sat 20/07/2024

Out Hear: Exaudi play John Cage Song Books, Kings Place | reviews, news & interviews

Out Hear: Exaudi play John Cage Song Books, Kings Place

Out Hear: Exaudi play John Cage Song Books, Kings Place

A deadpan performance to cleanse the mind and sharpen the senses

The core singers of ExaudiDavid Jensen

At its best, and most preposterous, John Cage's work can be a mind-cleanser. The overwhelmingly silly randomised conjunctions and ontological punning of the great Zen master of the 20th-century avant-garde can coax and trick you into letting go of categories and judgments, scale and expectation, and just letting yourself get swept along with the gloriously complex and profoundly nonsensical multidimensional parlour games.

Where some artworks might make you feel like you're on drugs, or like you want to be on drugs, very occasionally, Cage can make you feel the startling clarity of the undrugged.

The Song Books of 1970 have as much potential to overwhelm the faculties as anything in Cage's oeuvre, being a huge set of instructions in various forms from which musicians – operating independently of one another – can build up a collage of speech, action, sound and song, laced heavily with quotations from and allusions to the works of Henri Thoreau and Erik Satie. With “songs” which include preparing a salad, drinking brandy and playing a game of backgammon alongside recitations from Thoreau's journals, the piece is about bringing life being lived into the musical performance and, in theory, blurring the lines between life and performance.

EXAUDI4AThe Exaudi singers (pictured right), and electronic musicians from the University of East Anglia working with sound artist Bill Thompson, performed the Song Books entirely deadpan last night. Seated all around the audience, each with a stopwatch around their necks, the musicians stood up, sat down, untied and retied their shoelaces, paced across the auditorium, handed carefully wrapped packages of cranberries to audience members, and sang Thoreau's pastoral musings mostly with the seriousness of a consort performing religoius oratorios. With the smell of garlic crushed in a mortar to dress the salad (which was served in a bowl covered in mushroom designs, in a nice nod to Cage's mycological obsessions) filling the room, it felt as if the activity around us might build to something immersive and absorbing.

And on occasion it did. John Cage performances tend to demonstrate that there's no such thing as true randomness in human endeavour: however independently the performers may operate, there's no escaping the human facility for pattern recognition and amplification, and at the times when there was the most activity in the performance, with the performers utterly focused in on what they were doing, it felt more and more like a complex system operating as a whole. At these times, questions of meaning or meaninglessness became irrelevant, and it felt like being in a hive of alien activity - elegant, strange, occasionally disquieting but fascinating and oddly soothing. Even though the voices and electronic sounds being made may have created discord, it was a purposeful, living discord that felt good to be a part of.

At other times the prim delivery made it feel like this was simply an abstracted recital rather than a subversion of the art/life boundary

At other times, though - all too often, in fact - a slight primness to the delivery made it feel like this was simply an abstracted recital rather than a subversion of the art/life boundary. As with an actor who "breaks the fourth wall", only to remind you even more strongly that you're all still in a theatre, it was often impossible to escape the fact that we were all sitting politely and quietly in rows, with these sounds and actions being delivered to us. And ultimately there was no real sense of unpredictability; even when one of the electronic musicians got up and walked out of the room, not returning even for the curtain calls, it barely merited a raised eyebrow. Given the myriad possibilities Cage's score offers, it would have been nice to be surprised more.

A Thoreau text repeated throughout by different singers stated "the best form of government is no government at all; that is the form we'll have when we are ready for it" - but this performance very rarely felt ungoverned or anarchic. Nevertheless, the performers' commitment and dry wit was in evidence throughout and the hour of pseudo-random activity was never boring; this is a hugely impressive achievement in itself. And even if it didn't leave us looking at the world completely afresh afterwards, we certainly felt our senses a little sharpened, our sensitivity to the mesh of human and natural activity a little greater, as we walked out into the King's Cross evening - a mixed blessing, some might say, but it's more than you take away from many evenings out.

“Songs” which include preparing a salad, drinking brandy and playing a game of backgammon sit alongside recitations from Thoreau's journals

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