor, made a bit of a fool of himself when he wiped imaginary sweat from his brow from the supposed strain of conducting nothingness. Also between each of the three sections the audience coughed their lungs off, as if supporting the joke. But that is Cage: either he is turned into a joke, or taken much too seriously in a philosophical, almost mystical way. If you want to explore a serious discussion of 4’33 I can recommend the American professor Larry J Solomon’s 1998 essay. Another experimental, conceptual piece which only bears one performance is Erik Satie’s Vexations.

Secondly I didn’t wanted to be disappointed by prematurely aged experimental music of my once hero Cage. I have attended and wasted time at many experimental music events in the last 25 years, which were supposedly inspired by Cage. Nothing ages more quickly than yesterday’s self-proclaimed avant garde. I was curious if Cage stood the passage of time.

I was positively surprised: the three days had great moments. The pianist Philip Mead gave a fantastic performance of Henry Cowell’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1928). In Mead’s interpretation the tone clusters blended perfectly with the orchestral sounds. It was also great to hear Charles Ives’s Central Park in the Dark (1906) again. It is extraordinary how ahead of his time Ives was. The rejuvenated BBC Symphony Orchestra with many young female faces produced a fresh, exciting sound.

On Saturday afternoon the pianist and composer Stephen Montague, a friend of Cage, organised Musicircus, simultaneous sonic and danced actions in the large, rambling foyer of the Barbican Hall. Small groups of 1-5 performers played independently from each other on various instruments, gadgets or electronic tools. The listener was free to walk around between these groups and chose his or her own sonic foreground and background. The lack of an opportunity to walk around in the London Sinfonietta’s performance of Cage’s Apartment House 1776 made this a long and boring experience. The ensemble was also split up into several groups playing pieces independently. In the conventional setup in the Barbican Hall all the audience could do was endure a static cacophony of 25 minutes.

Positively amazing were the beautiful sounds which the BBC Symphony Chorus under Stephen Jackson produced in Cage’s choral piece Variations I for Stephen Montague on Sunday afternoon in St. Luke’s. If you take Cage seriously it leads the performers to extraordinary sonic results. Bravo! Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes (1946-48) for prepared piano, always an easy crowd puller, were perfectly and by heart performed by Rolf Hind.

The most outstanding performance was given by the soprano Loré Lixenberg in Cage’s Aria. Lixenberg is not just a good singer, she is a deeply theatrical performer, who constantly transgressed the boundaries of musical performance, inspired by Cage, with ease and astonishing results. It brought back the excitement of the convention breaking inventiveness of Cage. Lixenberg has energy, wit and highly accomplished vocal abilities, which made her live performance a rare event.

Another great musician was the conductor David Porcelijin. He is able to play with the BBC Symphony Orchestra as if it were one complex instrument, be it in Varèse’s classic, powerful Amériques, or in Cage’s sparse Atlas eclipticalis performed simultaneously with Winter Music and Cartridge Music. It was a pity that Sound Intermedia did some very unsubtle and plump "sound design", which was much too loud.

The late concert "Constructions in Metal" was striking on a visual level. To see all the strange percussive instruments on stage and the Guildhall Students rushing around between them and producing unusual sounds under the direction of Richard Benjafield was an impressive spectacle.

So what is Cage? Originally he wanted to become a writer. His books – the most important one is Silence – are unconventional, witty and inspiring. He is an extremely good story teller. Cage contributed enormously to the expansion of what was accepted as musical sounds. He was a destroyer, systematically cut the harmonic glue between notes. Any sound was good for him. Cage was one of the first to use electronic sound manipulation. He also destroyed conventional boundaries of musical art forms. In that sense he was also a liberator from stale conventions often inspiring artists, choreographers, writers rather than composers. Cage was definitely an ingenious inventor (prepared piano) trying to open our ears to the beauty of sounds as they are and fighting against subjective taste and the prescriptive lecturing of musical composition. He introduced completely new procedures of composing music like chance operations and indeterminacy, always with the aim of excluding personal taste. But great freedom requires high discipline, which Cage strictly imposed on himself. Here Cage is often misunderstood, sometimes deliberately, in the sense that anything goes and everybody is an artist. Think again – and indeed, the Cage weekend in the Barbican made you think again!

 

Jean Martin

 

 


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