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The Rambler :: blog

Wednesday, January 07, 2004

John Cage: Musicircus 

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If I ever got asked to do an Epiphanies page for The Wire, then I suppose hearing this work for the first (and second) times at the Barbican, London, back in 1998 would be my subject of choice.

Scott somedisco makes the comment to a post below that Cage is possibly better as theory than music. This is a common complaint, and one I myself had up until hearing Musicircus. The theory is, at times, thrilling simple and at others infuriatingly, er, simple. I've eulogised about Silence before, but it really is one of the best music-philosophy-shaggy dog stories you will ever read.

And because the theory is so self-sustaining, so divorced from traditional notions of creative endeavour (Cage's author didn't die - he went out mushroom picking), it is too easily assumed that this is all that's needed. No diss to Scott - I see it in music students all the time (and pro academics even). Everyone knows how 4'33" works, so it's easy to assume that you don't actually need to hear it. By the same token, we can all draw charts and toss coins, so we should all have Music of Changes in us. But it's a dangerous mistake to think like this. I've seen plenty of post-Cageian composers who take up the aleatory baton where he left it. There were a couple at the Barbican in '98. But you got the sense from their music that for all their rigorous attention to detail in recreating and developing Cage's methods, they'd missed something somewhere. There is a real magic within Cage's music, and a dedicated seriousness (despite popular myth, almost all his scores where written with an authoritarian control even Ferneyhough would admire. There are plenty of stories of Cage walking out of rehearsals and performances because of players not playing what he'd actually written, and taking license with his scores.), and a child's joy in sound. I'm sure anyone who grew up with a piano in the house dropped things onto the strings to hear what they sounded like - only Cage remembered this as an adult and did something with it.

Back in 1998, the Barbican were running a series on 'American Originals'. Everyone from Adams to Zorn. And in the midst of one Saturday afternoon, they'd filled the lobbies and balconies of the Barbican Centre without about 20 different groups. Most of them were free improv sorts, or were playing other pieces by Cage; there were also a couple of acrobats, a singer on a swing, another on foot walking around, an Irish fiddle band, and a whole load more besides. The piece itself is really a set of instructions for putting together a performance score that can then be distributed around. Every group had the piece of music that they were going to play, and a timeline that lasted exactly an hour, and was punctuated by a series of start and stop points, with timings. These had been determined by coin tosses, as according to Cage's instructions, and every group had a different line.

And they all had synchronised stopwatches.

At an agreed time (3pm if memory serves) they all started playing (or not, according to their timeline), and proceeded, following their timing instructions to the second. So it didn't matter where they were in a piece, or who was listening to them, or whether they were bored, or tired, or wanted to bend the rules a little: they started and stopped according to the demands of the stopwatch and the coin toss. Precise randomness: the essence of Cage. And after exactly an hour, they all stopped, in unison.

People reeled, before they dared applaud.

For the next hour, after the piece had finished, there was a round table discussion about Cage's music held in the main central foyer of the Barbican, and at 5pm precisely a second performance of Musicircus (this time with different timelines for everyone) was scheduled. And sure enough, as one chap was standing to address his question to the panel of Cageites, the clock hit 5, and the whole piece was encored. The questioner looked nonplussed - the panellists shrugged at him. I grinned. The egotistic composer who really sat deep in the heart of Cage would have loved that. "Shut up and listen!"

Do what you like, but whatever you do, listen.

Contemporary music is rarely this much fun, this exuberant, and it's easy for people to forget that it ever is at all. When I was there, mothers were pushing prams around, introducing their children to new music. Why don't we see that all the time? I thought. This is the craziest cacophony in the world, yet kids are enjoying it. Why not Ligeti, then? Or Stockhausen, or Boulez?

Why do we take all this stuff so damn seriously? I've thought this many, many times ever since. And it took an extravagant whim by the arch avant-gardist to answer that question. So trust me; if you can, get to the Barbican later this month - the Musicircus bits are free - and I almost guarantee you will fall in love.


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