Few if any composers have challenged present day perceptions of music more than John Cage. With that in mind, it was a pleasure to see the Proms wholeheartedly embracing his music, his questioning mind and his sense of humour. This ‘John Cage Celebration’ followed up the ‘performance’ of 4’33″ towards the end of the London Sinfonietta prom a few days previously. Here then was a chance for some of his pieces with noise — and music — to take centre stage — with fence-sitting on the part of the audience unlikely to be contemplated.
The five stars afforded to this review are not because the music was overwhelmingly good all the time — that would remain open to debate — but because of the ability of Cage to provoke and stimulate debate through his work. The clever and judicious programming on the part of Ilan Volkov and performances that were beyond reproach, meant the audience were given a thoroughly engaging night of music.
Cage being Cage, however, a number of surprises were in store, with a piece for six cassette players (Improvisation III) and a work written for what seemed to be half of Kew Gardens (Branches). This extraordinary opus of 1976 took the composer’s love of plant life to another level. In what must be a first for the Royal Albert Hall, tables housing cactus plants and other greenery were put in place around the hall, in boxes, the arena and on the stage, for 20 percussionists to actually strum their needles with a pick-up or shake their branches. It was very strange but somehow true, and the resultant effect was something akin to the sounds you might hear at night in a hot climate — clicks and whirs that died away quickly in the humid air. It was all oddly soothing, but with the possibility there might be a massive insect bite around the corner!
Rewinding the clock some five hours, the evening began with a Music Walk directly inspired by Cage. In something of an ingenious idea, the BBC commissioned ten short pieces of music from ten composers, and in the course of an hour the groups of people signing up to the walk negotiated five Kensington landmarks and heard five pieces each. Our allocation contained pieces by Alvin Curran, Dai Fujikura, David Sawer, Joe Cutler and Judith Weir, their music available for download beforehand to make up a playlist.
Starting in the Royal Albert Hall loading bay, we were confronted with Curran talking, cigar in hand, and heard his witty remix of music by Cage and Cardew. Moving to the peaceful Prince’s Gardens, Dai Fujikura’s I Dreamed On Singing Flowers cast a subtle but lasting spell that complemented the lush green space, before David Sawer ventured towards the world of surreal horror in the metalwork department of the Imperial College Museum with CAGEMOBILE, with severed limbs as props. Turning to another educational establishment, the Royal College of Music, we found Jon Butler offering The Greatest Hits of Prince Consort Road to the backdrop of a frustrated composer throwing his music out the third floor window, while balloons shaped like musical notes floated up from street level. It was that sort of evening! More was in store with Judith Weir’s xylophone-decorated What’s In The Lake?, given outside the Serpentine Gallery with a model of the Royal Albert Hall floating across the water.
With all this a prelude to the main event in the hall itself, several hundred of the audience arrived already musically stimulated. Cage’s 101 for orchestra began in a nocturnal atmosphere, the Ivesian strings of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra forming a spacious backdrop to a piece that shifted slowly through time and space, like a huge oil tanker. The otherworldly strains of Improvisation III were next, Cage’s 1980 piece taking recordings of Irish bodhran music and blending them together in an order of the players’ choosing. The dynamic was soft, and the sounds eerie in the soft green glow of the hall, but when the music threatened to come into focus with the single crescendo each of the players was separately allowed, it was then ultimately denied to the audience and moved tantalisingly out of reach once again.
The emotional heart of the concert was found in short vocal pieces. Joan La Barbara sang the folk-inflected Experiences II, again quiet and low of register, before a moving call and response with vocal group Exaudi, members of whom were positioned up in the gallery, felt as if it was taking place far, far away. The twelve-strong choir then positioned themselves at four locations in the stalls for FOUR2, a collection of single note clusters with long silences in between. Again the tension was exquisite, but the audience kept with the music.
Cage’s shorter forms were ultimately more successful than the larger works in this concert, for a blend of Cartridge Music, Atlas eclipticalis and Winter Music drifted out of reach in the duration of its half hour. This was a collage of Cage pieces often left to chance or predetermined by observing imperfections in manuscript paper, or derived from astronomical charts. The idea of music left to chance is not for everybody — and when David Behrman and Takehisa Kosugi were bending wires in the arena, unveiling slinky springs to microphones and waving all manner of paraphernalia to make a weird electronic noise, the instinctive reaction was to laugh or reach for the camera. Yet if you took your eyes off the musical theatrics the sounds were truly striking and sometimes mesmerising. When Winter Music joined — the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra adding instrumental colour in their short, pithy statements — it was again a case of sound over melody, though the scope of the piece was too big.
Greater concentration arrived after the interval in the form of the Concerto for Prepared Piano and Orchestra, played by Cage specialist John Tilbury. This was another of those pieces where the listener had to look twice to check the sounds they were hearing, in this case coming through a piano packed with screws, nuts, bolts and rubber dampers to alter the sound. Tilbury’s command of the music was beyond reproach, the dialogue with the orchestra occasionally feisty when the two were in opposition. The percussion section, with an assortment of metallic and electronic implements, including a radio, let their virtuosity do the talking through some more extraordinary sounds and textures.
Following this was But what about the noise of crumpling paper…, a 1985 piece for ten instrumentalists using paper, pouring water, metal wood and glass. Again dotted around the auditorium and spot lit in the relative gloom, the players were fully in the spirit of the music — though pitch was often hard to detect as the sounds blended together. It showed how everyday actions such as filling a bowl or tearing a piece of paper can be interpreted as music — at a stretch — though to have a whole 15 minute piece dedicated to these sounds is daring and provocative. Thanks to the willingness of the audience, Cage’s music largely succeeded.
Cage, then, was the undisputed star of this Prom, though it was pertinent of Volkov to include some music inspired by him. We had Baggage by Christian Marclay as something of a novelty item in the first half, the members of the BBC SSCO instructed to play not their instruments but the cases in which they sit. There were massive, elephantine double bass cases as big as wardrobes, the great, duvet-like piano and harp covers, or the small flute cases, with their crisp fasteners, all imaginatively blended with a large dash of humour. Again the sounds were striking, if the spectacle was decidedly odd!
More taxing was an improvisation delivered by the live electronics of David Behrman, Takehisa Kosugi, guitarist Keith Rowe and pianist Christian Wolff. This Quartet followed Cage’s principals for improvisation by exerting control on the duration, though 25 minutes was a long time to follow the admittedly intriguing ambience of the sounds on offer. Kosugi drew the eye and ear with his natural animation, while Rowe used the guitar on its back to pluck a number of weird but ambient sounds. The music ultimately opened out in to warmth, though rather overstayed its welcome.
The descriptions of all these pieces are intended to illustrate just how unusual and musically stimulating this Prom proved to be, approached in just the right way by a generous audience. It emerged just as intended, a celebration of a truly unique musical mind that continues to provoke, inspire and challenge, 20 years after his death. The BBC, and Ilan Volkov in particular, should be congratulated on a night that will be remembered and talked about for years to come.