wed 12/08/2020

Cage 99, St George's Bristol | reviews, news & interviews

Cage 99, St George's Bristol

Cage 99, St George's Bristol

Three days of John Cage bring riotous surprises and inconceivable repetitiveness

Cage has often been dismissed as a latter-day Dadaist, intent on taking the piss out of the establishment. There are links with Dada – not least a friendship with Marcel Duchamp, who shares with Cage the reputation for being a conceptual radical rather than the author of great works. But there is also an affinity with Erik Satie who joined the Dadaists in Paris, playing along with their sense of revolutionary fun, although the pieces which touched Cage most came from a much earlier period in the composer's life. Erik Satie’s mammoth piece Vexations, which opened the festival, was probably composed around 1892-3 and was most likely never played in the composer’s time. The piece is based on a "motif", as Satie called it, that lasts less than 2 minutes and should be repeated 840 times.

In Bristol, a relay of pianists - including Cage specialist Margaret Leng Tan, Goldfrapp’s Will Gregory, festival co-curator Charles Hazlewood and local musicians - played the piece 420 times, while the missing complement of equal length was broadcast on a large-scale public screen on Millennium Square, the desultory patch of urban-planning glitz down by the docks. For more than 10 hours, the small audience tiptoed in and out of the concert hall, while the pianists, each of them delivering 30 rounds of the piece, succeeded each other as seamlessly as expert team racers.

Vexations is, on one level, about the abolition of time, as the effect of a repeated and very simple piece enables the listener to escape from expectations of narrative and focus on the moment, to appreciate timbre and acoustic rather than musical development. The decision to advertise the accumulating number of repetitions on a big screen behind the pianos may have kept the audience and pianists happily on track, but score-keeping, with its taste of the endurance test, felt a little out of place and worked against the savouring of the moment.

Vexations is an unacknowledged ancestor of Minimalism, without the subtle variations that characterise Reich, Glass or Riley, but featuring instead a relentless repetition that can grate one minute and elate the next. Satie is very clear about the "très lent" tempo, and individual speed varied from the distinctly funereal to near-immobility. Cage wanted to banish ego from music, and Vexations does just that: as the hours passed by, all that came to the keyboard, albeit with slightly different approaches to the material, were subservient to the work.

Down by the docks, with the background sounds of city bustle, the reverberating riffs from a break-dancer’s beatbox and the random cries of playing children, Vexations was perhaps more genuinely Cagean. There was something both magical and mysterious about the combination of trance-inducing repetition on the public mega-screen and the everyday tone of the environment, as if Satie had inadvertently written muzak for neglected public spaces.

In 4’ 33” the recommendation was that we turn our mobile phones on and allow chance to determine the nature of the non-silence Cage wanted the audience to experience


On the second evening, Cage specialist and “high priestess of the toy piano”, Margaret Leng Tan (pictured right, by Jack Vartoogian), took the stage by storm. She is a magnificent performer, whether she is talking about Cage and his works or interpreting some of his lesser-known works. She delivers a masterful show, pitched at beginners and aficionados alike. There is room for the groundbreaking 4’ 33”, with the recommendation from the silent pianist that we turn our mobile phones on and allow chance to determine the nature of the non-silence Cage wanted the audience to experience.

Room also for the epic and rarely performed Four Walls, an 85-minute piano and voice piece written for a Merce Cunningham play in two acts, in which Leng Tan skilfully demonstrated her command of Cage’s complex explorations of piano tone, much of it achieved through extreme pedalling techniques. At one point, she stood up and sang into the body of the piano, in a high plaintive voice reminiscent of PJ Harvey’s vocals on her albums White Chalk and Let England Shake, drawing out eerie washes of reverberation from the Steinway’s sympathetically vibrating strings.

