This year marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of John Cage, one of the most controversial and influential twentieth century American composers. In order to celebrate the music of Cage – and indeed, the music of the composers who influenced him – Musicon staged a five day festival at the end of last month, which featured ten “thunderclaps” or performance events. Being a member of the Musicon exec, I was fortunate enough to witness and contribute towards the unfolding of this festival; and having attended every thunderclap, I have to say that there’s more to Cage than you might think.
The first four thunderclaps took place in the DSU Fonteyn Ballroom, which was filled with electronic equipment, a huge projector screen, and a beautiful Steinway grand. The rather unlikely combination of these elements – a ballroom, mind-boggling technological equipment, and a Steinway fit for a concert hall – somehow befitted the fact that this wasn’t exactly your ordinary music festival. The ballroom venue was really quite appropriate, however, considering Cage’s interest in dance and his collaboration with choreographer Merce Cunningham.
Thunderclap 1 was a performance of ‘Variations IV’, incorporating live electronics, a video screen displaying seemingly random sequences of letters, toy pianos, and live speaking. Snippets of Cage’s voice could be heard every now and again: … “Silence doesn’t really exist. Silence is sounds.”… What struck me here was the interactivity and dynamism of the performance environment. The performers were situated on the stage and in the four corners of the ballroom floor, and throughout the piece they got up and walked to (albeit predetermined) spots in various locations around the room. But more significantly, audience members were invited to get up and walk around during the performance, which they did without reticence. More and more people got up as the performance proceeded, and some went to study the electronic equipment and toy pianos as they were being played. It was an encouraging start to the festival, and very much in the spirit of the composition.
Another particularly striking performance event was thunderclap 5, Morton Feldman’s piece entitled ‘For John Cage’. Written for violin and piano, it comprises of a single seventy-minute long movement. This piece is typically Feldman – pianissimo possible, short repeating motifs, repeating scale fragments. I found that I was lulled into a quasi-meditative state, a zone of complete calm, and in this respect it reminded me of an Indian Classical music concert I attended last year: the time just sort of passes by without you realising it. I also couldn’t help but think how difficult this piece must be for the performers, to be able to maintain concentration and the same state of mind for seventy minutes, in music where there is not a lot “going on” in the traditional sense.
Perhaps the most enlightening performance was thunderclap 8, Cage’s ‘String Quartet in four parts’. This was not what I expected from Cage; it was really quite beautiful and lyrical, and some of the sonorities were rather haunting. The fourth movement had a medieval, folk-like flavour which I particularly enjoyed. I had no idea that Cage had composed anything like this, and I would strongly recommend giving it a listen.
Inevitably, though, there were some pieces which didn’t appeal. I found thunderclap 3, a radio play by Samuel Beckett, very eerie and disconcerting: the play focuses upon a man, simply referred to as ‘he’, whose life has become dependent on the two sounds of music and voice. The man is cold, harsh, and appears to despise other human company. I’m sure Beckett fully intended to create an atmosphere of discomfort, and credit must go to the actors and set design for pulling it off so effectively, but it’s not something that I would want to watch again. Thunderclap 9, a performance of ‘Organ2/ASLSP’ (As SLow aS Possible) in Hild Bede Chapel, was another event that I didn’t particularly enjoy. ‘Organ2/ASLSP’ is the sort of thing you might expect from Cage – the performance direction is genuinely to play the music as slowly as possible. At the moment a performance is underway in Germany, which began in 2001 and is scheduled to finish in 2640. Needless to say, John Snijders’ rendition of it for thunderclap 9 was limited to about half an hour. Unlike the lengthy Feldman piece of thunderclap 5, I found that I wasn’t able to enter that “meditative” state which I think would be required in order to enjoy ‘Organ2/ASLSP’. Feldman’s work didn’t feel like a test of endurance, but somehow this did.
I’ve already mentioned the Steinway which presided over the Fonteyn Ballroom for the first day of the festival: this was used in a performance of Cage’s ‘Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano’, whereby the strings of the piano are fitted with materials such as screws, bolts, rubber and plastic to produce unusual and percussive sounds. John Snijders gave a fantastic performance, and for me the whole event felt quite ethereal, almost surreal. The room was in darkness besides a spotlight on the Steinway, and this further heightened the strange quality of the sounds coming from the instrument. Thunderclap 4 was also rather surreal: a performance of a selection of Cage’s ‘Freeman Etudes’ for solo violin interspersed with weird and wonderful anecdotes from Cage’s books, spoken live.
Apparently Cage cited the French composer Erik Satie as one of his major influences, and in honour of this, thunderclap 6 featured a selection of Satie’s works. Unfortunately Lucy Schaufer, the soprano who was to perform in this thunderclap, had lost her voice, so the Ives Ensemble and pianist Mark Knoop quickly rustled up a new programme. The highlight was Knoop’s own arrangement of Satie’s Cinéma, which accompanied a live showing of the Dadaist/Surrealist film Entr’acte by René Clair.
Overall, I have to say that ‘from zer0’ was a great success. Not only did it feature a diverse variety of musical styles and a range of performers, from PhD composition students to professional musicians, but it really opened my eyes to the different sides of John Cage. So, don’t be put off by popular preconceptions; explore the music of Cage a bit more and you might be pleasantly surprised by what you find.