Margaret Leng Tan isn’t quite rock’n’roll, but she is still a flamboyant performer. In a piece from 1948, which anticipates the off-the-wall syntax of the Sixties happening, the pianist, following Cage’s strict instructions to the second, turns on a radio, blows a scatological-toned whistle in a bowl of water, hits the piano (gently) with a drum stick, and deals a pack of cards straight onto the strings. As she explains, “This is theatre or the original performance art” as well as music, and combines strict rules with the randomness of the airwaves.

The appointed wavelength, 102.5, delivers Radio 4 with two earnest critics debating the pros and cons of a TV series. As if on cue, they speak of extreme bafflement. Later in the short piece, Leng Tan switches stations and her brief interpolations on the keyboard are accompanied by a bit of 21st-century generic pop. The previous day’s Vexations, a piece whose seriousness is seasoned with underlying humour, had the audience behaving with religious reverence, the avant-garde jokes of the past having a way of becoming sacrament. Thankfully here, Cage’s theatre of sounds and ideas brought laughter and release to the hall.

There is something intractable about Cage as biographical material: he sought to purge music of personal and emotional content

Although, like his devotee and interpreter Leng Tan, John Cage was a consummate performer and lecturer, he worked hard, in his music at least, to achieve objectivity, as far removed from the emotion-laden subject-centred world of Romanticism. Kenneth Silverman's recently published Begin Again: A Biography of John Cage (Knopf, New York, 2010) provides a very thorough and fascinating account of the composer’s career, charting the formative moments in his life and describing the people and ideas that influenced him. The world of the Cornish School in Seattle and Black Mountain College, both crucibles of radical arts practice, is vividly evoked.

The ups and downs of Cage’s relationships with Henry Cowell, David Tudor, Boulez, Marshall McLuhan, Robert Rauschenberg and others are well described, but the inner dynamic of his ties with the key significant other - dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham – is not treated with sufficient depth. There is something intractable about Cage as biographical material: the composer sought to purge music of personal and emotional content, seeking instead the emptiness that is the goal of Eastern spiritual practice. Silverman tries his best to capture the essence of his subject, but Cage deftly slips through the biographer's net, forever surfing the flow of reality.

Stewart_LeeCage was most present - paradoxically, given the impersonal premise of his music - in a performance of his masterwork Indeterminacy, performed on the last night of the festival by avant-garde pianists Steve Beresford and Tania Chen, joined by comedian Stewart Lee (pictured left). Following another version of 4'33", and extracts from Music for Piano - the products of chance-based composition from the 1950s and early Sixties - the performers launched into a magical piece that combines randomly selected stories, many of them from the composer's life.

The spoken pieces, delivered by Lee at a variety of speeds, from ultra-rapid to cliff-hanging slow, juxtapose, almost in the style of the cut-up, humorous anecdotes, edifying tales of Buddhist monks, recurring references to mushrooms - Cage's greatest passion outside music - and reflections on the nature of music. While Lee read, Beresford and Chen contributed scored interventions that involved a wonderous range of sounds, produced by toys and whistles, bells and shakers and mostly gentle assaults on two Steinways. The piano's strings were flossed like teeth, plucked, stroked and hammered.

There were moments when words and sound clashed and others when the congruence between the diverse elements seemed supernatural, and revelatory poetry was conjured in the instant, just as Cage would have wished. On two occasions Lee's PA system failed, his voice drowned by the accompanying cacophony. The techies rushed to help, but this was magic too: indeterminacy made manifest, the imperatives of chaotic life taken over from carefully constructed art. Lee, Beresford and Chen are the first to perform this piece since John Cage and David Tudor originally recorded it for the Folkways label. Their version does not slavishly follow the recording but plays with the constituent elements with just the right combination of reverence and spontaneity.

For those who stayed the course, the festival provided an inspiring John Cage primer, combining careful presentation with inspired moments of Cagean brilliance and, staying true to the philosopher-composer's convictions, making every moment entirely new, even in the context of a retrospective homage to a dead composer.


What exactly do 'avant-garde pianists' do? That's very lazy terminology methinks.

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